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The issue

Man's present demand for food, grazing, fibre and fuel has increased well beyond the limits that nature can provide unassisted. Future demands on the resource base for these products will be even greater. The potential of the land to produce is set by soil and climatic conditions and by the level of inputs and management applied to the land. Any over exploitation or "mining" of land beyond these limits results in degradation and declining yields and this is now happening in many parts of Africa.

Of all the challenges facing African communities, their governments, and the international community, that of ending endemic hunger is the most pressing. Many countries in Africa face exceptional food shortages, and millions of people still face the threat of famine and starvation. Even without famine and starvation, malnutrition is widespread. According to the World Bank, just under half of the region's population suffers from some level of food deprivation, with serious consequences for health and productivity. Ending this food and agriculture crisis depends critically on peace, increased agriculture productivity, especially in African Low Income and Food Deficit Countries (LIFDC) as stated by FAO, self-reliance in food, and redistributive policies aimed at improving the living conditions of the rural poor.

Chronic localised food shortages caused by war and drought are the most visible aspects of Africa's food and agricultural crisis. But the greatest long-term source of food insecurity has been and remains poor agricultural performance. In contrast to other developing regions, food production in Africa has not kept pace with population growth. As a result, food self-sufficiency has fallen, and dependence on commercial food imports and food aid has increased. These now account for about 17 per cent of overall food availability, and considerably more in parts of West Africa. Future prospects are not encouraging. FAO projections suggest that sub-Saharan Africa's food imports will more than double by 2010 - and several other estimates suggest that they may double before the end of the decade.

Nature can be very forgiving - though not indefinitely: persistent abuse usually leads to irreversible degradation. Unfortunately, the environment has been persistently abused in many parts of Africa for 30 years or more. In these areas, rapidly increasing numbers of people and livestock have taken population densities well past the land's carrying capacity at current levels of input use.

There is virtually no inhabited areas of Africa that is not prone to soil and environmental degradation of one sort or another. Most regions of the continent suffer from several forms of environmental degradation, leading to desertification and with its detrimental impact on food and agricultural productivity and production. The process is often not obvious because it is usually gradual and unnoticeable. It is, therefore, a grave mistake to see areas of presently unused land as an inexhaustible reserve. Only 16 per cent of the total arable land has no serious fertility limitations and 47 per cent of it is too dry for productive rain-fed agriculture. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has estimated that-the area which is prone to desertification worldwide is approximately 38 million kmē of which 6.9 million kmē (23 per cent) are in sub-saharan Africa. Africa's soil resources are thus mostly fragile and sensitive to unwise use. Sub-Saharan Africa's fuelwood consumption is running 30 to 200 per cent ahead of the average increase in the stock of trees. Africa loses an estimated 5 million hectares of tropical forest area per year. Land degradation is estimated to affect about 230 million hectares annually.

Like conflict, drought desertification and environmental degradation have a debilitating effect on the poorest communities. During 1992, we witnessed at first hand the devastating impact of southern Africa's worst drought in living memory. In eastern Zambia, some of the villages saw their entire crop destroyed, leaving them without seeds for planting, and forcing farmers to leave their land in a desperate bid to earn income elsewhere. Draught animals needed for ploughing fields were also wiped out in many areas. Aid agencies responded by providing seeds and supporting incomes through 'food for work' programmes. Under these programmes, food aid was provided as payment to villagers working on projects - such as building feeder roads and digging wells - identified by the local community. However, despite good rains in 1993, the depletion of resources caused by the drought was such that agricultural production did not recover to pre-drought levels.

The rural poor, many of whom live in environmentally fragile areas, are both the main victims and the unwilling architects of soil degradation. Nomadic herders in the Sahel region, increasingly impoverished as a result of drought and the expansion of arable agriculture, have been forced to graze their herds on fragile grasslands. Similarly, staple-food producers working on marginal soils have little choice but to sacrifice the future for the present, clearing trees and mining soils in an unsustainable manner to provide a livelihood. They are often unable to invest in soil and water conservation. Loss of tree cover contributes to erosion by exposing soils to wind and rain. It also results in women being forced to walk increasingly long distances to collect and carry home bundles of fuelwood - a process that we have witnessed right across the region. Apart from its implications for their health, this diverts their labour from food production and household activities.

With regard to poverty alleviation, it is noteworthy that the concept of development based only on growth is insufficient, as the rate of growth is not the only contributor to life improvement or to sustainable development: For example, the impressive 5 per cent GDP growth during the 1960s contributed little to alleviating poverty in developing countries, and even less so in African countries.

