The numbers were staggering. A thousand people a month dying in a single country. One hundred fifty million people in twenty-four countries on the brink of starvation. Three quarters of a million children dying each year. Untold millions of refugees. A quarter of a million square miles of land laid waste, with estimates of the recovery time required starting with a minimum of forty to fifty years.(1) Is this the scenario for a film on nuclear war and its concomitant disruption of life and destruction of land? No. Unfortunately, it is not fiction. It is a description of conditions in that part of Africa known as the Sahel, at the peak of the drought and famine of the 1980s.
What could have caused such a catastrophe? At first glance, the answer may appear to be obvious. "Overpopulation," you say, and "climatic change" and "the spreading Sahara" and "the intrusion of people into an area unsuited for human habitation." All of these answers contain some truth. However, as with all questions involving Man and nature, these answers are the still surface of the lake which hides depths and complexities that are not apparent. They require analysis of circumstances that on the surface do not appear related, but are, in actuality, bound closely together. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to determine some of these underlying relationships, their impact on the situation in the Sahel and to propose, however tentatively and with acknowledgment of my limitations, some small suggestions as to what might help with a few of the intractable problems of the region.
First, however, let us look at the surface. That is, the physical and visible characteristics of the area. The Sahel, an Arabic word meaning border or shore, is a region of Africa which extends from the Atlantic Ocean on the west through Sudan to the Indian Ocean on the east, in an band of about 200 to 700 miles in width and about 3000 miles long. It runs predominantly east to west, but at the Sudan it turns southeast before reaching the ocean. The area that we shall focus on is that expanse west of the Sudan. Its northern boundary is formed by the Sahara Desert and to the south its limit is the west African savanna. The defining feature of this belt across Africa is its dryness. The Sahel receives only about 4 to 24 inches of rain a year. While this could be enough for agriculture, it is unpredictable and its irregular occurrence is not conducive to most cultivated crops.(2)
The Sahel also includes part of or most of a number of countries. Those polities, large portions of whose lands are contained within the Sahel are Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, the Cape Verde Islands, The Gambia and Senegal. The southern reaches of Algeria, Libya and Morocco (into whose domain I group Western Sahara) are also included within its boundaries.(3) Thus, the impact of events and circumstances that affect the Sahel are felt on an international scale. During the colonial period the Sahel was almost entirely within in the bounds of French West Africa. This fact is significant and we shall investigate its impact in depth, later. The Sahelian lands have a number of shared physical attributes. One common trait is the weather and climate. The region is typically dry and has sporadic and irregular rainfall. The wettest month of the year is one that corresponds to the movement of the intertropical convergence zone towards the Sahara in summer. One difficulty with this type of summer monsoon pattern is that it can drop its moisture in sudden localized downpours. Therefore, even though it may bring reasonable amounts of rain, that rain may be of such force and limited area that the general region does not benefit appreciably. Further, such intensity may well destroy crops rather than assist them. Moreover, the monsoon may completely fail to develop with the attendant crop damage that drought brings.(5)
The climate plays an enormous role in the Sahel. Thus, it is necessary to understand the area's climate and climatic history. However, before proceeding, allow me to preempt any confusion that might arise from a term that is integral to the discussion of the Sahelian climate, that term is drought. First, there is a difference between meteorological, agricultural and hydrologic drought. Meteorological drought can be thought of as the degree or percentage of dryness below average and can have a variable duration of usually no more than ten years. Agricultural drought is not having enough moisture or moisture at inappropriate times for the growing of agricultural products. Hydrologic drought is when stream flow falls below definite levels for a specific period. The Sahel suffers from all three types, but not necessarily at the same time. For instance, the month of August is the prime portion of the year for crop growth. Recently, August has been getting dryer and therefore, crops are not receiving moisture when they most need it. The result is agricultural drought. Similarly, the Senegal River is used to irrigate rice. If a lack of rain at its headwaters drops the flow and the river level is unable to provide water for irrigation, the result is hydrologic drought. Visualize a damn towering above a river; it is dry on both sides of the dam, its reservoir is empty. You now have good picture of hydrologic drought. The terms drought and desiccation are also confused with each other at times. They are, perhaps, best differentiated in terms of time and degree. As I pointed out above, drought occurs over a period of years, on the other hand, desiccation is a matter of a decade or more. Additionally, desiccation implies severe ecological damage due to lack of moisture. An area of "desert pavement" (a rock-like, impervious desert floor) or sand dunes would qualify as a desiccated landscape.(5) With these terms defined, we can proceed.
