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Building a New Africa With its Soil and People


2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai
2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai


The new Africa starts here: how to make the people prosper.  If Africa is to thrive, a revolution in thinking is needed — and it must begin out in the farmers’ fields.

      By Wangari Maathai

      The Times (London)

      June 6, 2009

      Not long ago I was in Yaoundé, Cameroon, as part of my work as Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem, a position to which I was appointed in 2005 by heads of state of the ten Central African nations. I was meeting the secretariat of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership and the Commission for the Forests of Central Africa (Comifac) based in Yaoundé, as well as economic and environment ministers from the region.

      As I stood outside the hotel in a light rain I looked across to one of the seven hills that surround the city. My eyes focused on a woman in the distance who was making rows of small depressions in the soil parallel to the gradient of the hill. “She shouldn’t be making furrows in that direction on such a steep slope,” I thought, “because when the rains come, very quickly all that soil will be lost.”

      But when I asked a hotel security guard why the woman was cutting furrows downward, instead of across, he explained that the rain would run along the furrows and therefore not disturb the crops.

      This directly contradicted every principle of soil conservation that I know, because when the rains fell the soil that the woman farmer had so carefully formed, and so desperately needed to make her bananas, maize or yams grow, would be swept down that hillside — in the very furrows she had just dug. She was creating the perfect environment for soil erosion, making it less likely that anything would grow on that hill in the future.

      There was an added irony to the situation. I was waiting for a car to take me to meetings to discuss safeguarding the Congo Basin forest — an ecosystem of 700,000sq km (270,000sq miles) that is the largest intact expanse of forest in the world after the Amazon.

      Yet I realized, no matter what else we were doing, unless those of us who would assemble at the Comifac headquarters could work with that farmer, multiplied several million times in Cameroon, the Congo region, and indeed throughout Africa, not only would we not save the Congo forests, but we might also be unable to halt the rapid desertification under way across the continent.

      Of course that woman farmer and others like her are not the primary threats to the forests of the Congo Basin. Mining and timber concessions that feed the seemingly insatiable global demand for raw wood, as well as residual conflict, are more directly destructive. But once the timber Lorries and mining companies have made their inroads and cleared the trees, it is people such as this subsistence farmer who follow — completing the cycle of destruction.

      Soils in tropical forests are often not well suited to agriculture. Unless farmers practice good land management, when trees are cut down the land is degraded, further increasing the risks of soil erosion and desertification. When the rains fall, the topsoil is washed into rivers, leaving the land behind barren.

      No blame should be apportioned to the woman on the hillside for attempting to eke out a living. But as I stood there that morning, she came to represent for me the collective challenges that face agriculture and development as a whole in many African nations. I wondered how much of the revenue of the luxurious hotel where I was staying — owned by a foreign corporation — was making its way into the Government’s coffers and, in turn, how much of that the Government was investing in its agricultural extension service to assist that woman to farm in a sustainable manner. Probably not enough.

      I also reflected that if African states’ agricultural extension services had not been under-funded or neglected in the decades since independence, that woman farmer could not only have learned the right way to prepare soil for planting, but might also have had access to information, modern equipment and governmental support that would have enabled her to grow crops more efficiently and less destructively.

      If, in turn, development practitioners and international agencies had, in their work with national governments, given more priority to investing in Africa’s farmers, the continent’s agricultural systems might not be in such poor condition today.

      If the continent’s governments had set development priorities so that productive land had been distributed more equitably and used more wisely, natural resources conserved and suitable urban planning undertaken, that woman might not have been forced up that hillside. If they had addressed the inequities of land distribution left from the colonial period and taken advantage of by the ruling elite, then this farmer might not have been tilling such unproductive soil.

      If African leaders had invested more in education and the creation of sustainable employment options and inclusive economies, and if they had been more concerned with the welfare of their people and not their own enrichment, then perhaps this farmer would have had more opportunity. Today she might be in another profession altogether, or be managing a larger, more efficient farm that could have freed her from grinding poverty.

      It is my many experiences similar to that encounter in Yaoundé that lead me to believe that if Africa, particularly south of the Sahara, is to progress so that it no longer depends on aid or remains a byword for poverty, conflict and corruption, it is on hillsides such as these, and with women such as that farmer, that we must work.

      For too long Africa has been on its knees: whether during the dehumanizing exploitation of the slave trade or under the yoke of colonialism or seeking aid from the international community or servicing illegitimate debts or praying for miracles.

      To change the life of that farmer, and millions like her, a fundamental revolution in leadership is needed. This would ensure that Africans experience good governance, respect for human rights, development that is equitable and sustainable, and, eventually, peace. The most important quality that African leadership needs to embrace, and that is desperately lacking across the continent, is a sense of service to the people in whose name leaders govern.

     But this revolution cannot be confined only to the ruling elites. Even the poorest and least empowered of African citizens need to rid themselves of a culture that tolerates systemic corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement of state affairs. Such a system also privileges one ethnic or socio-economic group over another. This, too, should be unacceptable.

      For decades African elites have ignored small-scale agriculture because it is assumed that it is only for the uneducated. But much of Africa is represented by that woman farmer on the hillside. Clearly African governments need to invest in making small-scale farmers more productive, especially as the effects of climate change intensify and growing sufficient amounts of food becomes even more challenging.

      At the same time, other regions have increased food production and have used subsidies, fertilizers, mechanization and sheer hard work to not only feed themselves but also to produce food so cheaply that it undercuts local African markets. Because of corruption, mismanagement and unstable international commodity prices, the cash-crop economy has not enriched ordinary Africans.

      At the very least one would want to see co-operatives that provide farmers with accurate and timely information about their crops and weather. Affordable inputs and vibrant local and regional food markets that are sustainable would be a better option. Governments should institute and enforce policies that ensure fair prices for their farmers in the global economy.

      Governments and individuals in Africa need to do all they can to improve land management — principally, preventing erosion. Africans should continue to welcome the international agencies, donor nations and private ventures that have an interest in helping the continent to develop in a manner that is sustainable and just.

      But, ultimately, the fate of Africa depends on its own leaders and its own citizens. Only Africans can resolve to provide leadership that is responsible, accountable and equitable. It is Africans who must decide whether they will manage their natural resources responsibly and distribute them equitably, using them for the good of fellow Africans. It is they who must determine whether they will continue to allow outside forces to seduce and bully their governments into arrangements that allow those resources to be siphoned from the continent for a pittance.

      It is for Africans to choose whether they will work hard to build up their own talents and abilities, strengthen their democracies and institutions of governance, and foster peoples’ creativity and industry.

      Can Africa take a different path so that her future generations will not look back and shake their heads at the expanding deserts and degraded lands? Or lament the large numbers of people migrating in search of water, land, food and work, and the inevitable conflicts over scarce resources? This is the challenge for Africa, including that woman on the hillside in Yaoundé.

      Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is founder of the Green Belt Movement and the author, most recently, of The Challenge for Africa: A New Vision


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