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Alternative Policy Study: West and Central Africa

This study was carried out by the Network for Environment and Sustainable Development in Africa (NESDA), Côte d'Ivoire, as part of the preparation for UNEP's GEO-2000 report.


The countries of West and Central Africa are going through political, social and economic transition. At the same time they have to address vital problems of growing poverty and deteriorating life support systems. A business-as-usual scenario driven by demographic change and slow economic growth will lead to negative environmental consequences including loss of biodiversity, land shortages for agriculture and greater susceptibility to natural disasters.

On the positive side, the sub-region is well-endowed with human and natural resources and civil society is becoming empowered. Political and institutional reforms, although slow, remain the biggest hope for policy change. Political will, sound politics and governance and inter-regional cooperation will determine how resources are allocated and used.

There are a number of alternative policy options which would alleviate current trends. On the political side, an effective population strategy and the reform of land tenurial rights can go a long way to halting land degradation. On the technical side, several policy initiatives can be taken: agriculture can be intensified with the use of organic fertilisers, agro-forestry can be promoted and adopted technology can be used for gradual industrialisation. Finally, inter-regional cooperation should be promoted. This cooperation could be based on the cooperative advantage principle and should exploit the complementary natures of Sahelian and forested areas, or land-locked and coastal areas.



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A quarter of the world's population lives in severe poverty (UNDP 1997). About 1 300 million people live on less than US$1 a day. Of sub-Saharan Africa's 590 million people, 220 million are income-poor by their national poverty line (appendix), and the region has the fastest growth in human poverty.

Over 60 per cent of West and Central Africa's population depends directly on the land for survival. Agriculture is the main economic activity; whether undertaken for commercial or subsistence purposes it is dependent on land and related resources like soils and water. The available cultivable area in the region is restricted by several factors. Some are physical, like the availability of water and fertile soils, others are human in origin. Throughout West and Central Africa competing demands for land and complex traditional land ownership patterns have created land use and land tenure problems which are difficult to resolve.

Poverty is increasing in the West and Central Africa (UNDP 1997). Policy interventions adopted by individual countries in the region have failed to yield the desired results of alleviating poverty. Alternative policy initiatives which aim to ensure the well-being of the majority of the population in the region by promoting food self-sufficiency and economic development must address the pervading environmental issue of land degradation and its root causes.

Baseline Scenario: the Causes and Effects of Land Degradation

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Land degradation comprises all the processes that lead to deterioration in the quantity, quality and productive capacity of land (Benneh and others 1990). Land is broadly categorised as agricultural and related land (i.e. farmlands, forests, grasslands, and rangelands) and non-agricultural land (i.e. urban and other built-up land and mining and construction land). Surface and underground water and the atmosphere are also important components of the land resource.

The interactions of the causes and effects of land degradation, both natural and manmade, in West and Central Africa are complex. They include:

Deforestation - used in a broad sense to mean the removal of forest and grassland vegetation - is a problem throughout the region. Degraded vegetation cover is the most invidious cause of land degradation in West and Central Africa. Bush fires, which occur annually in the dry season from November to May, especially in the savanna zone of the region, constitute the most important cause of the destruction of vegetation cover.

Desertification can be considered the ultimate form of land degradation. The biological productive capacity of the land is more or less completely eroded. This is the most severe threat to human existence in the arid and semi-arid zones of the region. In recent decades, droughts of varying severity and duration have affected West African countries (e.g. Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, north Cameroon and northern Côte d'Ivoire). Frequent and extensive droughts lead to reduced vegetation cover; when the rains resume soil erosion occurs.

The effects of land degradation are both environmental and socio-economic. The environmental effects relate to the quality and productive capacity of the land. The socio-economic effects relate to the living conditions and well-being of the human populations living on the land in relation to levels of production, consumption and land availability.

The effects of the degradation of agricultural land include:

The net effect of all the above is poverty and frustration. However, care must be exercised in interpreting these conditions as entirely due to the effects of agricultural land degradation. These effects may also arise from the implications of economic policies and other political decisions which neglect the development of rural areas.