Climatological data and knowledge have been immensely increased lately with the introduction of satellites for weather monitoring and super computers for modeling and analysis. We can now determine climatologic trends and history with greatly enhanced accuracy and we can use this knowledge to help us understand the current and probable future states of the Sahel. We now realize that the last glacial maximum (the peak of the ice advance in the last ice age) resulted in severe desiccation in North Africa. Then, as the ice retreated, there was a switch to a wetter environment and then back again to dry. These changes were not gradual, but quite abrupt, occurring over years rather than centuries. These findings have also advanced the theory that the climate of the Sahel is integrally connected to the global climatological system.(6) The changes are thought to recur constantly. Boston University scientist, El Baz contends that about 20,000 years ago the Sahara was 300 miles further south than it is today and that it expands and recedes due to long term climatic patterns.(7) These findings can also be applied to allay the alarm caused by the supposed advance of the Sahara desert into the Sahel. In the past 50 years the Sahara has indeed advanced over an added 5% of Africa and does seem to be advancing 2-5 kilometers south per year.(8) But, there is no evidence that its advance is permanent.(9) Another scientist contends that between 6300 and 4700 BC the Sahara was much wetter, receiving 12 inches of rain a year compared with 2 tenths of an inch now, and that the Sahel was wetter during every global warm period between 130,000 and 6000 BC.(10) While this may seem to be a long time ago, it illustrates the contention of scientists that drought in the Sahel is periodic and recurrent.(11) Even more to the point is agreement that over the last few centuries drought and desiccation lasting one or two decades has been common and that this century has been unique in that we have only had one or two periods of this nature.(12) Additionally, scientists contend that although the eighties drought was the longest in memory, at 17 years, the rain in the wet season (June to September) has been declining for 200 years and this trend is expected to continue.(13)
On a yearly basis the weather patterns of the Sahel tend to break down into unpredictability. This unpredictability in the rain pattern has been a major cause of our inability to develop proper responses to the conditions there. However, some recent discoveries have brought optimism on this front, in the way that the discovery of the cause of a disease gives hope for its treatment or cure. Paramount among these discoveries is the extent of the influence of El Niño. El Niño is an oceanic anomaly. It is an area of ocean water in the southern hemisphere (normally appearing off the west coast of South America) which is warm in relation to the northern oceans. This tends to occur during years of record high temperatures. These high temperature years correspond to exceptionally dry years and result in drought in the Sahel. Mark Carl of Columbia University, speaking about El Niño, believes that, "It is probably the most powerful weather event we have." (as quoted in Maclean's 6/8/92). There are those who are concerned that the cause of El Niño may be found in the greenhouse effect and a general global warming trend. They attribute this ultimately to Man's activity, particularly the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Another theory holds that glacier melt back produces a larger percentage of fresh water in the oceans and this in turn produces the ocean anomalies. Whatever the base cause or causes turn out to be, we are now aware that Sahelian weather is influenced by very large scale processes that are just beginning to be understood.(14) Under these conditions, the intertropical convergence zone is kept well south of its normal summer latitude. This allows the winter winds from the Sahara, the Harmattan, to blow the year around. This wind, generated by dry, cold air sinking down from the upper atmosphere under the influence of a desert high pressure system, comes under a blazingly sunny sky and is hot, dry and dusty, not unlike the Santa Ana winds that blow out of the intermountain region into Southern California and which were partially responsible for the terrible brush fires that that region saw in the fall of 1993. This dry wind causes "evapotranspiration", which can be thought of as the squeezing of moisture out of the ground and vegetation, drying the soil and contributing to top soil erosion.(15)
We can see that climate plays a significant role in the dry character of the Sahel, but it cannot be thought of as changing in terms of its historical record. The cyclical nature of the climate and its recurrent dry periods are well established. Basically, we know what to expect from the weather there. Therefore, although climate is a factor in our equation it is not a cause of the disastrous results we have seen. For that we must take other factors into consideration.
A factor which needs to be considered is the land; that is, the conditions of the soil. All indications are that the soil there is basically fertile(16), although not as fertile as was once thought.(17) Moreover, there is a recognition that far more research on the soil is needed. What we do know is that the land is fragile and that its layer of top soil is very thin(18), it has inherently fewer plant nutrients fixed in it and is more prone to damage from wind, heavy rain and the resulting erosion. With erosion the underlaying strata of crystalline, rock-like, impervious sub-soil is exposed. This contributes to the run off of rain water and the high evaporation rate of the region. Thus, the land does not have the water retention characteristics crucial for vegetation. And, in a vicious circle, due to the fact that rain is predisposed to fall on vegetated areas, the land receives less and less rainfall.(19) Recently, it has been shown that not only is the top soil eroding, but, as dust, it is blowing across the Atlantic to Brazil and enriching the nutrient deficient rain forest soil there, depositing up to a pound of phosphates per acre per year.(20) Therefore, soil exhaustion is a real problem and must be accounted for in land use schema.
