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Chapter Three: Policy Responses - Africa

Laws and institutions

As part of their follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, some countries - for example Benin, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Seychelles and Uganda - took the significant step of incorporating the environmental rights and responsibilities of their citizens in their constitutions. At the sub-regional level, the 1992 SADC Treaty included the following key objectives: 'to achieve development and economic growth, alleviate poverty, enhance the standard and quality of life of the peoples of southern Africa' and 'to achieve sustainable utilization of natural resources and effective protection of the environment' (SADC 1996). At the regional level, the OAU recognized a safe environment as a right by declaring that 'All people shall have the right to a generally satisfactory environment favourable to their development' (United Nations 1990).

Over the past two decades, many countries have put in place a wide range of new environmental laws and regulations. One unfortunate result of the commitment to strengthen environmental protection measures has been a significant fragmentation and duplication of authority and responsibilities. For example, in Zimbabwe 10 different ministries administer an estimated 20 environment-related laws while in Botswana 8 ministries are responsible for applying 33 environmental laws (SADC 1998). The situation is further complicated in countries such as South Africa where responsibilities are shared by central and regional authorities (DEAT 1996). As a consequence, some countries are now reviewing their legal framework with the aim of consolidating, streamlining and strengthening their environmental laws. Priority requirements include updating and bringing laws in line with current scientific knowledge, reducing overlap and conflicts, setting more realistic and higher penalties to encourage compliance, clarifying and harmonizing the responsibilities of different national ministries, and identifying and filling gaps in the legal framework for environmental protection (UNEP 1993).

The first environment Ministry in sub-Saharan Africa was created in 1975 in the former Zaire. By the early 1990s, most countries had established a wide variety of new institutional arrangements for environment protection and improvement. For example, many countries in Northern and Southern Africa created new environment ministries while most East African countries favoured separate environmental coordination bodies such as the National Environment Management Authority in Uganda and the National Environment Secretariat in Kenya. Countries in West and Central Africa have a mixture of environment ministries and coordination bodies. Environmental units were also combined with existing ministries. For example, in Cameroon the environment is combined with forestry, in Burkina Faso with water resources, in Ghana with science and technology, and in Zimbabwe with tourism.

Special institutional arrangements at the sub-regional level include the Environment Unit in the Secretariat of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Environment and Land Management Sector Coordination Unit and the recently created SADC Water Sector Coordination Unit based in Lesotho.

At the regional level, the UNECA and OAU have long had separate natural resources departments. The African Development Bank has had a special environment unit since the early 1990s, and recently restructured its programme to put greater emphasis on the environment.

While providing new prominence and focus for environmental issues, these agencies and units still face overwhelming tasks and responsibilities. They have to compete for staff and budgets with the older and often more powerful sectoral agencies, whose activities often have more impact on the state of the environment and natural resources than those of the environmental agencies themselves. Since the 1980s, the adverse environmental impacts of the policies of key economic and sectoral agencies have continued to undermine public health as well as the resource base needed for future economic development. As repeatedly emphasized at and after the 1992 Earth Summit, a move toward sustainable development will require major changes in many present policies, programmes, laws and institutional arrangements, outside as well as within the environment field. In particular, it will require moving away from the tendency to sectoralize the environment by breaking through the many administrative and other constraints on inter-Ministerial coordination and cooperation. It will also require new approaches and methods for national development planning and the integration of the environment in decision-making throughout the public and private sectors.

 Land issues

Land degradation continues to be the main environmental challenge facing many African countries, especially in terms of deforestation, loss of biodiversity and declining soil fertility. Current national policies do not adequately respond to these challenges (World Bank 1995a), mainly because responsibilities and laws for protecting the soil, forests and biodiversity are fragmented among different government agencies. Those who have the most to lose and are the first to be affected by land degradation - the local people and communities - have seldom been adequately consulted or involved in the planning and implementation of the many different conservation and remedial programmes. Most of these people are poor and the existing agricultural, energy, forestry and wildlife policies do not provide them with the support and range of choices they need.

Land-use and access regimes are often complex; in Malawi, for example, the process of leasing land involves 33 steps (Okoth-Ogendo 1998). The regimes often do not allow a simple and direct integration of sound land-use principles with acceptable tenancy agreements and enforceable property rights.

Land policies (or lack thereof) and land laws are often based on feudal regimes originating in 19th century England. Their relevance to African cultures and property regimes has always been problematic and incommensurate. Most African governments have not responded to the need for participatory, appropriate and effective policies and legislation on land and natural resources.

However, some people are searching for a systematic articulation of visions, plans and institutional mechanisms to clarify questions of land ownership and develop cohesive regulations for just, sustainable and equitable use of land and land-based resources. Some governments, including those of Eritrea, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, are responding through reviews, sectoral policies, Land Commissions and participatory or non-participatory task forces (Okoth-Ogendo 1998). The Uganda Land Act of 1998 provides for the tenure, ownership and management of land, giving security of tenure to people (such as squatters) who were originally at the mercy of the title holder (Land Act of Uganda 1998). This Act reinforces the provisions in the 1995 Constitution of Uganda which vests control of land in the citizens of Uganda, with the previously powerful Uganda Land Commission now only holding and managing land on behalf of the Government, having relinquished administrative issues regarding land to District Land Boards.


Agenda 21 includes many recommendations calling for the wider use and integration of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in all major economic and sectoral policies and programmes. Since Rio, at least one-third of African countries have introduced new EIA policies, laws and procedures. However, although representing a significant step toward greater environmental sustainability, EIAs alone are not enough to secure sustainable development.

National and regional policies for securing economic, social and environmental sustainability in Africa need to be anchored and reinforced by incorporating impact assessments as an integral part of decision-making in at least three key respects: assessing the likely environmental impacts of economic policies and activities; assessing the likely economic impacts of environmental policies and measures; and assessing the likely equity impacts of both economic and environmental policies (SADC 1996).

As emphasized in the 1996 SADC report, 'The integration in all key policy sectors of simultaneous economic, environmental and equity impact assessments (EIA3) will certainly not make decision-making easier though. EIA3 will inevitably increase rather than reduce the number and complexity of the trade-offs involved in most major decisions. EIA3 will, however, significantly improve the chances of making better decisions in support of sustainable development. By identifying and making those trade-offs more explicit, and preferably more public as well, EIA3 will increasingly compel decision-makers to assess and defend their policy choices in terms of economic, social and environmental sustainability' (SADC 1996).

A further chronic problem for the environmental institutions is the lack of adequate staff, expertise, funds and equipment to implement and enforce many existing national laws and international conventions. Expanded capacity-building programmes and a stronger commitment by governments are needed in many countries. The largely regulatory approach to environmental protection and management in most countries needs to be supplemented by a wider use of economic instruments and legal incentives (UNEP 1993), with progressive empowerment of rural communities over natural resources on the land on which their lives depend (see also box on land issues).

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