Four and a half billion people or 85 per cent of world's total population, occupying 72 per cent of the land area of the globe, belong in the category of low and middle income countries of the South with a per capita income ranging from US$ 80. (Mozambique) to US$7,820.- (Saudi Arabia) in 1991. If these countries in their endeavour to raise income per capita are following the same path as the industrialized countries. its impact will be catastrophic to the global environment. It is therefore necessary for the South to follow a different path of development: one that makes possible the eradication of poverty and at the same time does not degrade the environment. This calls for an elaborated pattern of sustainable economic development that meets the interests of the South.

Sustainable economic development as pursued by the South must foremost focus its efforts on meeting the developmental challenges which are the causes of environmental degradation. In this connection the first objective of sustainable development must be to eradicate poverty. Poverty, as defined by the World Development Report 1990 refers to the inability to attain a minimal standard of living. This inability is caused by factors internal to the poor such as no skill, low education, no shelter, poor health and low capacity to respond to income-earning opportunities. On the other hand it is also caused by factors external to the poor such as no access to land tenure, minerals or other natural resources, no access to credits or other financial resources, no access to markets, no access to technology and no access to productive infrastructure like irrigated water, electricity, transportation, etc.

To overcome this inability, development should be geared to ensure the poor the provision of basic needs such as nutritious food, clothes, shelter, basic education, health facilities and clean water. All this requires a development policy that is focused on engaging the poor in productive employment.

What the African rural poor are concerned about is a secure food supply at all times, education, employment, shelter, health and full participation in the determination of their future. Improving the welfare of the poor, reducing inequality and reinforcing popular participation would also contribute to improve the social environment and enhance the capacity to further improve the physical environment. Thus the main policy change should be of an institutional nature so as to radically offset the marginalization of a large proportion of the population.

Another target is to achieve food self-sufficiency and ecological reclamation, especially in areas of the continent that are severely affected by recurrent drought. In resource allocation, countries should respond to the needs of the population and not to the demands of developed countries. As stated by the UNECA in the "African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programme for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation": "Unless there is an immediate amelioration in the condition of the vast majority of the African population, there is a real danger of a systematic breakdown in the socio-economic fabric and the supporting natural environment". The UNECA further stresses that "the critical focus of the framework for adjustment with transformation is that of a more human centered development process in which productive forces are given a prominent role, and resources are used so as to bring about the transformation of the African economy from a primarily exchange economy to a production economy". This is what FAO is advocating in its "Sustainable Development Policy".

The intricate dynamics of sustainability have still to be adequately investigated and articulated. But already we can see enough of the outline of this new area of science, economics and technology to understand the general direction in which society needs to travel. In this respect, the concept of sustainable economic development is important for three main reasons.

  1. First, it provides a framework within which broader cultural, socio-political, economic and technological factors can be incorporated into the environmental debate - and vice versa.
  2. Second, the phrase is dynamic, implying a transition from unsustainable to sustainable forms of economic development and activity. It thereby potentially opens out the time-horizons within which environmental issues are discussed. The phrase introduces the notion that some problems may be more critical than others in terms of negotiating that transition. The implicit message is that we must set priorities.
  3. Third, sustainable development is inclusive. By focusing on the need for "development", it increasingly provides a framework within which the business and development communities can feel comfortable in discussing and addressing environmental priorities. And development, clearly, is an area where business has a distinct edge on most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - with the result that there are growing numbers of business organizations working in this area.

A major obstacle to promoting policies that foster sustainability to date has been the incomplete measurement of income and investment, particularly the failure to reflect the use or deterioration of natural capital. To correct this failure, the World Bank is promoting improvements in Systems National Income Accounts (SNA). Environmentally adjusted SNA has massive policy implications for most developing countries'. Without environmentally adjusted SNA for example, the Bank now postulates, that we cannot judge if an economy is genuinely growing or merely living unsustainably on asset liquidation beyond its true income; whether the balance of payments is in surplus or deficit on current account, or whether the exchange rate needs to be changed.

Real and lasting food security In Africa will depend on a sustainable and productive agricultural resource base. Yet that base is being undermined by accelerating environmental degradation. Soil erosion affects more than three-quarters of cultivable land, drastically reducing its productive potential; and tropical forests, vital to the maintenance of fragile eco-systems, are being cleared at the rate of 5 million hectares annually. As the Brundtland Commission observed in 1987, poverty is both a cause and effect of this loss of environmental resources. 'No other region', it wrote, 'more tragically suffers the vicious cycle of poverty leading to environmental degradation, which leads in turn to even greater poverty.' Unless that cycle is reversed, the number of people suffering from poverty, hunger, and malnutrition will grow and the deteriorating effects of natural resources and environmental degradation will continue.

