Year XXXIV, 1992, Number 3 - Page 237
International Economy, Poverty and Desertification
PAPE AMADOU SOW
1. In the South, priorities mean having to make hard choices. Every day terrible internal and external constraints must be faced.
Amongst other things, the South needs immediately to find a way to feed hundreds of millions of undernourished people while available land is already saturated. On the other hand, it must repay its debts. But, while the products of the forest bring in money, its governments do not make necessary investments. Finally, the South needs energy, and fossil fuels, oil, carbon and gas must be paid for in hard cash for prices that all of us are familiar with. The energy needs of the developing countries, especially for firewood, will keep on increasing in absolute terms. More than 1 bn people live between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, with a rate of population growth sometimes reaching over 3%. The tropical forest for them is the only place to satisfy their hunger, a new frontier stretching over a new El Dorado, a virgin, wonderful, vast stretch of land that is open to every conqueror. Poverty is perhaps the worst enemy of the natural environment.
2. The relationship between man and the environment has not been based on man’s negligence. When agriculture was the fundamental support of the economy, traditional societies understood the need to keep a constant balance between land productivity and soil regeneration.
In this context, in ancient times, a tried and tested system for the exploitation of land was developed, which involved letting the land rest for some time after a few years’ cultivation in order to restore its fertility.
This technique, called leaving fallow, has been adopted ever since the beginning of time. However, it implies a reduction of cultivatable land, because some land must be left vacant for a period of two to three years. In the Sahel, for instance, 2.5 hectares of rural land is needed on average in order to feed a man under these conditions.
But if population density grows, which has constantly been the case throughout this century, mainly due to the progress of medicine, it will become increasingly difficult to respect this ratio of ecological equilibrium – that currently amounts to 2.5 hectares per person. Two solutions, then, are possible: a) to adopt more effective techniques in order to increase the productivity of exploitable land (this solution assumes that rural communities have the financial means needed to introduce technological progress through new investments); b) to cultivate new land in order to increase agricultural production, to the detriment of a strategy for the preservation of forests. The second solution is generally the more popular, mainly because peasants earn poor incomes and therefore have a limited capacity to invest in the modern equipment which is the keynote of technological progress.
Under such conditions, demographic growth directly affects the environmental balance. In the Sahel’s case, the population has passed from 1.4 m people in 1920 to 3 m in 1980. By the year 2000 it is expected that there will be about 44 m inhabitants. It is on average 85% rural, the land is its main resource, from which comes firewood (between 700 g to 1 kg a day, per person) and staple foodstuffs (agriculture and livestock). The Sahel also earns part of its foreign exchange from the monoculture of peanuts and cotton, which unfortunately gives the land very little chance to recover its fertility.
Low living standards mean that the inhabitants of the Sahel are no longer satisfied with the part of the land they now live on, while the lack of resources prevents them from reaching a high level of productivity. At the same time, the impossibility of buying modern equipment in the Sahel, means that modern sources of energy such as electricity, oil products and coal cannot be used, and its people are confined to using firewood as their sole energy source.
In other words, there is a structural imbalance. On the one hand, in these societies the population increases rapidly owing to the introduction of ever more advanced public health systems, while on the other these societies still use rudimentary techniques for the exploitation of the environment, in this case the land. Such an imbalance, whose consequences are visible on the environment, is a considerable agent of desertification. This means that, beyond the problem of desertification itself, a real developmental crisis is clearly at hand.
3. Industrialised countries, representing 30% of the world’s population, own about 80% of the planet’s wealth. They consume more than 70% of the energy used in the whole world, which represents an increase of carbon dioxide in the air equivalent to deforesting 80 m hectares every year.
The UNCTAD countries (United Nations Conference for Trade and Development) have classified the less advanced countries (LAC) in a group, whose membership has gone from 31 in 1981 to 42 in 1990. They have a total population of 400 m people and an average income of $200 per capita, p. a. The Sahel is among the poorest countries in this group. According to an EEC study, out of 343 companies in the less developed African countries, only 20 operate efficiently.
Their poor condition is logically part of an old process. In 1960, their share of world exports was in the order of 1%. This gradually decreased to 0.3% in 1989. LAC population growth, which today averages 2.7%, must be reconciled with a growth in agricultural output of only 1.7% in the period 1981-1989. This has certainly entailed the allotment of an increasing part of national resources to nutritional needs.
But we cannot ignore the burden of the increasing deterioration of the exchange rate situation which worsened by 15% between 1980 and 1988 for all the less advanced countries. Their debt situation is particularly grave. At the beginning of 1989 it went beyond $69 bn, that is three quarters of the LAC’s GDP.
Clearly, under these conditions, the inhabitants of these countries cannot do anything but cling to the resources of their immediate environment, and the need to respect the conditions for recovery of their natural environment becomes irrelevant compared with the need to survive. Energy, a resource which is a key factor in the economic and social conduct of every social organisation has, therefore, been increasingly taken from the forests. Due to ever increasing needs, there is continued pressure on the natural environment, and the consequences for the future are disregarded.