Another component of the equation is the impact of Man. Historically, the Sahel has been the home of diverse people. It has seen the growth of powerful states and empires that lasted hundreds of years. The media has tried to portray the Sahel as inhospitable.(21) We can see that this depiction is misleading . Given its history, it cannot be said that the Sahel has been the scene of an influx of people into an area unfit for human habitation. People have lived there for millennia. There has developed over the centuries, the traditional arid climate land use practices of pastoralists that, according to a Colorado State University/Ft. Collins-SUNY/Binghamton joint study, may be the "...cornerstones of [ecological] stability and sustainable [agricultural] productivity rather than a prescription for degradation and famine."(as quoted in Science News, 11/9/85).(22) The herders could be called the ultimate ecologists. Their planning had to account for the vagaries of the climate, the availability of pasturage and the traditional rights to those pastures, the load of animals the pasturage could sustain, how often a particular pasture could be used, and the types of animals (different animals have different forage needs) that should be raised. These practices focused on the availability of food and water as determinants for the size and composition of the herds. The considerations outlined above kept the pastoralists in balance with nature and prevented overgrazing and environmental degradation. Additionally, those lands occupied by the herders are normally unsuitable for crops and so, with herding, are made productive in the best possible way. Further, farmers at the borders of the nomadic regions relied on the herders as trading partners. This interrelationship was based on the need of the agriculturalists for protein and the need of the pastoralists for supplementary foods and the products which a sedentary culture is more apt to produce. This arrangement is known as the 'milk - millet' trade and, although the pastoralists tended to dominate through aggression, the relationship was mutually beneficial. Moreover, the transhumance of the pastoralists helped them to develop and maintain a network of inter-regional trade in addition to the standard milk-millet system. The pre-colonial states disrupted this tightly knit arrangement by demanding the rerouting of food to the urban areas, but, this disruption was minor and transient. In addition, these states were tied to the area economically, socially and politically. They were a part of the Sahel.(23) Then came the maritime and industrial revolutions and the advent of the colonial system and that changed everything.
The French colonial regime established itself through conquest. Its essence was the imposition of economic and political control over the region. It strove to replace the traditional economic system with capitalism and expansion.(24) It changed the directions of trade patterns within the region, upsetting the balance between the pastoralists and farmers. Additionally, it imposed boundaries on the movement of the herders.(25) These boundaries remain today as the post-colonial independent nations of the Sahel. One of the requirements of the pastoralist system is unfettered rights of passage and, as they were confined to certain, specific areas the nomads faced changes in the basic methods that they used to such positive effect in the past. There were a number of ways that the colonial powers, predominantly the French, imposed restrictions on movement of herders within their domains. A primary one was the imposition of taxes on a provincial basis. These provinces were established without regard to traditional nomadic transhumance. Thus, if a pastoralist pastured his herds in one area in summer and in winter moved into another province, he would be forced to pay taxes on his herds in both provinces. Thereby, effectively doubling the tax. Now, unless he wanted to pay double, he had to limit his herds to one province. This had the effect of limiting the land on which the herder could rely for pasture. This lead to overgrazing and environmental degradation In addition, the trade patterns shifted away from the overland routes traveled by the nomads and caravans to the coast and, thence, via ship. By the 20th century almost all overland caravan activity had ceased. This impoverished the pastoralists by removing an area of supplemental income and increased their susceptibility to other negative factors. The colonialists also introduced and encouraged cash crop agriculture. This led to further pressure on the pastoralists' land as farmers turned their best land over to the cultivation of cash crops and began encroaching on the marginal agricultural land of the herders for their food crops. In addition, the pastoralists themselves, were encouraged to expand their herds to supply cattle for export. Moreover, taxation had the ancillary effect of pushing the pastoralist to increase his herds, compounding the environmental damage and forcing him deeper into more arid lands. And while the pastoralists and farmers had been in conflict before on a limited basis, the French colonial administration had the effect of pitting them directly against each other, in competition for the land and profits, thus, making French rule easier.(26)
Traditional Sahelian subsistence agricultural was, like pastoralism, practiced in an ecologically sound manner prior to the imposition of colonial status on the region. The farmers used procedures that assured them of as much fertility in a field as possible. They left as many trees standing as was practical. The trees assisted in the retention of water and soil, provided windbreaks and their foliage was fodder for animals. In a multiple use arrangement with the pastoralists, the farmers would allow the herders' animals to forage on the stubble of the year's harvest and the cattle in turn would fertilize the field with their manure. This maximized use and enhanced fertility at the same time. Another practice of the agriculturalists was one that was believed detrimental to the fertility of the soil. In fact, I remember that in primary school I was taught that this particular method was one the reasons for the fall of the Mayan civilization in Central America. In the process, known as 'slash and burn' agriculture, the forest is cleared and the material cleared is burned. The ashes from the burning are spread on the fields. Recent studies have found that far from damaging the soil, as had been thought, the ash provides nutrients and enhances the soil and so the practice increases yield and the length of time a field can be farmed. Due to the poverty of the soil in the Sahel, a field can only be farmed for a few years before the soil is depleted, crop yields diminish and the farmer must move to a new field. The old field must be allowed to lay fallow for a period in order to allow it to recover and regain its fertility. In the Sahel a substantial period of fallow time must be allowed because the ground recovers slowly. It had been the practice to keep a field fallow for a minimum of seven years.(27)