Current Pressures on the Land

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There are four main issues which are hastening land degradation in West and Central Africa:

Unsustainable Agro-Sylvo-Pastoral Practices

Existing agro-pastoral practices are predominantly dependent on natural rainfall. This is seasonal and decreases generally from the south to the north. It is beyond the control of land users. Irrigated agriculture is practised only in selected areas and on a relatively small scale. Given the variations in climate experienced in recent years, the future of rainfed agriculture is under serious threat in some areas.

Forestry activities are almost entirely dependent on natural forests; plantations play an insignificant role. The timber industry is seriously threatened in some areas by the over-exploitation of certain tropical hardwoods which are in high demand on international markets.


There are direct and underlying causes of deforestation. Direct causes include land clearing for agriculture, logging activities, tree burning for charcoal production, firewood collection and human settlement and related infrastructure construction. These activities are increasing throughout the region and represent a serious threat for the future of primary forests. The underlying causes of deforestation include recent climatic variations and annual human migrations to forest areas.

Land Tenure Systems

Land tenure systems are the laws and regulations - modern and traditional - regarding the ownership and accessibility of land resources in any given country or area. The most controversial issues related to land in almost every country in West and Central Africa revolve around ownership and access to land. The system of land ownership determines access to land and land security. Based on Asian and Latin American experiences, property rights determine investment in land. This in turn affects land use practices in general and therefore the rate and intensity of land degradation.

In some countries, current land tenure practices are not favourable for reducing and eventually controlling land degradation because such practices do not promote effective land management. Traditional law on land recognises the land resource as a communal property to be shared by all members of society. This reduces both the responsibility of the individual in land management and any incentive for investment. In other instances, private lands are leased to developers for specific time periods; the outright sale of land is uncommon. If present land tenure systems are not reformed in many countries, land fragmentation and land insecurity will intensify in the next two decades.

Demographic Pressures

The average annual population growth rate for countries in the West and Central African region is estimated at 3 per cent. About 50 per cent of the population in the region is below the age of 15 years. This results in an unduly large percentage of dependent population and resulting pressure on land resources due, among other factors, to the need to produce more food through existing extensive shifting agricultural systems.

If no rational population policies are adopted by governments in the region, the total population of West and Central Africa will reach 385 million by 2025, negatively affecting land, food availability, social services and the environment in general (World Bank 1997).

Alternative Policy Options

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Based on the major environmental issues and related problems identified above, the challenge for the West and Central African region with reference to land degradation, which is the main theme of concern, is to come up with alternative policies which will ensure that land resources are sustainably managed. The recommended alternative policies are:

Reforming Land Tenure

Reform of land tenure systems is required, but it must be based on a refined understanding of the socio-cultural conditions and local politics of individual countries. An improved land tenure system would bring about land security and could encourage investment in land, promote higher land productivity and reduce the rate of land degradation.

The major obstacle to such policy reform lies in traditional ownership patterns and practices in connection with land as a resource. Smallholders constitute the majority of land users in the region, but traditional land laws recognise the resource as a communal property. This reduces both individual responsibility in the management of land and any incentive for investment.

Because of the politics of ethnicity and the complicated nature and sensitivity of land reform - it can lead to social upheaval and even civil war - most governments in the region have not had the political will to introduce land reform policies. However, such policies are necessary and timely; but only a participatory approach to land tenure reform will bring success.

Intensifying Agricultural Production Systems

Shifting cultivation and grazing, although adapted to the physical environment of some West and Central African countries, are not sustainable. Given the present rate of population growth and the demand for food, countries in the region should move away from extensive agricultural systems and adopt intensive and sustainable production practices. In addition, they should integrate agro-silvo-pastoral practices which will enable each system to benefit from the other by, for example, integrating agroforestry practices with food crop and animal production. Governments could also encourage farmers and the private sector by financial or other incentives to process wastes and transform them into organic fertilisers that can be used to intensify agriculture. Such policies would foster higher land productivity, result in greater food security and improve health conditions.

The introduction of such policy packages should be backed by financial and technical resources. Currently, these are not readily available to some governments in the region. In spite of these obstacles, however, this policy package is politically feasible and, except in a few countries, the appropriate infrastructure exists to implement it.

