Environmental Advocacy | Community Capacity Building | Geospatial Researching. Motto: Greening the Environment and Empowering the People

Environmental Challenges facing Sub Saharan African by Akin L. Mabogunje

Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from some serious environmental problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, wetland degradation, and insect infestation. Efforts to deal with these problems, however, have been handicapped by a real failure to understand their nature and possible remedies. Conventional wisdom views the people of this region as highly irresponsible toward the environment and looks to the international community to save them from themselves. It tends to blame all of the region’s environmental problems on rapid population growth and poverty. Yet, there is no conclusive evidence that Africans have been particularly oblivious to the quality of the environment, nor has the international community shown any genuine concern for it until recently. Clearly, protecting the environment of Sub-Saharan Africa is an issue that needs to be examined more carefully and incorporated into an overall strategy of sustainable economic development.

Formulating such a strategy will not be easy: In the closing years of the 20th century, virtually every country in this region is slipping on almost every index of development. The heady post-independence period of the 1960s and early 1970s, when development was considered simply a matter of following a plan formulated by Western experts, has now been succeeded by a time of fiscal crises and international marginalization. The region now finds itself afflicted the consequences of inappropriate policies, as well as by almost endemic political instability, an inability to manage its economies effectively, and an increasingly hostile external economic milieu. As simple survival has become more problematical, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid overexploiting natural resources and degrading the environment. Analysts are now concerned that this will compromise the prospects for sustainable development in the near future.1

To understand the full dimensions of the problems, it will first be necessary to examine the factors that predispose sub-Saharan Africa to serious environmental degradation. This will permit a detailed investigation of the environmental problems caused by humans in both rural and urban areas, along with a suggestive comparison between those problems and ones caused solely by nature.

It will then be possible to look at the question of environmental protection in terms of sustainable development in the region and to suggest the roles that the state and international assistance ought to play. The present situation offers an important opportunity to redirect development strategy in ways that will not only improve the social and economic well-being of people in this region but also enhance the quality of the environment in which they live.

Factors Predisposing to Environmental Degradation

Three factors strongly increase the threat of environmental degradation in sub-Saharan Africa: its demographics, its heavy burden of foreign debt, and the absence of democracy. Throughout the region, the end of the colonial period saw a tremendous expansion of social services, especially in the areas of education and health care. This led to a sharp decline in infant mortality and to a rapid increase n population. During the last 25 years, annual growth rates of 2.5 to 3.5 percent have caused the population of sub-Saharan Africa to double (570 million); at the current rate of increase, it should double again in the next 25 years.

An increase of this magnitude within a relatively short time span implies a rising proportion of children in the population and thus a heavier burden on those who must care for them. This has led to mass migration to the cities (particularly by adult males) and other efforts to supplement family income through non-farm employment. As a result, there has been less time for farm work, and more labor-saving but environmentally harmful shortcuts are being taken. In forested areas, for instance, cleared land is used continuously, even though allowing it to lie fallow from time to time would result in greater productivity and less degradation. In dryland regions, cultivation has been extended into marginal lands that are more easily cleared and cultivated.

Turning to the second factor, countries in sub-Saharan Africa incurred large foreign debts in their efforts to industrialize and to provide their rapidly growing populations with modern social services. Most of these loans have been long-term ones from official sources and on concessional terms; as the need for borrowing has become more urgent, however, countries have turned increasingly to private, short-term loans at market rates. Thus, while in 1970 the region’s total official debt (excluding that of South Africa and Namibia) was slightly more than $5 billion (US dollars), by 1990 it had risen to nearly $140 billion. Total private debt, which was zero in 1970, was more than $20 billion in 1990. (With other external loans, the total indebtedness of the region was more than $171 billion by 1990.2

The problem, however, lies not so much in the rising level of debt as in the region’s dwindling ability to service it. High dependence on the export of primary products left sub-Saharan African countries vulnerable to the long decline of commodity prices that began in the 1970s. The total value of the region’s agricultural exports has fallen dramatically, with the decline averaging 0.8 percent a year from 1975 to 1980, 2.9 percent a year from 1980 to 1985, and 2.5 percent a year from 1986 to 1988. (For some countries the decline has been even more pronounced.3 As a result, the burden of debt has risen markedly for most countries in the region. Between 1980 and 1989, the total external debt rose from 27 percent to 97 percent of gross national product and from 97 percent to 362 percent of exports.4

Not unexpectedly, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have had to undergo major structural adjustments. This has entailed not only a drastic compression of imports and a sharp devaluation of national currencies but also the retrenchment of a sizable portion of the wage- and salary-earning population. As living conditions deteriorated, more people turned to survival agriculture, both in urban and rural areas. At the same time, sharply rising prices for imported energy products forced many families to fall back on wood and charcoal for their domestic energy needs. Clearly, these developments put acute strain on the environment everywhere in the region.

