Land resources in Africa: issues and opportunities

Africa is the second largest continent in the world after Asia, and with a total land area of more than 3,025.8 million hectares (ha), its landmass is more than three times that of the United States of America. Of Africa’s 53 countries, Sudan is the largest, covering 250.39 million ha and Seychelles the smallest, covering only 45,600 ha. In terms of population density, Mauritius was in 2001 the most densely populated with 583 people/100 ha, compared to Namibia, the least densely populated at 2 people/100 ha.

Africa is the second largest continent in the world after Asia, and with a total land area of more than 3,025.8 million hectares (ha), its landmass is more than three times that of the United States of America. Of Africa’s 53 countries, Sudan is the largest, covering 250.39 million ha and Seychelles the smallest, covering only 45,600 ha.

In terms of population density, Mauritius was in 2001 the most densely populated with 583 people/100 ha, compared to Namibia, the least densely populated at 2 people/100 ha.

The African landscape is a rich and dynamic mosaic of resources, which includes forests and woodlands, arable land, mountains, deserts, coastal lands and freshwater systems that holds vast opportunities for development and improving human well-being if managed sustainably.

Forests and woodlands: Forests and woodlands cover about 650 million ha or 21.8 percent of the land area. About 16.8 percent of global forest cover is found in Africa, with the Congo basin home to the second largest contiguous block of tropical rainforest in the world.

Arable land: About 630 million ha of land in Africa is suitable for cultivation, supporting the majority of the people through subsistence and commercial agriculture.

Agricultural productivity is closely linked to environmental factors, including soil quality and water availability. Agriculture makes an important contribution to earnings.

In Morocco, for example, the agricultural sector was worth US$7,000 million in 2002, of which US$1,000 million was export earnings.

Africa’s soils are classified into six different categories, with the first four being of good quality which unfortunately cover only 10.6 percent of the land area or 3,100 million ha and support about 400 million people.

Classes II-V do not have major constraints and rainfall is usually stable and adequate for at least one major crop per season. However, Classes V-VI of the soils in Africa are of poor quality and have limitations which make low-input agriculture on which many people depend a challenge.

Classes V-VI soils are highly acidic, impermeable, frequently waterlogged, easily accumulate salts, and require major investments to manage. They cover 11,200 million ha and support about 200 million people, which is about 23 percent of the population.

Wetlands: Wetlands cover about 1 percent of the region’s total surface area, and are found in virtually all countries.

Some of the more prominent wetlands include the Congo Swamps, the Chad Basin, the Okavango Delta, the Bangweulu swamps, the extensive Nile Basin and its upper sources of the Eastern Africa Great Lakes region, floodplains and deltas of the Niger and Zambezi Rivers, and the Greater St. Lucia Park wetlands in South Africa. In 1999 the Okavango Delta, which covers 6.864 million ha of Botswana’s land area, constituted nearly 10 percent of the total area of the world’s wetlands protected under the Ramsar Convention and almost 50 percent of the area designated in Africa.

Wetlands are not only critical in terms of biodiversity but also support many communities, providing a diversity of livelihood activities. For example, in Tanzania’s Rufiji Delta, a study covering 720,000 ha found that crop production has a gross market value of US$3.8 million annually, and natural resources have an economic direct use value of US$10.3 million annually. Most coastal wetlands in Africa support mangrove forests, which extend from Senegal to Angola on the west coast and from Somalia to South Africa on the east coast.

Fisheries in estuaries and lagoons, for example, contribute to national economies, accounting for more than three-quarters of fishery landings in Africa.

Mountains: Some of the physically smallest countries in Africa also have the highest percentage of mountainous areas. These include Lesotho, Rwanda and Swaziland. The three countries are in the top 20 countries in the world with the highest percentage of mountainous areas.

African mountain ranges are the headwaters of most of the large African rivers such as the Nile and Tana Rivers. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, one out of every two people worldwide drinks water that originates in mountains.

In terms of economic activity, mountains support forestry and tourism, as they support bird watching, hiking and climbing, among other recreational activities.

