Restoring the fertility of Africa's degraded lands: the process approach
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CTA. 1993. Restoring the fertility of Africa's degraded lands: the process approach. Spore 47. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/49213
The scale of the problem may be subject to debate - but there is no doubting that land degradation is one of the most serious threats to food production over much of Africa. In extreme cases land may be so badly degraded that it is abandoned by...
The scale of the problem may be subject to debate - but there is no doubting that land degradation is one of the most serious threats to food production over much of Africa. In extreme cases land may be so badly degraded that it is abandoned by farmers, but it is the gradual degradation of soil fertility that menaces farmers throughout the continent which is more sinister and widespread. Many soil and water conservation projects have failed in the past, so what now is the best strategy to assist farmers in restoring their cultivated land to full productivity? In parts of the West African Sahel, there are tracts of land which are denuded and effectively sterile. These include the Fako of Niger and the Zipeela of Burkina Faso. A hard cap on the surface of the soil resists the infiltration of runoff, and practically no plants grow. It was not always like this. Land was originally cleared from the bush for cropping and rested after a period of cultivation. But with growing population, fallow periods have become shorter, and cultivation cycles longer. Soil fertility levels are severely depleted during the cropping cycle, because plant products are removed from the fields at successive harvests and nothing is returned. The fallowing of such land often does not lead to its regeneration - especially when rainfall is less than in former times. Over the last few decades, this spiral of degradation has created many thousands of hectares of abandoned land in the West African Sahel. Less dramatic, but more important to the continent as a whole, is the gradual process of soil fertility degradation in areas where crop production is better favoured by the climate. In these zones, continuous cultivation is rarely balanced by nutrient return in the form of fertilizers, manure or compost. Overall losses of plant nutrients from the system are increased by permitting splash and sheet erosion, which selectively remove the richest fraction of the soil. Where this is the case, yields continue to decline and in turn soil becomes increasingly susceptible to erosion. There is growing evidence that Africa's soils are being 'mined' of nutrients. In Kenya, for example, which hosts one of the continent's most successful soil and water conservation programmes, there is increasing concern that despite the measures introduced, crop yields are not always being maintained, and indeed are sometimes falling. This problem is echoed elsewhere: in the matooke banana plantations of Uganda, for example. If current and future needs for food, fodder and fuel are to be met, efforts have to be made to restore degraded land to its former productivity. The question is how this can best be achieved, both technically and organizationally. The 'Project' approach and its failings The conventional approach of governments and donor agencies in Africa is to address the problem of land degradation through the implementation of soil conservation, range management or afforestation projects. The project approach is attractive to donors in particular, because it is a neat, discrete 'package' with tight geograchical boundaries and a limited timeframe, and because it can operate outside the bureaucracy of mainstream government. There was a burgeoning of soil and water conservation projects in the 1980s as governments, and donors, became more concerned with erosion. Currently there are numerous projects funded by multi-and bilateral donor agencies as well as by NGOs. Millions of dollars are spent each year on soil and water conservation, range management and afforestation projects. Projects typically have a life span of around five years, with defined targets to treat, perhaps, a few thousand hectares. It is clear that such targets are a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of the problem. At current rates of implementation it would take more than a century to address the present levels of land degradation in Africa. Furthermore the area of land subject to land degradation is not stable, but increasing. Projects clearly cannot, in themselves, answer the problem, even if they were successful. And many soil and water conservation projects have produced disappointing results. Part of the explanation of these failures can be attributed to the techniques the projects promote. Structures, such as large terrace banks, are often not appropriate and, as a result, are neither appreciated nor adequately maintained by the 'beneficiaries'. Instead of conserving land, poorly maintained structures may subsequently actually lead to increased erosion by concentrating runoff through overtopping or breaching. Another weakness of conventional conservation projects is the costs of the techniques promoted. The costs of some machinery-built terraces in the Sahel can be in excess of US$1000 per hectare. If land degradation is to be reversed on hundreds of thousands of hectares this level of funding is clearly absurd. In order to attain their targets, many projects rely on the use of machinery and the provision of food-for-work to support manual labour. But practice shows that such incentives mask the true level of interest by local farmers: subsequent lack of maintenance exposes the prime reason for 'participation' during construction. True participation of the local land users is vital to the success of any project or development process; it is the human resource which must be tapped for any lasting success, and people will only respond when they appreciate the return to their investments. Finally, most soil and water conservation activities come to a grinding halt as soon as external funding is withdrawn, because governments in Africa simply do not have the funds to keep up project-style operations. Governments lose face as a result, and the land users are disillusioned. The inescapable conclusion is that it makes no sense to continue funding conventional top-down projects because their direct impact is very limited, and their legacy may even be counterproductive in the fight against land degradation. The alternative: a 'Process' approach The challenge is to create a situation in which hundreds of thousands of land users are motivated to invest their own labour and their own limited resources in the management of their land. Projects can have a role to play in the development of what may be called a 'process approach'. The question is how to switch from the project approach, with its engineering bias, fixed targets and timespan, to a process in which the land users themselves become the main actors. Such a radical change will require fundamental revisions in attitudes of governments as well as of donor agencies. At the heart of such a policy change is the acknowledgment that (I ) only farmers themselves can be the effective agents of implementation on any significant scale, and (2) while projects may be a starting point for development funds, eventually there needs to be a national programme of land husbandry (or whatever name is preferred) which involves adequately trained multi-purpose agricultural extension agents. At least three necessary conditions have to be fulfilled to create a situation