The performance of most African governments in implementing the reforms necessary to turn their economies around has also been a source of serious concern. The international community spent the years immediately following independence rationalizing (and sometimes applauding) the necessity for authoritarian one-party or military rule. Over time, these regimes have become inordinately corrupt and have managed the countries’ economies without due concern for transparency and accountability. In most countries, this has led to a high level of political instability and social alienation that has impaired both development efforts and environmental protection. There is a growing realization that economic reforms cannot be achieved without a much greater degree of decentralization and democratization in the political process.

Much of the debate about sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa has focused on the region’s severe poverty. There is no question that poverty has become widespread. The World Bank estimates that between 1985 and 2000, the number of persons living below the poverty line will rise from 180 million to 265 million By 1990, the combination of rapid population growth and an economy in crisis had lowered per capita gross national product to $340, making this region one of the least developed in the world.

For neo-Malthusians, this poverty stems directly from overpopulation; in their view, the two will inevitably lead to an increase in land fragmentation, over-utilization of agricultural and grazing land, more frequent famines, lower life expectancy, and considerable environmental degradation. By contrast, the renowned agricultural economist, Ester Boserup, and others argue that population growth need not result in such dire consequences. In their view, population growth can promote more intensive agricultural practices and induce more favorable attitudes toward technological and organizational innovation that will not only increase productivity but improve environmental quality as well.

Two considerations suggest that the second view is more applicable to the situation prevailing in sub-Saharan Africa. First, over the period 1600 to 1900, this region lost a large part of its population to internecine warfare and the slave trade. As a result, by 1900 the region was more sparsely populated than it had been earlier. Second, at 23 persons per square kilometer, the region’s current population density is still low compared to that of Asia or Europe.

This is not to imply that there is no cause for concern about the environment in sub-Saharan Africa. One needs to keep a sense of perspective in addressing the question, however, the proper focus is on the region’s poverty per se (as opposed to its population growth) and on the impact this has on the environment in both rural and urban areas.

The Potential For Sustainable Development

Three points stand out clearly from this review of environmental challenges in the rapidly growing but poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa. First, the development strategy pursued in most of these countries has wrought serious havoc on the environment without necessarily improving the average person’s standard of living. Second, this has taken place despite the region’s relatively ample natural resources. Third, and perhaps most important, knowledge about the region’s environment and its degradation remains inadequate.

Nowhere is this last point more true than in the attempt to explain environmental degradation in terms of population growth. This Malthusian argument depends on there being a “carrying capacity” beyond which the environment will inevitably suffer. But as already pointed out, in most of sub-Saharan Africa the population density is relatively low. Furthermore, some prime agricultural lands are clearly “undersettled,” while areas less suited to agriculture are densely populated.

A recent study of the relationships among population growth and density, the intensification of agriculture, and the implications for sustainability offers some useful insights on this issue. The study focused on 10 areas with relatively dense populations (ranging from 150 to more than 1,000 persons per square kilometer). Five of these were in East Africa (in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania), while the remaining five were in West Africa, mainly in Nigeria. In all of these areas, the study found that “contrary to much conventional wisdom that portrays the African smallholders as wrecking their physical resources, particularly in the face of land-intensive conditions . . . farmers . . . made considerable investments in resource-based capital, thereby protecting their farms from major environmental deterioration and the negative impacts of intensification and production that usually follow.

Similar conclusions have been reached regarding other aspects of the population-environment equation in sub-Saharan Africa. Contrary to conventional wisdom, detailed field investigations in Nigeria have found that the rising demand for fuelwood has not led to greater deforestation or desertification. Far from “overcutting their trees,” farmers have been maintaining their tree stocks by planting and by protecting spontaneous seedlings. The area studied showed “2.3 percent per annum increase in tree density between 1972 and 1981, in the wake of the disastrous drought of the late 1960s and early 1970s when pressure on woody vegetation from human and natural sources must have been very intense.”33 Field investigations in Uganda and Mali drew similar conclusions.34

This is not to imply that there have been no instances of severe environmental degradation. These have only occurred under three special circumstances, however: where the population density was greater than 500 per square kilometer; where the area itself was physically or biologically vulnerable; and where socioeconomic conditions impeded the implementation of conservation measures. Indeed, decreases in well-being (indicated by reduced food availability) are attributable not to rapid population growth but to the persistence of customary land tenure arrangements, misguided macroeconomic policies, and inadequate infrastructure. According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1987, sustainable development is “a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are inharmony (emphasis added) and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.”35 Included in the concept of harmony, of course, is the access of producers to the various factors of production, especially land.