They are, therefore, key in both local and national economies. Mountain water generates hydroelectricity, facilitates industrial processes, and is critical in irrigated agriculture. Mountains in Africa have been described as “islands of high productivity in a continent where dryness and aridity are increasing at an alarming rate”.

People also settle in mountain areas as the lowlands are difficult to manage due to poor soils and erratic rainfall patterns, and are usually home to pests such as mosquitoes and tsetse flies.

Mountains are also important biodiversity areas. Stretching across Tanzania and into Kenya, the Eastern Arc Mountains and coastal forests are recognized as one of the 32 globally important “hotspots” for biodiversity.

The Uluguru Mountains, for example, are renowned for biodiversity conservation and supply water to the capital, Dar es Salaam, whose population is between 3-4 million people.

More than 100,000 of the Luguru people live on the mountains and grow crops through much of the year, including fruits and temperate vegetables. Their produce is sold to urban residents in the lowlands.

Deserts: A total of 1,274 million ha in Africa are extreme deserts, exemplified by the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa ….  the largest desert in the world ….  and the Kgalagadi Desert and the Namib Desert in Southern Africa.

The Sahara covers 906.5 million ha and is home to about 2 million people excluding those in the Nile valley. At about 26 million ha, the Kgalagadi Desert is about the size of France, and together with Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, is the world’s largest body of sand. Along Namibia’s coastal areas, the desert is commonly referred to as the Namib Desert. Desert ecosystems support distinctive plants and animals specially adapted to the harsh environment.

Even though the Sahara has one of the harshest climates in the world, the inhabitants produce date palms, fruits, vegetables, grains and other crops. Huge oil and gas deposits also exist in Algeria and Libya.

Endowment and opportunities: Africa has priceless land resources which provide environmental goods and services from local to global levels. Land resources are terrestrial features that exist above the mean sea level.

They include landforms such as plains, valleys, plateaus, mountains, deltas and peninsulas, islands and basins; soils; and plants and animals. In terms of economics, land resources also include mineral and fossil fuel deposits, natural and farmed timber, crops, animals and fish.

Land is a critical factor in natural and human-managed production systems, influencing the level of natural capital, and social and economic development.

These resources are just as important at the household level as they are at national and global levels. In Uganda and Rwanda, for example, land constitutes between 50-60 percent of the asset endowment of the poorest households.

Land in Africa is used for many activities: agriculture and forestry; urban expansion and infrastructural development including transportation; mining and oil extraction; tourism and recreation; and also as a sink for domestic and industrial waste.

It is critical in the cradle-to-grave cycle of both living and non-living things, providing habitats and other ecological goods and services, sustaining investment and human livelihoods, and absorbing solid and liquid waste, pollutants and pesticides.

Land is critical to all aspects of human well-being. It provides material resources for livelihoods, food and health, provides security against environmental shocks and future uncertainties, and underlies many social and cultural systems.

Access to land and the resources it offers is at the core of enhancing opportunities and choices, particularly for those who depend more directly on it.

Africa’s significant land resources can contribute to sustainable development, and to achieving the targets under all the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Whether in pristine condition or degraded, land resources provide vast opportunities for investment for internal and external investors.

The degraded lands can be restored in some cases or converted to other land uses, and thus still contribute to development. Through careful planning, degraded lands can be used and thus avoid the need for conversion of well-conserved land to other uses, such as settlement.

Land-use decisions from the household to the national level, in rural and urban areas, have a major role to play in sustainable development, influencing environmental governance and thus resource sustainability.

Tenure regimes, access and equity issues, poverty alleviation and gender dimensions all shape governance and the opportunities available at different levels. Governance today will have important implications for the opportunities of future generations, either enhancing or foreclosing choices.

Land and its value are closely related to the environment, with the sustainability of one being a product of the other. The value of land resources is not only monetary but also includes values such as ecosystem functions and non-use values. Such non-use values include intrinsic significance in terms of culture, aesthetic, heritage and bequest.