The advent of the French was as much as disaster for the farmers as it was for the herders. They tended to structure the system to exploit the region and derive as much benefit as possible for France and for a few other individuals. I have mentioned the imposition of burdensome taxation and cash crop agriculture and their effect on the pastoralists. The taxation encouraged an exploitive and extractive economy which permanently impoverished the peasants. The encouragement of cash crop monoculture also had additional consequences for agriculture. The best land tended to be put under the cash crop. Fallowing was ignored until the soil was completely depleted. Erosion increased along with soil acidity and the growth of weeds.(28) Then expensive techniques using commercial fertilizers, possibly in conjunction with herbicides and pesticides, become necessary, or the land must be taken out of production for a significantly longer time, perhaps decades. Further, as can be expected, food crops are neglected for cultivation of the cash crop. Male farmers turn to wage labor, working for "peanuts" on large plantations, to pay taxes and support their family. Ultimately, wage labor is unable to bring in enough money for the family and since food must now be purchased, malnutrition results. During the French colonial period the people of the Sahel experienced a long term population decline from malnutrition.
Particularly implicated as a culprit in this is groundnut (peanut) cultivation. Peanuts are a crop that do not require large amounts of water and the demand for its oil for use in the industrial plants of Europe was great until petroleum based substitutes were developed. Thus, it was considered to be ideal for introduction in the Sahel. It was easy to introduce, new seeds were available that had a lower need for water, the infrastructure was biased toward an export crop and, of course, the French governmental structure encouraged it. It turns out that groundnuts tend to deplete the soil more quickly than other crops. Lands were put in production that should have been kept fallow, and groundnuts do not leave stubble or fodder after harvest. One other problem is that although they may not need much water, they need it in particular amounts at specific times. So, if the rains were late, the plants would not sprout. If the rains failed in August, the plants withered in the sun. If the rain was too intense, the plants were beaten to the ground and died. Furthermore, a problem with all single crop export industry, is that they are subject to the vagaries of the world market. This lack of diversity leaves no recourse when prices are down and tends to encourage overcultivation when prices rise. The result is a long term diminution in the standard of living. It also promotes deforestation in order to expand crop production and this leads to further ecological damage.(29)
Other examples of this detrimental practice can easily be found. In Senegal, the Senegal River has been damned to provide irrigation for rice. It is estimated that for every acre of irrigated rice that comes into production Senegal loses four acres to the desert, due to salinization and lack of floods to bring nutrient laden sediment into the area. These results are in addition to an increase in the anopheles mosquito, which carries the malaria parasite, plus the single crop economic consequences.(30) Nor are the pastoralists to be exempted from the cash crop problems. Their cultivation of cattle for export has overburdens the land and leads to dire problems. It seems that cattle are not well suited to the Sahel. They require a large amount of water and use it less efficiently than other grazers. Additionally, they react poorly to stress; such as, drought. They also denude vegetation and compact the soil more than other grazers.(31)
A consequence of this environmental degradation is desertification. Let us take a moment here for some good news and bad news: The good news is that the amount of land in Africa prone to desertification has declined by 25 million hectares in the last 50 years. The bad news is the amount of area subject to hyperaridity (conditions akin to the Sahara) have increased by 50 million hectares in the same period. Desertification can be defined as "...land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting mainly from various factors including climatic variations and human activities."(UN Congress on Desertification Report, 1992, as quoted in Environment, Jul/Aug 93) The term implies permanent decline in the potential of land to support life.(32) The belief is that the main cause of desertification is man. Perhaps this is an hubristic view. However, even if he is not the main cause, his practices implicate him as a significant co-conspirator. Lester Brown of the environmental watchdog agency, Worldwatch, in Washington, D.C., believes the most important cause of desertification to be population growth. Population in the Sahel has jumped from 19 million in 1961 to 30 million in 1980 and is estimated to be at 50 million by 2000. Of course, the usual factors account for this increase. Circumscribed ability to pursue subsistence agriculture, a wage labor economy, the perception among the people that having more children will assist in the long run (even though 1 in 5 is not expected to reach age 5) all contribute to larger families and increased population growth. However, the demand for labor, the cash crop economy, the need for children to work in the home all give the impression that the increase in population is a result of changing societal demands and not a cause of desertification or famine, although it does increase the load on the land.(33) Overgrazing is also cited by some. It is conjectured that it starts in patches, around wells where people and cattle have denuded the area. Gradually these patches expand and merge and the desert advances. Deforestation is also held as a contributing factor. Loss of trees releases the soil and allows wind and water erosion. It reduces the soil's water retention thereby eventually leaving the area without vegetation. Finally, it reduces the rain's tendency to fall in that area. Thus, inviting in the desert. Two last factors are also considered contributors: war and politics. The first creates refugees in the already overburdened urban areas and destroys traditional social cohesion. The second exacerbates the problems by extracting resources to pay for itself, as we shall see.(34)