The problem of land tenure, like many of the other problems besetting the development process in sub-Saharan Africa, probably stems from the region’s incomplete transition from one mode of production to another. Colonialism attempted to shift the economies of these countries from a precapitalist mode of production (based largely on kinship relations) into a global capitalist mode (based on “commoditized” factors of production whose prices were subject to the forces of supply and demand in a self-regulating market.) Though praiseworthy in many ways, these efforts failed signally in the one major area where they could have made a real difference: the patterns of land ownership in rural areas. By and large, colonial administrators left the traditional patterns intact, thus introducing a major contradiction into the development process.

While capitalism requires well-established individual property rights, most smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa have no such rights, even though they have long-standing rights to the use of communal land. Smallholders thus have no “economic assets” in the conventional sense of the term.36 Second, they have no real collateral against which to borrow and thus no access to the credit they need to invest in improved farm infrastructure, new cultigens, and modern technologies generally. When one considers the heavy investment that went into producing the polders of the Netherlands or the wheatlands of North America, the disability under which African farmers labor becomes readily apparent.

Consequently, much as colonial and post-colonial governments tried to make farmers more market oriented, the fact that one of their major inputs lies outside the market system has always limited the success of this effort. In many cases, farmers have chosen simply to “opt out” of the system, especially now that governments make little attempt to ensure that they receive fair prices for their output.37 The unnecessary liabilities under which farmers labor probably account for a large part of the poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other aspects of the macroeconomic policies pursued by most African governments simply served to deepen the poverty under which the majority of their rural populations labored and exacerbated the negative impact of their activities on the environment. Widening budget deficits eroded the value of national currencies, fueled inflation, undermined peoples’ real income, and encouraged excessive exploitation of natural resources to maintain even a subsistence level of existence.

The Roles of the State and International Assistance

It is clear that the environmental challenges in sub-Saharan Africa are more complex than the simple model linking environmental degradation to population growth and inappropriate macroeconomic policies indicates. Because of this complexity, no easy solutions are available. But whatever policies are adopted, to succeed they must increase peoples’ interest in protecting the environment by involving them directly in the process; reduce the incidence of poverty to reduce the pressure on natural resources; and show people how a high level of resource use can go hand-in-hand with the maintenance of environmental quality.

The state can play an important role in promoting sustainable development and improving the environment. By setting the correct investment priorities, it can provide needed infrastructure, services, education. In urban areas, it should focus on providing safe water, collecting and disposing solid waste, and improving the physical layout of congested areas; in the rural areas, it should focus on health, education, and basic sanitation.

Regulatory measures, however, may be more important than public investment. In this regard, the state should set environmental standards that are realistic in terms of the country’s particular socioeconomic circumstances. For example, setting strict standards for indoor air pollution when most people cannot afford less-polluting energy sources simply makes enforcement impossible. Regulatory measures should also aim to remove those distortions in the economy that tend to penalize producers or promote overconsumption. Important examples include underpricing agricultural commodities and subsidizing public goods and services, both of which favor the urban population. Such distortions, of course, are partly responsible for the economic collapse of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Although structural adjustment programs now taking place may improve matters, the governments’ lack of commitment has left the situation far from satisfactory.

Conservation measures have been important in protecting most natural resources from excessive use or degradation. Through its power of eminent domain, the state has been able to set aside sizable tracts of land to protect watersheds, prevent soil erosion, allow natural regeneration to take place, and preserve habitats, species, and biodiversity. In 1993, there were 663 public reserves or parks in sub-Saharan Africa, totaling 125.2 million hectares.38 This however, is no more than 4.6 percent of the total land area of the region, much less than the 6 percent for the world as a whole. Moreover, the 1992 Caracas Action Plan of the World Parks Congress set a goal of protecting at least 10 percent of each of the world’s major biomes; sub-Saharan Africa currently falls far short of this standard.

Simply setting land aside, however, does not mean being able to manage it properly. Many governments in the region lack the staff or financial resources to administer their protected areas, much less invest in new ones. Innovative strategies, such as involving private groups and non governmental organizations, are being considered and may provide another option for conservation management. Such groups are believed to be better able to raise funds to purchase land, to support conservation activities in existing parks and reserves, to incorporate the local population in management decisions, and to negotiate land-use disputes within and between communities.

Important as public investment, regulation, and conservation are, however, it is institutional development that offers the most hope for alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. Three aspects of institutional development are paramount: promoting democracy, expanding individual property rights, and increasing the knowledge base.