Pursuing Rational Population Policies

The average population growth rates in most of the countries in the region are among the highest in the world, therefore slowing economic growth. Family planning programmes have been adopted in some countries but these have not produced significant results. Rational population policies must realistically address issues such as birth control, primary health care delivery systems, population movement etc. Such policies will reduce the current high rate of population increase, improve child health and maternal welfare and control rural-urban migration. Education and economic opportunities are two factors which have been revealed to be very efficient tools in ensuring family planning.

The political and social implications of this policy package may not be readily acceptable to the entire spectrum of the population in the region. Traditional religious beliefs and practices constitute potential barriers to such reforms. Individual family values make family planning programming difficult to promote. Nevertheless, rational population policies are necessary to address the issue of land degradation.

Promoting Alternative Employment Policies

The majority of people in West and Central Africa depend on the land for their livelihood, specifically through farming, animal husbandry, small-scale mining or collecting materials for handicraft. With the increasing cost of living in the region, coupled with the increasingly unsustainable nature of these activities, and in view of the need for food security and the improved well-being of the population, it is proposed that alternative employment policies be developed and implemented. These policies should provide for the needs of the increasing number of secondary and tertiary school-leavers, most of whom are unemployed. Alternative employment policies based on processing industries, trade and handicraft could ease pressure on land and offer opportunities to people to generate extra income. In particular, processing industries could concentrate on food processing and - for those countries endowed with forests - wood processing.

For such policies to succeed, however, governments should address the problem of people's inadequate capacity to embark upon new ventures. Concerned populations must be assisted, through training and the provision of micro-capital, to adapt to new opportunities. For example, the well-known entrepreneurial capacity of women in West Africa should be promoted.

Creating Enabling Social, Economic and Political Environments

In the final analysis, all the reforms needed in the region depend on political will. They also require a coherent legal and institutional framework which will establish the rules for economic activity and political participation and underpin social coherence. Economic liberalisation and good governance will create an enabling environment for popular participation in the decision making process.

Much progress has been made in West and Central Africa. Almost all the countries have opened or are opening their economies. Many countries are democratising, although there is a long way to go. Others have experienced setbacks with military coups and civil wars. The general trend however indicates a civil society gradually becoming involved in socio-economic and political life and a private sector taking up activities previously performed by the state. Since 1985, almost all codes of investment in the region have been revised with the aim of further liberalising economies and encouraging investment.

However, this enabling environment has not always brought the expected results. In Central Africa, for instance, the liberalisation of logging activities has increased the rate of timber extraction and the amount of timber exports rather than boosting the local timber processing industry. In some cases, the rate of deforestation has gone up.


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Benneh and others (1990). Land Degradation in Ghana. Commonwealth Secretariat, London, United Kingdom

Clever, K. and others (1992). Conservation of West and Central African Rainforests. World Bank, Washington DC, United States

Dorm-Adzobu, C. (1996). New Roots: Institutionalizing Environmental Management in Africa. WRI, Washington D.C., United States

FAO (1997). The State of the World's Forests. FAO, Rome, Italy

Kjisik, H. (1995). The Human Face of the African Environment. African Development Bank, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

Netherlands Government (1997). Developments in Sustainability 1992-1997. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment, The Hague, The Netherlands

UNDP (1997). Human Development Report. Oxford University Press, New York, United States

UNEP (1997). Global Environment Outlook. UNEP, Oxford University Press, New York, United States

UNEP (1998). Mapping Indicators of Poverty in West Africa. UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya

World Bank (1997). Towards Environmentally Sustainable Development in West and Central Africa. World Bank, Agriculture and Environment Division, Washington DC, United States

World Bank (1997). International Agreements. Fifth Annual World Bank Conference on Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development. World Bank, Washington DC, United States

Appendix: UNDP Human Development Index and
GDP Per Capita for Africa

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Graph showing Human Development Index and GDP per capita

 GEO-2000 Technical & regional reports 
GEO-2000 complete report 
GEO-2000 home page