Successes and failures

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Over the last forty years various conservation programmes and projects have been initiated in a number of different African countries. The results of these have been mixed, ranging from near failure to partial success. Whether successful or not, these experiences have all contributed to our knowledge to the point where we can now identify at least some of the factors which have led to the successes or failures.

The first and general conclusion that can be drawn from a review of conservation programmes in Africa is that there is no single factor which can be singled out as the key to successful and failed conservation programmes. Success can generally be attributed to a combination of factors which have led farmers to adopt, and continue to use, conservation practices. Furthermore, whether farmers do accept conservation practices appears to depend at least as much on socio-economic factors as on the physical effectiveness of the practices advocated. The opposite to these factors have contributed to the failures in conservation programmes.

Secondly, many conservation schemes have appeared to be very successful while a particular project has been in progress but farmers have not maintained conservation structures or continued to use conservation practices once the project had finished. Very quickly conditions have reverted to their original state. These and other experiences have pointed to the need to consider the following points when conservation programmes are planned:

  1. farmers and other land users need to be involved right from the start of schemes. This involvement must be a genuine one which includes full explanations of what is possible, consultations and the obtaining of agreements - not the perfunctory contacts which are often described as farmer participation. Care must be taken that conservation schemes are not just imposed on farmers as there is ample evidence that schemes which have been imposed have met with very limited success.
  2. farmers will only adopt, and then continue to practice conservation methods only if they are directly involved, if they are responding to genuine needs assessment and if they can see some direct benefit to themselves and their families in the short term. These benefits are usually in the form of increased or more assured yields, higher incomes or the reduced need of an input such as labour. Appeals to land users to adopt conservation programmes for such reasons as the national interest, the protection of downstream dams or the need to save soil for future generations, seldom have lasting effects.
  3. the adoption of conservation practices sometimes appears to happen almost by chance. Frequently this is because the farmer may perceive a particular practice not just as a way of conserving soil but of achieving some other objective such as increasing yields or reducing labour requirements. Farmers in the Kitui area of Kenya are now terracing their fields at their own expense. The terraces very effectively prevent soil erosion, but it has been shown that in this area they also lead to yield increases in the order of forty to ninety per cent, and it is probably for this reason that they are being installed. Planners of conservation schemes therefore need to look not only at methods which will prevent or cure degradation, but also at practices which will lead to increased productivity.
  4. land tenure systems have an important bearing on which conservation practices land users will accept. Farmers can see little point in carrying out conservation work on land to which they have no assured long-term use. It is not coincidental that many farmers in the Machako district of Kenya have been building terraces on their fields in recent years, at the same time as they are being granted legal titles to the land. On the other hand, it is quite understandable that farmers may show little interest in leaving protective crop residues on their fields when they know that anyone can bring animals to graze on them once the grain has been harvested. Similarly, it is very difficult to persuade farmers to construct and then maintain conservation works on communal land.
  5. conservation practices and techniques must be practical and appropriate for the local conditions. Most of the conservation practices used in Africa have been developed in to other continents with vastly different ecological and socioeconomic conditions. In most cases the practices and techniques require modification and adaptation before they can be applied to local conditions. The conservation practices advocated should be within the technical capabilities of field staff and farmers to apply. Thus, systems which require complex engineering designs and layouts are not practical in circumstances where large areas must be treated, field staff are few and their training limited. This problem has been faced in Ethiopia where the solution being tried is the wide-scale implementation of a limited number of relatively simple practices which are within the reach of extension workers and farmers. While this approach does have its problems, it has allowed large areas to be covered quickly.
  6. implementing conservation can be expensive in time and labour and in most countries it has been found that a combination of incentives, subsidies and disincentives are required to induce land users to take up soil conservation. In recent years, the use of food aid schemes has proved very successful in encouraging farmers to install physical erosion control structures in a number of countries including Ethiopia and Lesotho. However, the use of incentives and subsidies of this nature must be very carefully thought out, planned and implemented since farmers can very easily become dependent on subsidies or expect payment for carrying out conservation work.

Fortunately, recent conservation projects show that in most instances land degradation can be prevented or remedied. The reversal of soil erosion in Ethiopia and in Kenya, wind erosion in Somalia and sheet erosion in Burkina Faso and Mali are notable cases. Problems of overgrazing and range degradation have been successfully tackled in parts of Malawi and Senegal, with cattle in the former country being integrated into the farming system. Finally, the serious problem of forest and woodland degradation, although widespread, is being tackled. A promising start has been made in Lesotho and Senegal. In Zambia the example of industrial forestry development provides a solution to the problem of urban fuelwood supply.

Experience in Africa and elsewhere has shown that conservation can only be achieved if governments are committed to seeing through long-term programmes. Short-term project approaches to the conservation of land resources have inevitably proved ineffective. It has only been long-term programmes, supported by the necessary legislation, staff, finance and facilities, participation of beneficiaries, that have attained worthwhile achievements.

People, mainly farmers, herders woodcutters and fishermen, make the changes in the face of the land. Regardless of how soundly plans and techniques are rooted in an understanding of the land resource, the people make the required actions on the ground. The key to successful implementation is people participation and commitment and cooperation among all participants in development. The more farmers, governments and donors work with each other toward one goal, the greater the hope of progress in improved resource use. Farmers and graziers are the most important part of this trio because they are in direct contact with the land and are the very people who must actually use and conserve the croplands, forests and rangelands. Any land use strategy must be farmer, grazier and forester oriented, that is from the "bottom up", not a "top down" approach.

Measures, however well conceived and diligently implemented by authorities, will not succeed if they are not understood and supported by the local community. Ideally, the local community should be so convinced of their necessity that the initiative for their introduction comes from them. Campaigns to develop farmers' or graziers' commitment to sound land husbandry should be a priority. The objective must be to work with and through the local community, and it is vital to establish a collaborative approach from the start. Such collaborative approaches require a sound knowledge of the local farming or gazing systems on which to base the activities. If this entails further investigation, the reasons for the failure of earlier schemes should be included in the enquiry. If nothing is learned from past mistakes, they will inevitably be repeated.

Successful land husbandry dictates that conservation is an integral part of all measures to improve the efficiency of land utilization. In the short run, conservation practices may require relatively large initial investments of time and money. A farmer needs an incentive to undertake the additional work involved in conservation; if he cannot see an immediate benefit he is unlikely to commit money or labour. In Kenya farmers have been encouraged to build terraces by the prospect of being able to grow cash crops such as coffee and pyrethrum. Currently Burkina Faso farmers are adopting tied ridges because they have seen that this action results in millet yield increases. In Ethiopia the great surge of conservation is directly related to the Food for Work Programme. Frequently the benefit from conservation will be seen by the farmer as being too small to be worth the extra work. The fact that conservation will benefit future generations, and thus the country itself, is not really an incentive in the short term. In these circumstances, the long-term interests of the country require that soil conservation should be financially supported by the government and people's participation.