Decentralization and democratization must go down to the community level and must entail not only giving people a voice in decisions but also ensuring that they can raise the revenue necessary to translate their desires into reality. This will promote transparency and accountability in government and foster a proprietary interest in the quality of the environment.

The importance of expanding property rights was made clear earlier. Although it is often claimed that land tenure in sub-Saharan Africa is so complex that nothing can be done about it, it is difficult to believe that meaningful reforms cannot be introduced. The most serious mistake that many governments made was to resort to nationalization.39 From a conservation standpoint, nationalization often fails to distinguish between traditional communal property systems (which generally promote sound management of natural resources) and open-access systems (which result in excessive exploitation). When land and water have been nationalized and sound management practices disturbed, the environmental consequences have often been severe.40

Nationalization has also led governments to give short shrift to titling and registration. Yet, until such procedures clearly defined rights to land (on either a freehold or a leasehold basis), much of the region’s natural resources are bound to be treated as common property and therefore suffer degradation and “the tragedy of the commons.”

The third aspect of institutional development relates to the knowledge available for making decisions on environmental matters. People in sub-Saharan Africa have been adapting to the region’s various environments for thousands of years. In the process, they have accumulated valuable information that should be incorporated into a formal analyses of sustainable development.41 Along with such knowledge, of course, must go the collection and analysis of field data by modern techniques. This is necessary to correct the hallowed but mistaken notions of conventional wisdom and to give governments in the region better appreciation of the causes and effects of environmental damage as well as the costs and benefits of different policy options. In this regard, independent commissions provide a useful way for governments to draw on technical expertise both within and outside of their countries; they can also be instrumental in bringing the results of advanced research to bear on local problems.

As mentioned earlier, current knowledge of the ecology of tropical forests and grasslands is still rudimentary. The rich biological resources of these areas—and the ways in which humans relate to them—have yet to receive as much study as they deserve. Given the shortage of funds and trained personnel in most sub-Saharan African countries, this is an area where bilateral and multilateral assistance could make a real difference. The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 153 countries at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, is correct in insisting that tropical countries be compensated for protecting biological diversity from which others benefit. If such compensation became the order of the day, some of it should be used to finance further study of tropical ecosystems.

Poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa could also use international assistance in reforming their environmental laws and in selecting optimal strategies for environmental management. Not enough emphasis has been given to the role of law in alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. Particularly in the area of pollution charges, the experience of developed countries could be invaluable. But countries in the tropics that are being asked to protect biodiversity and genetic resources partly for the benefit of others also need technical assistance in legally defining and protecting their rights regarding these resources.

Consequently, management strategies must go beyond assessing the impact of individual projects, as this tends to address the symptoms rather than the root causes of environmental problems. Such strategies must pay greater attention to broader issues and recognize intersectoral links and intergenerational concerns. This would entail integrating natural resource management with national economic planning as well as tailoring international assistance to specific aspects of resource conservation. To implement such strategies, African countries must strive to secure broad consensus and support, both nationally and internationally.


In the closing years of the 20th century, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa find themselves almost returning to the drawing board. Three decades of trying to drive their economies according to Western models have left them prostrate, their people wallowing in poverty, and their environment exposed to many hazards. More importantly, the international indebtedness of these countries and their present unattractiveness to foreign investors are forcing them to rethink the whole question of development.

The next 25 years thus offer real opportunities for improvement, beginning with population control. At the household level, the economic crisis is inducing a reassessment of the viability of large families; at the governmental level, political inertia and indifference to family planning programs are being replaced by more effort and initiative. Already, fertility has begun to decline in some countries, such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Cameroon.42 Although the future remains uncertain, there is every likelihood that this trend will spread across the region.

A decline in fertility, however, will not completely eliminate the momentum that has built up in the years of rapid population growth. The number of people will continue to increase, raising the population density all over the region. But as already emphasized, there is growing evidence that the African environment is more resilient than conventionally thought and can probably support a higher level of population and more intensive agriculture. Technological innovations and institutional developments are thus more important to maintaining a sound environment in sub-Saharan Africa than are efforts to reduce population pressure. If the focus of development shifts from mere economic growth to eradicating the widespread poverty, the people as a whole can play a more decisive role, not only in turning the economic fortunes of their countries around but also in enhancing the quality of the environment.

* Akin L. Mabogunje is Chairman of the Development Policy Center in Ibadan, Nigeria, and a former professor of geography at the University of Ibadan.

The above article is copyright © African Technology Forum. All rights reserved. This article appeared in Volume 8, Number 1 of ATF. Select this link to see the table of contents for this issue. Select this link to order this issure of ATF . For reference and other information click African Technology Forum for more.


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