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Fragile ecosystems under threat as people resettle disease-freed lands in West Africa

The battle to control onchocerciasis in West Africa, a brutal disease that blinded tens of thousands of people and forced many more to abandon some of the region's most fertile lands, has been an outstanding success. The estimated 25 million hectares of fertile river valleys now free from river blindness have the potential to provide food and improved living conditions for some 17 million people, according to reliable studies. That's the good news.

The bad news is that in oncho-freed areas where the villagers are returning in large numbers to reclaim precious land, resettlement has been so rapid that already fragile ecosystems are under serious threat. Where once the enemy was the disease-carrying black fly, today the problems are deforestation, erosion and overgrazing.

In other oncho-freed areas, the problem is isolation and lack of basic support services. Many areas lack roads, markets, schools, and reliable supplies of water. Settlers moving into these isolated areas face a harsh and challenging life. Potential settlers need support for basic services or the rich potential of these areas will remain a distant dream.

Determining who owns the land and who has rights to farm it is another serious problem. There are no simple solutions.

"I cannot move back to my village because new settlers have moved there", said one resettled woman. "As a mother and grandmother, I am grateful that my family no longer has to worry about the black fly and that children will not suffer from blindness. But the land in my original village was better than this land."

Now that the 20-year battle with river blindness has been won, villagers are returning to reclaim their abandoned lands - perhaps too quickly

Her story is a typical one. In this village, most of the young men and women have gone to the city looking for work. Many of the older people suffer from the after-effects of onchocerciasis which has affected their ability to work. The village has no support systems, the water is bad, there are no services. Life is hard here. The issues surrounding resettlement of the land that people abandoned in trying to escape disease are very complex. Finding solutions is vital for the future.

With FAO as lead technical agency, the Sponsoring Agencies (FAO, UNDP, WHO, World Bank) of the Onchocerciasis Control Programme (OCP) in West Africa and other partners are working together to make sure that the medical success does not become a developmental failure and environmental disaster.

"Resettlement areas have unique problems that need to be dealt with specifically," said Felix Moukoko-Ndoumbe of FAO. "The conditions of farming are not similar from where the people are moving from to where they are moving into. These areas are not ready for any kind of development. We have to make sure that when people come and do produce something, they are able to sell whatever output they have from the land. There are many specific issues to land settlement and unless special measures are taken, resettlement will not bring the results expected."

A workshop on Sustainable Settlement and Development of Oncho-Freed Zones was held in May in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to address the various issues associated with spontaneous settlement of the oncho-freed zones including land tenure insecurity, ensuring settler community participation, provision of support services and socio-economic infrastructure. Representatives participated from 11 West African countries - Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo - as well as the sponsoring agencies.

The workshop helped raise public awareness of developmental problems in the onchocerciasis-free areas and provided a forum for country representatives to discuss priorities and formulate action programmes to be implemented with the support of the donor community.

National borders disappeared when governments worked together to fight the black fly. Now, with the population of the oncho-free areas expected to double in the next 25 years, the united fight must continue to support sound and sustainable development and to prevent degradation of the environment.

People abandoned their land once because of disease. It would be a shame if they left it once again because of poverty and environmental problems that could have been avoided.

How the battle against river blindness in West Africa was won

25 September 1998

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