After the colonial era, the newly independent governments of the Sahelian states took over where the French had left off. It was the elite that had benefitted from the colonial system. The structures of the colonial administration were still in place. And it was the elite of the region that stepped into the positions of power vacated by the retreating colonial power. It would have been more surprising had the new states made radical changes in the power structure of the area. Of course, they did institute what they believed was social change. But, these changes involved the urban dwellers, not the rural food producers. In this way they were cut from the same cloth as the majority of new regimes in Africa. For a while it appeared that things would go well. France had guaranteed a price for their exports, loans were available and there was always foreign aid and development programs. The central governments grabbed the bucks. The aid for development and for increasing productivity was eagerly accepted. However, no concern was given to the environmental impact or the needs of the rural communities which composed the bulk of the population. Here also, we can list the litany of the problems of most of post colonial Africa. The corruption, the class conflicts, the ethnic conflicts, the black market, the egocentric priorities of the elite, the overarching ambition of the politicians all helped intensify the predicament.
For a while things went fairly well. Enormous development projects were underway. Dams for irrigation, projects to increase food production, aid designed to increase technological and industrial production, good prices for monocultural agriculture exports. With all this improvement going on who would question the environmental or social impact. Indeed, the question of the appropriateness of the projects would only come up in the discussions of dissidents and enemies of the state. After all, how could such progress be negative? The great industrial powers (never mind that just the other day they were the hated colonial masters) said this was the way to do things, and they should know. They have the universities and experts and scientists. How could they know that American plows would plow too deeply in the thin soil of the Sahel? How could they know American farming practices that produced the greatest agricultural nation on Earth, would prove too expensive and damaging to the land?(35) How could they know that eventually the French would discontinue the groundnut subsidy? How could they know cattle ranching would increase desertification?(36) How could they know that the great irrigation projects would increase salinization of the soil, infestations of tse tse fly and still not be able to accommodate the Sahelian droughts?(37) How could they know that in the years between 1970s and 1980s they would go from feeding themselves to depending on others for food?(38) The answer is, of course, they couldn't. The one thing that all disasters have in common is: No one sees them coming.
So, after the disaster, after the 17 year drought and the unfathomable loss of life in the famine, is our hindsight 20-20? Well, honestly, no. The world mobilized its forces to mitigate the effects of the disaster, in typical stop gap fashion. Aid and relief for the ravaged countries came in large doses. Enormous aid packages for the governments of the region were devised. They then funnelled it into more massive projects for development. The Congo River - Lake Chad Canal is a good example. Again it is, charge ahead without considering the ecological ramifications. This, with the environmentalists screaming bloody murder, since most hydrologic projects in Africa have created more problems than they have solved. There is also a project of the Sahelian countries in conjunction with Germany to build a massive solar powered water pumping station. The ecologically exploitive economic practices continue. The governments of the area are still incredibly inefficient and corrupt.(39) It appears that aid itself is a problem. Application of the law of unintended results is seen time and again. Starting with only the best motives, every project seems to have consequences, such that not only is the initial problem not completely solved, but the project creates new difficulties of its own. An example can be seen in a program to supply water to the pastoral peoples. We sank deep wells and bore holes that brought water, and cattle and agriculture into unsuitable areas and contributed to the desertification of those areas and led the people there to become dependent on food aid. Aid agencies now subsidize 30% of the Sahelian food through imports.(40) Even when the aid was sent in an appropriate manner it sometimes was lost, wasted, misdirected or stolen. These difficulties arise because transport, distribution or storage turns out to be inadequate and in some cases non-existent. In addition, the Sahelian countries still suffer from many of the structural obstacles that gave rise to their inability to deal with climatological changes that were easily dealt with by the nomadic-sedentary culture of earlier times. The export oriented economy, declining terms of trade, the debt crisis and the insistence of the bankers on exports to assure them of their money, competition from other primary product exporters, the out-dated governmental forms left over from the colonial era, and deteriorating or non-existent infrastructure are all problems that need solutions.(41)
In order to get answers, we need to gather the facts and data and typically, we set out to study the problem. Many groups have been set up. The UN has instituted the UN Congress on Desertification. Their first meeting was in 1977. They wrote up a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. Since then the Sahelian drought and famine of the Eighties has occurred. That should give us some idea of the effectiveness of this group. They also set up the International Negotiating Committee on Desertification. So far the INCD has almost been able to issue a definition of desertification. Actually, they did issue a definition in 1991, but, they revised it in 1992, so I guess we know what to expect from them.(42) A more promising group is the Comité Interétats du Lutte Contre La Sécheusse (The Interstate Committee to Combat Drought in the Sahel). The CILSS was created by the countries in the region to try to cope with the problems facing them. They have produced the Sahelian Development Program. The SDP, which was developed before the drought, called for many of the now discredited projects; such as, irrigation systems, wells, etc.(43) The promise of the Committee is not in what it has tried to do, but, in what it has done. It has been able to gather representatives from throughout the region, get them to acknowledge the problems and their regional nature, and institute action.