Deteriorating effects are also occurring regarding public services. The welfare state was built up in the period since 1955: first social security, then education, culture, social services and housing. Since 1970, the costs have sharply risen, and have become a public problem, causing among others increasing national financing deficits. Despite the great importance of collective services for the creation of the welfare state, they are now being cut back. Public health budgets are being reduced; government insurance policies are being adjusted; there are plans to unlink old age pensions and unemployment insurances from the minimum wage, as it is stated that these services are becoming too expensive. These parts of the Western welfare state are being sacrificed, particularly at the expense of the less fortunate groups in society, while on the other hand money is being allocated for enormous investments in airports, roads, tunnels, and other infrastructural projects. The idea is still that one day this boosting will make the return of welfare possible. However, for developing countries in general and for African countries in particular, the welfare state is dead and for ever.

The statistics tell us that welfare has not increased in Africa since 1970, despite the fact that the economy on the whole has prospered: production growth (GDP) has increased globally between 1970 and 1990. While consumption is steadily increasing on the one hand, we observe a loss of welfare on the other hand. Until 1970, this process was not really noticeable. Since then, however, it has risen in importance, it has become more structural, and less curable with the usual prescriptions.

The reason why our societies cannot interpret the data of decline properly is threefold. First, the main information flow on a nation's state of affairs is in the statistics of the national accounts or the (gross) national or domestic product (GNP, GDP). Second, natural resources are still widely considered free goods, to be consumed and depleted freely. Thirdly, the relationship between environmental losses and general welfare loss is not understood.

To begin with GDP: It is widely believed that the GDP is a reflection of the economic state of a nation, that is of its wealth, welfare, richness, health, prosperity and the like. The economics keep repeating this story - that a healthy nation has a high GDP, and that more of this GDP therefore means even more of this health. The real statistics of the GDP, however, tell a more limited story: they only refer to the amount of goods and services rendered in the economy, excluding important so-called non-productive services such as justice, education, and government, to name a few. Critics of the GDP have observed the anomalies of the accounts which add as income such negatives as waste production and handling, car repair, and even the production of weapons and warfare. If a factory produces noise and wastes to disturb people's health and waste to pollute a river, then the GDP goes up.

In order to correct this misleading GDP information, the UN System of National Accounts has to be changed, in that it stops accounting damage and depletion as income. The number of hectic - debates on this subject is so high, and the outlook on a consensus so limited.

Part of the problem should consist of pricing the unpriced, which are the scarce environmental goods such as land, clean air, water, soil, open space and the like. Putting it differently, the National Accounting System must take into account the natural resources and environmental degradation caused by economic activities. Efforts to calculate these values properly have started some 30 years ago, and have long been in vain. However, there are signals that estimates and methods for this valuation are being accepted by and large.

Africa is a continent of contrasts and extremes, ranging from the desert to the evergreen equatorial forest. Land resources are the base on which the African economies largely depend. A proper appreciation of constraints and qualities is therefore an essential prerequisite to their optimum use. While environmental problems abound, a considerable agricultural potential exists over large areas of the continent. When land resources are used in accordance with their suitability, and are appropriately managed, land degradation can be prevented and increases in productivity and production can be obtained.

While recognizing the great variety of land degradation problems, a number of basic principles have been established which provide guidelines for action. They are outlined in the World Soil Charter (FAO, 1982), and ought to be the basis for the control and reversal of land degradation. -In short, the World Soil Charter recommends:

In the process of shifting the bias, the key element is participation and the strategy must be holistic by nature and should be based on the effective and enthusiastic participation of populations, taking into account social and cultural traditions. Based on these guidelines, the following main, broad fronts of immediate action to be taken by African governments are suggested.

  1. Conservation should be seen as an integral part of the farming system and the general extension worker should be the one to provide the necessary technical advice. But for this to succeed, the extension worker needs adequate training to recognize problems requiring expert assistance and specialists should be available to provide such assistance when needed. The lack of professional experts has often led to the failure of many schemes.
  2. Africa will continue to need the valuable technical and financial assistance of both bilateral and multilateral donors. However, the flow of aid has only partly reached African populations and has thus contributed little to significant improvements in their productive capacities.
  3. The development of conservation programmes should be considered a long-term activity. Donor agencies have sometimes provided short-term support for specific projects which have not been closely linked to an ongoing national programme. Knowledge and experience gained have not always been handed on and the long-term impact has been minimal. The problem is further complicated where there are several donor agencies acting independently each with its own agenda and time frame.
  4. Where there are many donors involved, it is important that there be a strong team of nationals with the necessary professional qualifications and leadership abilities to ensure that the work is properly directed and co-ordinated in the best interests of the country and of the beneficiaries.