in which farmers will adopt conservation packages: \B7 Train staff and farmers Land cannot be restored in any significant quantity without the involvement of farmers. So there is a need to motivate and train farmers - women as well as men. However, extension staff must be trained first. There is no great mystery to the basics of soil conservation and land husbandry. Multipurpose agricultural extension agents can be trained to understand the technical principles, as well as the approaches neccessary to encourage and motivate farmers to participate. There is no need for a specialised, and expensive, cadre of soil conservation agents. The next stage is farmer motivation and training. This must become a key activity in the overall process. After initial participatory planning sessions, where perceptions and possible remedies are discussed, there is a role for exchange visits. There is nothing new about moving farmers to a different area to observe how others are addressing similar problems, but recent experiences with this methodology have highlighted its effectiveness - for example in Niger (see box 1). A recent UNSO project proposal for a water harvesting project in the Sahel is essentially based on farmer-to-farmer extension and it proposes to arrange visits to other regions for more than 10.000 farmers. Technical training, for example training in the use of simple survey tools and in compost production, is also important as it helps to 'demystify' technology and gives farmers confidence. \B7Get the technical package right Conservation techniques are needed which are simple, efficient and relatively low-cost. Above all there is the need for more emphasis on better 'land husbandry' through which the restoration process is linked to improved plant productivity. For example, compost-in' and manuring increase soil nutrient levels and lead to better soil structure, making the system immediately more productive as well as more resilient to erosion. Agroforestry methods, such as barrier hedges of nitrogen-fixing leguminous species, may have an important role to play. Grass strips are another alternative to earth bunds in areas where there is enough rainfall to support them. If the grass species planted is palatable, such as bane grass, it can be cut and carried for stall-fed livestock. The farmer gains a double benefit. In the West African Sahel, as a result of experiments carried out collaboratively between NGO staff and land users themselves, simple structural techniques have become available for the drier cultivated zones. These include contour stone bunds (appropriate where loose stone is available) and wide planting pits, both of which collect and concentrate rainfall runoff and thereby help crop growth. In each case compost, and sometimes mineral fertilizers, are advised so that the crop does not merely mine the soil with the extra water available. These techniques are based on local traditions - often a good starting point for technical design. Ideally farmers should be offered a 'menu' of possible solutions based on participatory planning discussions with technicians. It may be that farmers prefer a technically 'sub-optimal' solution, for reasons that remain difficult for the specialists to understand. Certainly farmer-choice should be guided by specialists: but 'solutions' should not be imposed from outside. \B7 Equip farmers Farmers must be enabled to participate by providing appropriate incentives. Many soil and water conservation projects have previously had the tendency to equip themselves with lorries, graders and other machinery and thereby to do things for the farmers. But as we move away from the project approach towards a participatory and sustainable process, the trend should be to improve farmers' access to tools (hoes, shovels etc) inputs (seedlings of trees, splits of grasses etc) and appropriate means of transport (wheelbarrows and donkey carts), in order to facilitate their work. Food-forwork is rarely a good means of motivating farmers to work on their own land: it is better reserved for public works. Where contour stone bunds are being constructed in the Sahel, arguments have been forwarded that 'erosion goes faster than a donkey cart' and therefore it is more cost effective to use lorries for the transport of stones. These arguments overlook important aspects: (1) donkey carts are multipurpose; they will not be used only for the transport of stones, but also for the transport of manure from compost pits to the fields; (2) donkey carts, wheelbarrows, hoes etc. can be produced in the region and repaired locally. In this way they can contribute to the generation of non-farm employment. Investment in restoration is justified The possibilities for higher and more reliable levels of production of food, fodder and fuel throughout sub-Saharan Africa are probably brighter than has often been assumed. It is evidently possible to restore barren land to productivity in some semiarid regions by using simple techniques, implemented by farmers themselves. In the higher potential regions a move towards 'land husbandry' can link the restoration of fertility in soils with improved plant productivity. Despite some recent international pessimism, the evidence suggests a justification for investment in the restoration and conservation of these lands. A further cause for optimism is found in exploding a much repeated myth: that population pressure inevitably leads to increased land degradation. It does not. There may be a case to be made that an increase in population does initially cause disruption to a given agricultural system - and some increased degradation often ensues - but a further population growth can also have the stimulating effect of motivating land users to protect and improve their basic resources. The people in these regions have their backs against the wall and they have a simple choice: invest in the land or migrate. Indeed these are the situations where soil and water conservation programmes can be at their most effective. A study recently undertaken in Kenya's Machakos District shows that despite a five-fold increase in population between the 1930s-1940s and the 1990s, soil erosion and degradation had actually declined during the period. Donor agencies have an obligation and a desire to disburse money for soil and water conservation in Africa, and they wish to see tangible results. Now is the time for donors and governments to move away from a 'project' mentality, and to help to develop a sustainable 'process' approach. Projects can be a starting point, but the next immediate goal must be the development of a trained cadre of multipurpose extensionists under a national programme. The ultimate objective is to enable land users to combat land degradation themselves, by providing them with the tools and the requisite know-how. It is they who suffer when land loses its productivity, and they will be the ones to benefit when fertility is restored. FOR FURTHER READING: Critchley, C Reij, and S D Turner, (1992) Soil and water conservation in suh-Saharan Africa: towards sustainable production by the rural poor, IFAD, Rome. C Reij, (1993) Improving indigenous soil and water conservation techniques. Does it work? Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, Vol 1. No. 1 1993. Regional Soil Conservation Unit, Nairobi, Kenya. Annual Reports/ Misc. Documents. M Tiffen and M Mortimore, (1993) Environment, population growth and productivity in Kenya: a case study of Machakos District. Development Policy Review, Vol. (1), 1993. Jan de Graf (1993) Soil conservation and sustainable land use: an economic approach, KIT, The Netherlands