With these and other international groups on the job, you would think that a solution would be close at hand. Unfortunately, it is not. In 1991, a lesser drought was occurring in the Sahel once again. The problems remained the same. Residual difficulties from the famine in the 80s are still being encountered. The burdens of the debt and economic crisis (if one can call a chronic situation a crisis) continue. Population continues to climb. Ecological deterioration is unabated. There are social conflicts and refugees. We are seeing donor fatigue and eastern Europe is now diverting world attention. What can be done?
We have seen that the large governmental agencies and international organizations, with all their trying, have not been able to mitigate the Sahelian problems. Perhaps, deep down, they do not wish to solve this dilemma. Here are a number of countries, albeit very poor countries, that are tied into the capitalist system in a dependent state. They owe the industrialized countries a lot of money, probably more than they will ever be able to repay. However, they are valiantly attempting to pay this debt, even though it was due to the actions of one our brother industrialized countries that they are in the predicament to begin with. France set up a system in these countries to exploit their resources as efficiently as possible and to keep the people as quiescent as possible while doing it. Why should we point out to them that it is France that should be in their debt for forcing them to pay for their own degradation and for despoiling their country through malice, greed and/or incompetency? Even though it is not in their own best interest to continue on the path they are on, since it leads further into dependency, environmental deterioration and poverty, there is no reason for us to alert them to this fact. For now they are tied to us, or at least to our banks and governments and it certainly would not do to jeopardize the profits of the banks or our own governments' stability. Besides, the bankers and government officials are enamored of the large project, the grand gesture that can be pointed to with pride, while saying we did this for them (no matter that they have to pay us for doing it). And, whether it works or not, whether it is helpful or harmful, whether it is relevant or not, that is not the concern. The concern is to keep the concern going. If their people are dying of starvation because the land is exhausted due to the inappropriateness of the tools or instruction for the job, why should we care? It's not on the nightly news and besides, there are people starving in our country, too.
Perhaps it is not that cynical. Perhaps it is just a case of not knowing what is best to do. It is, after all, basically an ecological problem. The environmentalists are involved and have their own programs going. They should be able to help. However, their track record is not so shining either. It seems that national parks were set up that were to benefit the people, but, the people that lived there had to be removed. Africans have different priorities for their ecological systems. Currently, they are more concerned with survival than with the Western priorities of preservation of animal species and ecosystems. According to a UN environmental survey the people prefer to increase their living standards and endure increased health risks rather than to lower standards and lessen risk. They also feel that their governments are spending enough or even too much on the environment. What this signifies is a cultural misunderstanding. The last 50 years the western environmental movement has tried numerous plans. Every one has failed. This was due either to the use of the wrong technology, a plan that was not suitable for a particular culture or not suitable for the land it was supposed to use. Also, the West did not understand the Africans' own conservation measures and the success that they had with them. These practical policies clashed with the ideological policies of the West. The western ecologists were focused on preserving species within a small, set ecosystem that included minimal contact with man. The Africans were trying to preserve it all, including the presence of man in balance with nature, as had been the case before the colonial era.(44)
