1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Environment, Sustainable Development and Social Change

Conservation, Livelihood and Democracy: Social Dynamics of Environmental Changes in Africa



There has been a tendency in Africa, as elsewhere, to view the environmental problem in ecological, physical and technical terms. The social aspects of environment have been largely neglected both in analysis and policies. This has contributed to the high failure rate of official conservation programmes and policies in most African countries both in the colonial and the post-independence period. The purpose of this paper is to provide a social perspective on the extent, emergence and amelioration of the environmental crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

The available indices point to a grim picture of environmental degradation in Africa as expressed in soil erosion, deforestation, desertification and sedimentation and pollution of waterways. Although there are serious doubts about the reliability of these data, circumstantial evidence and in-depth micro studies corroborate this picture. There is even greater paucity of information on the social manifestations of the environmental crisis. The problem is further compounded by the difficulty of isolating the impact of environmental factors from the many variables which impact on social conditions.

Natural disasters provide the most dramatic illustration of the social impact of changes in environment. The great droughts of the early 1970s and the 1980s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands from starvation and malnutrition. Tens of millions were forced to abandon their homes in search of food. There was large-scale decimation of livestock that contributed further to the impoverishment of the rural people. The cumulative degradation of natural resources has jeopardized the livelihood sources for scores of millions of farmers, herders and forest dwellers. The effects have been felt through declines in yields and food production, dwindling access to forest produce and game, declining productivity of grazing land and increasing scarcity and cost of wood fuel. The environmental crisis has reinforced urban migration, disrupted community life and provoked local, national and regional conflicts. Women and girls have been especially adversely affected because of their role in food production, family upkeep and fetching of water and wood fuel.

In the pre-colonial period, the local communities had by and large succeeded in evolving systems of resource use and management which combined livelihood security with resource conservation. These systems were disrupted during the colonial period by the expropriation of land for white settlers and for plantations, commercialization of agriculture, inappropriate macro economic policies and ill-conceived infrastructural projects. Many of these policies were continued in the post-independence period. Rapid and accelerating population expansion in recent decades has greatly increased the pressure on resources.

The past patterns of economic development are socially and ecologically unsustainable. There is urgent need for new approaches designed to integrate resource conservation with livelihood improvement. A key element of this approach is the progressive transfer of responsibility to local communities and organizations for the management of natural resources. There is impressive historical evidence of the ability of pre-colonial societies in Africa to adapt production systems and livelihood strategies to local ecological conditions with environmental sustainability. There are also numerous contemporary experiences from different ecological zones of the ability of local communities to restore and improve degraded resources through technical innovations, social mobilization and institutional and organizational improvements.

For a locally based resource conservation strategy to work, it will be necessary to transfer responsibility and resources to local communities, initiate property reforms relating to ownership, use and access to resources, and strengthen the technical and managerial capabilities of organizations of rural producers. Because of the enormity of the challenge, these efforts can only succeed if they are supported by sympathetic individuals, organizations, national authorities and the international community. External assistance will be required to solve technical problems, elaborate programmes for raising labour and resource productivity, conduct field research and furnish food, materials and cash. But it is important that such assistance should reinforce local efforts, enhance local capabilities, build upon indigenous knowledge and skills and respect community priorities.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Mar 1992
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    From: UNRISD