• John Mendelsohn

Economic Blind Alleys

One of Ongava Research Centre's major interests focuses on this question: How can rural poverty be eradicated, and land degradation be reversed in Africa? The greatest form of environmental degradation in Africa is shifting dryland agriculture. After several years of use smallholder farmers must shift their crops from nutrient-depleted fields to virgin soils in newly cleared areas. The practice is not only accelerated, but also necessitated by poor soils and a growing population with little access to money, and thus no other way to feed themselves. Cash incomes are now a necessity everywhere and for everyone, and in their absence rural people are obliged to sell local resources: bush meat, fish, ivory and rhino horn, charcoal, timber, and pangolins, for example. More of the natural world gets lost. And yet, so many development programmes patronisingly continue to encourage - directly or indirectly - people to live in places where they can't make a decent living, particularly where soil fertility and access to markets is lacking. And so people remain poor and continue to wreck Africa's natural environment. They have no other option.

Eighty-three years ago in 1937 CG Trapnell and JN Clothier published The Soils, Vegetation and Agricultural Systems of North Western Rhodesia: Report of the Ecological Survey. Here is a page in which one of their conclusions is quoted: ….the native's most general and immediate need is for something to sell. The page comes from a book entitled The Plan for Africa, published in 1941 for the Colonial Bureau of the Fabian Society ("... a British socialist organisation founded in 1884 whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies,...").

Much of the book debates the merits and distinctions between support for patronising charity or for opportunities for development. It is time to re-kindle that debate, and find ways for rural Africans to gain financial security while stopping the degradation of natural resources.