There are some bright spots in this gloomy picture I have painted. They concern small groups of Africans and small groups of Westerners who have gotten together and done things that have worked. And the projects that have worked the best are the ones that have utilized everyone's particular talents and knowledge. They involved the people affected right from the start. There are village self-help groups called Naam, that work to combat poverty and environmental degradation. They are planting trees, trying alternative farming methods and in general trying to slow desertification and prevent erosion. There is a C.A.R.E. tree project in Niger involving the women farmers in the villages that is a success because the women can see that the trees are vital to survival. They not only help prevent erosion and act as windbreaks, but they are a source of fuel that, when used wisely, can last forever. Another small village in Niger had lost its men to wage labor migration for 5 years and the families left behind were in bad shape. Then they were able to get a small aid grant for a well and garden. The area could not sustain millet, so they grew vegetables and sold some to buy other staples. Now they are attempting to duplicate their success, so that they will be set on the path to self sufficiency. In other areas small projects are producing results that impact the day to day life of average people. The small discovery that certain types of rock prevalent in the Sahel are rich in phosphates and can be used as fertilizer will have an impact. Not on a scale that will be noticed outside the region, but, it will help within the Sahel to produce a bit more food. Reforestation is also extremely important. However, in the Sahel it will not lend itself to the kind of massive projects that it has engendered in the US. It will entail a few trees, a small project, but one that can be multiplied and be successful.(45)
The way to go about the rejuvenation of the Sahel is one small step at a time. Now, it shall never be an agricultural area of great note, the climate is not right nor is the land sufficiently fertile. However, there is no need for a drought that would not have caused serious dislocation in the past to cause widespread famine today. The Africans know how to work this land and to be self sustaining on it. We need to encourage them to do so. Small projects, such as the ones cited above, should be nourished and applied in the places where they are appropriate. The Africans must be involved in this endeavor in all phases, it is their lives and livelihood we are addressing. They need to understand that it is up to them to help with the plans, decisions and implementation. The aid, projects, and programs must be driven down to the local level, there is no need to continue to fund a welfare state for bureaucrats. It is not productive or efficient and it does not help. Local involvement, participation and action are crucial. Alternative fuels that are as inexpensive as wood need to be found or developed, so that deforestation can be curtailed (this one is wishful thinking). Proposals must fit the situation; that is a project or a program cannot be shotgun-like any more. It must be design to accommodate the conditions in the area in which it is intended to be implemented. Proposals that use universals are unacceptable because they will not work in any situation, let alone a multiplicity of different ones.
Let us hope that we have seen the last of the scenario outlined at the start of this paper. In a perfect world one could believe that that might be true. Let us hope that in this less than perfect world there might be the possibility that we will not see it again and the Sahel will not know another disaster akin to the famine of the 1980s.
(1)"Coping With a Deadly Drought." Maclean's. (7/29/85), pp. 20-22.
"Disaster Largely Manmade." Science News. (5/11/85), Vol. 127, Iss. 19, pp. 299-300.
(2)Ellis, W. S. "Africa's Sahel -- The Stricken Land." National Geographic. (Aug87) pp. 140-180.
(4)Seeds of Famine. pg. 26.
(5)Glantz, M. "Causes of Drought in West Africa." Scientific American. (Jun87), pp. 34-41.
(6)Glasse, F.; Tehet, R.; et al. "The Arid -Humid Transition in the Sahara and the Sahel During the Last Deglaciation." Nature. 7/12/90, Vol. 346, Iss. 6280, pp. 141-147.
(7)Ellis, W. S. "Africa's Sahel -- The Stricken Land." National Geographic. (Aug87) pp. 140-180.
(8)"Coping With a Deadly Drought." Maclean's. (7/29/85), pp. 20-22.
(9)Carpenter, B. "The Dry Dynamics of Droughts." US News & World Report. (7/23/90). Vol. 109, Iss. 4, pp. 59-61.
(10)Rebeyrol, Y. "Warmer World, Wetter Sahara." World Press Review. (Feb91), Vol. 38, Iss. 2, pg. 52.
(11)Glantz, M. "Causes of Drought in West Africa." Scientific American. (Jun87), pp. 34-41.
(12)"The Desiccation of the Sahel." Environment. (Jul/Aug93), Vol. 35, Iss. 6, pg. 10.
(13)"Coping With a Deadly Drought." Maclean's. (7/29/85), pp. 20-22.
(14)Glasse, F.; Tehet, R.; et al. "The Arid -Humid Transition in the Sahara and the Sahel During the Last Deglaciation." Nature. 7/12/90, Vol. 346, Iss. 6280, pp. 141-147.
Fennel, t. "El Niño's Angry Year." Maclean's. (6/8/92), Vol. 105, Iss. 23, pg. 42.
Pearce, F. "A Sea Change in the Sahel." New Scientist. (2/2/91), Bol. 129, Iss. 1754, pp. 31-33.
