Moonlight: Environment in Sub- Saharan Africa Needs International Assistance

It is clear that the environmental challenges in sub-Saharan Africa are more complex than the simple model linking environmental degradation to population growth and inappropriate macroeconomic policies indicates. Because of this complexity, no easy solutions are available. But whatever policies are adopted, to succeed they must increase peoples’ interest in protecting the environment by involving them directly in the process; reduce the incidence of poverty to reduce the pressure on natural resources; and show people how a high level of resource use can go hand-in-hand with the maintenance of environmental quality.
The state can play an important role in promoting sustainable development and improving the environment. By setting the correct investment priorities, it can provide needed infrastructure, services, education. In urban areas, it should focus on providing safe water, collecting and disposing solid waste, and improving the physical layout of congested areas; in the rural areas, it should focus on health, education, and basic sanitation.
Regulatory measures, however, may be more important than public investment. In this regard, the state should set environmental standards that are realistic in terms of the country’s particular socioeconomic circumstances. For example, setting strict standards for indoor air pollution when most people cannot afford less-polluting energy sources simply makes enforcement impossible. Regulatory measures should also aim to remove those distortions in the economy that tend to penalize producers or promote overconsumption. Important examples include underpricing agricultural commodities and subsidizing public goods and services, both of which favor the urban population. Such distortions, of course, are partly responsible for the economic collapse of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Although structural adjustment programs now taking place may improve matters, the governments’ lack of commitment has left the situation far from satisfactory.
Conservation measures have been important in protecting most natural resources from excessive use or degradation. Through its power of eminent domain, the state has been able to set aside sizable tracts of land to protect watersheds, prevent soil erosion, allow natural regeneration to take place, and preserve habitats, species, and biodiversity. In 1993, there were 663 public reserves or parks in sub-Saharan Africa, totaling 125.2 million hectares. This however, is no more than 4.6 percent of the total land area of the region, much less than the 6 percent for the world as a whole. Moreover, the 1992 Caracas Action Plan of the World Parks Congress set a goal of protecting at least 10 percent of each of the world’s major biomes; sub-Saharan Africa currently falls far short of this standard.
Simply setting land aside, however, does not mean being able to manage it properly. Many governments in the region lack the staff or financial resources to administer their protected areas, much less invest in new ones. Innovative strategies, such as involving private groups and non-governmental organizations, are being considered and may provide another option for conservation management. Such groups are believed to be better able to raise funds to purchase land, to support conservation activities in existing parks and reserves, to incorporate the local population in management decisions, and to negotiate land-use disputes within and between communities.
Important as public investment, regulation, and conservation are, however, it is institutional development that offers the most hope for alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. Three aspects of institutional development are paramount: promoting democracy, expanding individual property rights, and increasing the knowledge base.
Decentralization and democratization must go down to the community level and must entail not only giving people a voice in decisions but also ensuring that they can raise the revenue necessary to translate their desires into reality. This will promote transparency and accountability in government and foster a proprietary interest in the quality of the environment.
The importance of expanding property rights was made clear earlier. Although it is often claimed that land tenure in sub-Saharan Africa is so complex that nothing can be done about it, it is difficult to believe that meaningful reforms cannot be introduced. The most serious mistake that many governments made was to resort to nationalization. From a conservation standpoint, nationalization often fails to distinguish between traditional communal property systems (which generally promote sound management of natural resources) and open-access systems (which result in excessive exploitation). When land and water have been nationalized and sound management practices disturbed, the environmental consequences have often been severe.
Nationalization has also led governments to give short shrift to titling and registration. Yet, until such procedures clearly defined rights to land (on either a freehold or a leasehold basis), much of the region’s natural resources are bound to be treated as common property and therefore suffer degradation and “the tragedy of the commons.”
The third aspect of institutional development relates to the knowledge available for making decisions on environmental matters. People in sub-Saharan Africa have been adapting to the region’s various environments for thousands of years. In the process, they have accumulated valuable information that should be incorporated into a formal analysis of sustainable development. Along with such knowledge, of course, must go the collection and analysis of field data by modern techniques. This is necessary to correct the hallowed but mistaken notions of conventional wisdom and to give governments in the region better appreciation of the causes and effects of environmental damage as well as the costs and benefits of different policy options. In this regard, independent commissions provide a useful way for governments to draw on technical expertise both within and outside of their countries; they can also be instrumental in bringing the results of advanced research to bear on local problems.
As mentioned earlier, current knowledge of the ecology of tropical forests and grasslands is still rudimentary. The rich biological resources of these areas—and the ways in which humans relate to them—have yet to receive as much study as they deserve. Given the shortage of funds and trained personnel in most sub-Saharan African countries, this is an area where bilateral and multilateral assistance could make a real difference. The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 153 countries at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, is correct in insisting that tropical countries be compensated for protecting biological diversity from which others benefit. If such compensation became the order of the day, some of it should be used to finance further study of tropical ecosystems.
Poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa could also use international assistance in reforming their environmental laws and in selecting optimal strategies for environmental management. Not enough emphasis has been given to the role of law in alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. Particularly in the area of pollution charges, the experience of developed countries could be invaluable. However, countries in the tropics that are being asked to protect biodiversity and genetic resources partly for the benefit of others need technical assistance in legally defining and protecting their rights regarding these resources.
Consequently, management strategies must go beyond assessing the impact of individual projects, as this tends to address the symptoms rather than the root causes of environmental problems. Such strategies must pay greater attention to broader issues and recognize interpectoral links and intergenerational concerns. This would entail integrating natural resource management with national economic planning as well as tailoring international assistance to specific aspects of resource conservation. To implement such strategies, African countries must strive to secure broad consensus and support, both nationally and internationally.

Ahmed Hassan Omer (Hurga)

Ahmed Hassan Omer (Hurga)


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