Importance of land: Land is a key factor in sustainably managing the environment for development in Africa, but there are many challenges to be overcome. The region has sufficient land resources to produce enough food to feed its people and yet one in three people in the region is presently undernourished.

Increasing agricultural production in Africa – the dominant economic activity in most parts of the region – is the key to addressing extreme poverty and hunger. Although mainly arid and semi-arid, Africa has significant freshwater resources to harness and expand irrigated agriculture and enhance food production, and yet governments often depend on food imports and/or humanitarian aid.

The challenges of physically accessing the water resources, as well as inadequate investment in appropriate technology, limit irrigation expansion.

The funds available to import food could, over the next decade, be invested, for example, in strategic areas to incrementally build food security at different levels.

The region is a mining giant: Africa produces 77 percent of platinum in the world; 62 percent of aluminum silicate; more than 50 percent of vanadium and vermiculite; more than 40 percent of diamonds, palladium and chromium; and more than 20 percent of gold, cobalt, uranium, manganese and phosphate rock.

And yet its industrial base is insignificant on the global market, and the majority of its people live in growing poverty. There is a need for Africa to move from being a major exporter of primary resources to strengthening its industrial and manufacturing base.

Africa has numerous tourist attractions, ranging from wildlife to cultural heritage, and yet it contributes only 4 percent annually to the multi-million dollar global tourism industry. Issues of poor infrastructure, lingering perceptions of instability and other external factors such as adverse travel advisories conspire to retard any significant development in this sector.

The region has the human resource base to tackle these and other challenges, but many who have acquired the necessary skills and experience or are in the process of doing so, are faced with the threat of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other disieses.

This is the greatest threat to the security and development of the region, and to individual countries. In some countries, life expectancy has been cut by about 50 percent in the past two decades. Women are the most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and are at least 20 percent more likely to be infected than men as a result of inadequate education and poor gender relations.

Malaria is another serious threat to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), contributing to the decrease of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) by about US$12,000 million annually.

Malaria kills 2.5 million people every year … 90 percent of them in Africa.  Environmental governance in terms of land is well entrenched with so many laws and policies, institutions and stakeholders but yet effectiveness remains a mirage due to various factors, including policy failures.

Some governments have made great strides in opening up the democratic space, with more one-party states being abandoned, and general and presidential elections being held.

Since the end of 2002, presidential or parliamentary elections have taken place in countries such as Nigeria, Togo, Rwanda, Guinea, Algeria, South Africa, Ghana, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Opposition politics has flourished since the 1990s and has become entrenched in governance systems across Africa. Even though many stakeholders are now involved in governance, inequalities still persist, particularly in terms of access to land resources, especially for women.

Human Rights Watch, for example, reported that governments in many resource-rich countries are abusive, unaccountable and corrupt: “Rather than representing the citizenry, the government becomes predatory, committing abuses to maintain power and controlling the resources of the state for the benefit of a few.”

Managing Africa’s land resources is complex, requiring the input and participation of different stakeholders and interests as well as transparent and effective governance structures.

Governance systems should be able to balance the needs of small and large investors, community and national interests as well as sectoral demands and conflicts.

It is evident from different economic data that land is the foundation upon which the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) … from eradicating extreme poverty and improving gender equality to ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development … can be realized in Africa.

Land in Africa is a social, economic and environmental good, and as long as all the ingredients critical to achieving the MDGs through the available land resources are rationed, the goals will remain a chimera.

The importance of stronger tenure rights, with related improved governance system as the basis for improving sustainable management and enhancing opportunities cannot be overemphasized.

Long before the MDGs were adopted by world leaders in 2000, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was visionary in its analysis of the role of land in sustainable development, saying in its 1987 World Development Report: In many countries where land is very unequally distributed land reform is a basic requirement.

Without it, institutional and policy changes meant to protect the resource base can actually promote inequalities by shutting the poor off from the resources and by favouring those with large farms, who are better able to obtain the limited credit and services available.

By leaving hundreds of millions without options, such changes can have the opposite of their intended effect, ensuring the continued violation of ecological imperatives.


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