Street-Perrott, F. A.; Perrot, R. A. "Abrupt Climate Fluctuations in the Tropics: the Influence of Atlantic Ocean Circulation." Nature. (2/15/90), Vol. 343, Iss. 6257, pp. 607-614.
Glantz, M. "Causes of Drought in West Africa." Scientific American. (Jun87), pp. 34-41.
(15)Seeds of Famine. pg. 24.
(16)Fennel, T. "El Ni¤o's Angry Year." Maclean's. (6/8/92), Vol. 105, Iss. 23, pg. 42.
(17)Seeds of Famine. pg. 31.
(18)"Herding Practices on Arid Land." Science News. (11/9/85), pg. 296.
"Sahel will Suffer Even if Rains Come." Science. (5/4/84), pp. 467-472.
(19)Ellis, W. S. "Africa's Sahel -- The Stricken Land." National Geographic. (Aug87) pp. 140-180.
"Coping With a Deadly Drought." Maclean's. (7/29/85), pp. 20-22.
(20)"Is Africa's Windblown Loss the Amazon's Gain?" National Geographic. (Sep91), Vol. 180, Iss. 3, pg. 138.
(21)Seeds of Famine. pg. 22.
(22)"Herding Practices on Arid Land." Science News. (11/9/85), pg. 296.
(23)Ellis, W. S. "Africa's Sahel -- The Stricken Land." National Geographic. (Aug87) pp. 140-180.
Seeds of Famine. pg. 22, 36, 41-46.
(24)Seeds of Famine. pg. 63.
(25)"Coping With a Deadly Drought." Maclean's. (7/29/85), pp. 20-22.
Ellis, W. S. "Africa's Sahel -- The Stricken Land." National Geographic. (Aug87) pp. 140-180.
(26)Seeds of Famine. pg. 67, 70-72, 81.
(27)Ibid. pg. 30, 34, 47.
(28)"Disaster Largely Manmade." Science News. (5/11/85), pg. 299-301.
(29)Seeds of Famine. pp. 77, 86, 93-99.
(30)Bass, T. "Camping with the Prince." Sierra. (Jan/Feb90), Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 42-51.
Seeds of Famine. pg. 32.
(31)"Sahel will Suffer Even if Rains Come." Science. (5/4/84), pp. 467-472.
(32)"The Desiccation of the Sahel." Environment. (Jul/Aug93), Vol. 35, Iss. 6, pg. 10.
(33)Seeds of Famine. pp. 114-118.
Nickel, Karen. "Birthrate In Extremis." Fortune. (9/21/92), Vol. 126, Iss. 6, pg. 16.
(34)"Coping With a Deadly Drought." Maclean's. (7/29/85), pp. 20-22.
"Herding Practices on Arid Land." Science News. (11/9/85), pg. 296.
"Disaster Largely Manmade." Science News. (5/11/85), pg. 299-301.
Ellis, W. S. "Africa's Sahel -- The Stricken Land." National Geographic. (Aug87) pp. 140-180.
(35)"Disaster Largely Manmade." Science News. (5/11/85), pg. 299-301.
(36)Seeds of Famine. pg. 97, 100.
(37)Glantz, M. "Causes of Drought in West Africa." Scientific American. (Jun87), pp. 34-41.
(38)"Coping With a Deadly Drought." Maclean's. (7/29/85), pp. 20-22.
(39)Daniels, N. "Guardian of Eden." Africa Report. (Sep/Oct91), Vol. 36, Iss. 5, pp. 13-18.
Pearce, F. "Africa at a Watershed." New Scientist. (3/23/91), Vol. 129, Iss. 1761, pp. 34-41.
"Herding Practices on Arid Land." Science News. (11/9/85), pg. 296.
(40)McCarthy, Abigail. "Americans Abroad." Commonweal. (6/4/93), Vol. 120, Iss. 11, pp. 11-12.
(41)Seeds of Famine. pg. 12, 18.
(42)"The Desiccation of the Sahel." Environment. (Jul/Aug93), Vol. 35, Iss. 6, pg. 10.
(43)Seeds of Famine. pg. 134, 150-164.
(44)Daniels, N. "Guardian of Eden." Africa Report. (Sep/Oct91), Vol. 36, Iss. 5, pp. 13-18.
Bass, T. "Camping with the Prince." Sierra. (Jan/Feb90), Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 42-51.
(45)Ellis, W. S. "Africa's Sahel -- The Stricken Land." National Geographic. (Aug87) pp. 140-180.
Daniels, N. "Guardian of Eden." Africa Report. (Sep/Oct91), Vol. 36, Iss. 5, pp. 13-18.
Ouedraogo, J. "Sahel Women Fight Desert Advance." Unesco Courier. (Mar92), Vol. 45, Iss. 3, pg. 38.