Soil Erosion in Africa

Causes and Efforts to Control

As part of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) funded Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP), women and men in northern Rwanda work on a public works site, building terraces to prevent soil erosion. Sam Thompson/DFID Rwanda. Uploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Soil erosion in Africa threatens food and fuel supplies and can contribute to climate change. For over a century, governments and aid organizations have tried to combat soil erosion in Africa, often with limited effect. So where do things stand in 2015, the International Year of the Soil?

The Problem Today

Currently 40% of soil in Africa is degraded. Degraded soil diminishes food production and leads to soil erosion, which in turn contributes to desertification.

This is particularly worrisome since, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, some 83% of sub-Saharan African people depend on the land for their livelihood, and food production in Africa will have to increase almost 100% by 2050 to keep up with population demands. All of this makes soil erosion a pressing social, economic, and environmental issue for many African countries.

Causes

Erosion happens when wind or rain carry top soil away. How much soil is carried away depends on how strong the rain or wind is as well as the soil quality, topography (for example, sloped versus terraced land), and the amount of ground vegetation. Healthy top soil (like soil covered with plants) is less erodible. Put simply, it sticks together better and can absorb more water.

Increased population and development put greater stress on soils. More land is cleared and less left fallow, which can deplete the soil and increase water run-off.

Overgrazing and poor farming techniques can also lead to soil erosion, but it is important to remember that not all causes are human; climate and natural soil quality are also important factors to consider in tropical and mountainous regions.

Failed Conservation Efforts

During the colonial era, state governments tried to force peasants and farmers to adopt scientifically approved farming techniques.

Many of these efforts were aimed at controlling African populations and did not take into account significant cultural norms. For instance, colonial officers invariably worked with men, even in areas where women were responsible for farming. They also provided few incentives - only punishments. Soil erosion and depletion continued, and rural frustration over colonial land schemes helped fuel nationalist movements in many countries.

Not surprisingly, most nationalist governments in the post-independence era tried to work with rural populations rather than force change. They favored education and outreach programs, but soil erosion and poor output continued, in part because no one looked carefully at what farmers and herders were actually doing. In many countries, elite policy makers had urban backgrounds, and they still tended to presume that rural people's existing methods were ignorant and destructive. International NGOs and scientists also worked off of assumptions about peasant land use that are now being called into question.

Recent Research

Recently, more research has gone into both the causes of soil erosion and into what are termed indigenous farming methods and knowledge about sustainable use.

This research has exploded the myth that peasant techniques were inherently unchanging, "traditional", wasteful methods. Some farming patterns are destructive, and research can identify to better ways, but increasingly scholars and policy makers are emphasizing the need to draw the best from scientific research and peasant knowledge of the land.

Current Efforts to Control

Current efforts, still include outreach and education projects, but are also focusing on greater research and employing peasants or providing other incentives for participating in sustainability projects. Such projects are tailored to local environmental conditions, and can include forming water catchments, terracing, planting trees, and subsidizing fertilizers.

There have also been a number of transnational and international efforts to protect soil and water supplies.

Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for establishing the Green Belt Movement, and in 2007, the leaders of several African states across the Sahel created the Great Green Wall Initiative, which has already increased forestation in targeted areas.

Africa is also part of the Action against Desertification, a $45 million program that includes the Caribbean and Pacific. In Africa, the program is funding projects that will protect forests and top soil while generating incomes for rural communities. Numerous other national and international projects are underway as soil erosion in Africa gains greater attention from policy makers and social as well as environmental organizations.

Sources:

Chris Reij, Ian Scoones, Calmilla Toulmin (eds). Sustaining the Soil: Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation in Africa (Earthscan, 1996)

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Soil is a non-renewable resource." infographic, (2015).

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Soil is a non-renewable resource." pamphlet, (2015).

Global Environmental Facility, "Great Green Wall Initiative" (accessed 23 July 2015)

Kiage, Lawrence, Perspectives on the assumed causes of land degradation in the rangelands of Sub-Saharan AfricaProgress in Physical Geography

Mulwafu, Wapulumuka. Conservation Song: A History of Peasant-State Relations and the Environment in Malawi, 1860-2000. (White Horse Press, 2011).