Mandate has already been given to FAO, vice the Scheme for the Conservation and Rehabilitation of African Lands (ISCRAL) adopted by the African Ministers at the 16th FAO Regional Conference for Africa held in June 1990 at Marrakech (the Kingdom of Morocco).

This scheme seeks to promote joint undertakings at national, subregional, regional and international levels to improve land use and land degradation. At national level, the scheme essentially implies identifying the causes of land degradation, determining appropriate corrective solutions, stimulating the full participation from the population concerned while in the meantime strengthening the national capacities building (human, institutional and infrastructural), paying special attention to feasibility, efficiency, acceptability, environmental conservation and profitability (see the case of Tigray Region in Ethiopia).

As a left motif, the African region, especially the Horn of Africa and many countries in the Sahel are recurrently affected by drought. The Food situation in the Africa region as a whole will be worsened during the current year principally because of widespread drought in the continent and secondarily because of armed civil and political unrest taking place in many countries in the Africa region. Despite the restoration of peace in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mozambique and a few other cases of isolated civil unrests, there are still many hot beds of serious civil unrests and armed conflicts in many parts of Africa: Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, the Sudan, etc. to mention but a few.

These conflicts continue to affect vast food producing populations. These twin elements - drought and civil unrests are inseparable elements of major syndromes affecting African Agriculture and, sustainable and lasting solutions have to be found to these elements if African economies are to be established on solid foundations.

It was in consideration of these major deterrents of African economies that the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, embarked on a special programme of rehabilitation, recovery, reconstruction and development for countries affected either by drought or civil war and armed conflicts or both. The objective of this special programme is to assist these countries in formulating coherent national and rural development programmes within the four continuums: (a) rehabilitation, recovery reconstruction and development with transformation. or linking the short. the medium and the long term; (b) the necessity to maintain a continuum from national to sub-regional and regional framework in the development process within the spirit of the Abuja Treaty establishing the Panafrican Economic Community; (c) the necessity to achieve a decentralization of the economic development process from national level to regional and provincial with the aim of involving the whole population especially at the grassroots level; and finally (d) the necessity to develop an institutional capacity capable of translating medium and long term visions into immediate actions. to support on-going relief efforts. and to provide a local permanent technical expertise for follow-up and coordination. In these regard, UN inter-agency missions have been undertaken in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, Namibia. These missions worked very closely with national experts of these countries and have arrived at a series of integrated programmes which will assist these countries to recover from their respective national calamities and to base this recovery on sustained rural and national development.

Quite apart from the inter-agency missions indicated above, UNECA and FAO have embarked on a more serious mission of assisting Ethiopia in developing the institutional and technical capacity to withstand the devastating effects of recurring droughts. The Northern regions of Ethiopia have been particularly the victims of these recurring droughts although the drought situation has now spread to the southern regions of the country. In accordance with its activities and following a request received from the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, the UNECA in collaboration with FAO and UNDP has now embarked on developing for eight drought-prone regions of Ethiopia strategic plans and programmes which will help ensure that this country will not any more suffer from the menacing effects of droughts. Already a complete strategy and programme has been developed for Ethiopia's Tigray region under an umbrella programme called, "Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Rehabilitation in Tigray (SAERT)" is only one of eight such Regional Programmes being elaborated by UNECA, UNDP, FAO, the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TOE) and the respective Regional Governments under the umbrella programme called: Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Development Programmes (SAERRDP). This effort has succeeded in designing the SAERT programme using local expertise in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia. Having completed the design of the SAERT programme a similar exercise has started in another region of Ethiopia - the A-mhara Region. UNECA-FAO now, are of the views that the Ethiopian experience can serve as basis to elaborate similar programmes for other drought, desertification and environmentally degraded prone regions of the continent.

The present document clearly states what current thinking on the subject should be. It provides a very rich basis for project/programme development within existing international conventions and agreements on desertification and for addressing the emerging environmental issues of biodiversity conservation and the management of water resources.

With the small dam projects foreseen, one sees the evolution of micro-ecosystems which will be the centre of attraction not only for agricultural and desertification reserving purposes but also for a variety of species (flora and fauna) that are related to wetlands. The Tigray is also an important watershed that sets the basis for discussions on multicountry management of the water resources under financing arrangements provided by international agreements. The document provides sound arguments for projects under GEF and the recently adopted International Convention to Combat Desertification in those countries seriously affected by desertification and/or drought, particularly in Africa.