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3: Indigenous African farming systems: Their significance for sustainable environmental use (Keynote address)

Concept of sustainability
Indigenous sustainable farming systems

George Benneh

The biophysical environment forms a fundamental basis of human existence. It refers to the land, soils, water bodies, flora, fauna - the very air we breathe and the other resources of the biotic and abiotic world that surround human society and from which humanity derives a living. Basic human subsistence requirements are met from the land through farming, from the forests through hunting and gathering, and from the water bodies through fishing and water use for domestic, agricultural, industrial and other purposes.

Each and every component of the natural environment bears significantly upon our livelihood. Furthermore, the environmental components interlink in a complex global ecosystem embodying many subsystems whose indiscriminate disruption would upset the delicate ecological balance, with grave consequences for humankind. These pragmatic considerations, in addition to moral or ethical considerations, provide a compelling justification for the preservation of the natural integrity of the environment, by living harmoniously with it, as our ancestors apparently did generally.

Therefore, from the preceding, and on the basis of our everyday experience, it should be obvious that without a sound environment, the human species, or a substantial portion of it, is almost doomed to extinction, and certainly to a life of misery as predicted by the Reverend Thomas Malthus nearly 200 years ago.

Over the years, various systems of utilizing or managing the biophysical environment have been evolved by society to support itself. Some of the systems have endured for a long time without serious adverse effects on the environment. Indeed, some have actually added to the aesthetic and the intrinsic value of the land by soil improvement measures. In other words, they have proved to he sustainable a crucially important concept, about which I shall say more later, because it forms part of the African cultural heritage and holds a key to a sound living environment for humankind. By contrast, other environmental management practices have proved to be less sustainable, or completely unsustainable, because of their harmful effects on the soils, flora, fauna, microclimatic conditions, hydrological cycle, etc. West Africa, and indeed the whole of Africa, abound in examples of maintained, improved, and degraded environments. All three categories of environmental conditions warrant study because each holds important implications or lessons for human livelihood and survival.

It is a matter of great concern that the quality of the natural environment is deteriorating in many parts of the world at a time when the human population is growing at an accelerated rate. This concern inspired the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The concern is also enshrined in national environmental action plans, including Ghana's own plan.

Associated with natural factors, but increasingly with human factors, the many forms of environmental degradation may be categorised broadly into:

Of all the various forms of environmental degradation, the most insidious would seem to be devegetation and the attendant loss of flora, fauna and soil quality which, together with coastal erosion and water body sedimentation and putrefaction, may collectively be called land degradation, a term often used synonymously with the term environmental degradation.

The Earth Summit, UNCED, expressed special concern about land degradation. Portions of Agenda 21 of the summit's convention note:

Land degradation is the most important environmental problem affecting extensive areas of land in both developed and developing countries.... Land degradation is serious because the productivity of large areas of land is declining just when populations are increasing rapidly. . . it is urgent to arrest land degradation. (United Nations 1992)

Some of the most critically degraded and vulnerable areas occur in West Africa, where the deteriorating natural fertility of the soils is seen as a primary factor in the generally declining, stagnating or, at best, marginally increasing agricultural output, which has adverse effects upon the food supplies, nutritional status, incomes and general welfare of the expanding population.

A strategy of improving the situation, including improvement in species diversity, is to encourage sustainable farming systems which are founded upon effective soil-regeneration techniques. As I argued as far back as 1972, the pivot of every farming system is the fertility of the soil (Benneh 1972). For tunately, in West Africa there are indigenous farming systems of proven sustainability and others which exhibit strong characteristics of sustainability and which, therefore, could serve as prototypes for even more environmentally sustainable systems of farming.

But then, what is sustainability, and what are sustainable agricultural development and other forms of development?

Concept of sustainability

Sustainability may be defined as the ability to last, endure or continue indefinitely. Development, in our context, simply refers to improvements in human living conditions. It is the way in which people meet their needs and improve their lives. Thus sustainable development - agricultural, economic, socioeconomic, sustainable development of any kind - is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Long before the concept of sustainable development became the buzz phrase of development among ecologists, economists, development planners and other experts in the 1980s, one of the most prominent Ghanaian chiefs, the late Nana Sir Ofori Atta, is reputed to have expressed the concept of sustainability with respect to land in the following words:

I conceive that land belongs to a vast family of whom many are dead, a few are living, and countless hosts are still unborn. (Benneh 1990: 1)

All the principles of sustainability are enshrined in this saying, which embodies the basic African philosophy of land management. Land, and by implication the biophysical environment, must be used in such a way as to satisfy the needs of the present generation without depriving future generations of their source of sustenance. Development must not damage or destroy the natural resource base. Thus the idea of sustainability has economic, social, as well as environmental or ecological dimensions, all of which, needless to stress, interrelate synergically. How, then, might those dimensions, most especially the environmental dimension, our central concern here, be secured? I suggest an answer lies in some of our indigenous systems, which, regretfully, are disappearing together with the traditional small farmers in West Africa, mainly because of the growing stress of population on the environment, the factors of poverty and low technology, and the spread of exotic systems, including green revolution monoculture based on agrochemicals.

Indigenous sustainable farming systems

Very nearly all indigenous small farming systems in tropical Africa are founded on the principles of organic farming, which a growing number of experts consider to be a most efficient way of producing food on an environmentally sustainable basis, i.e. without any major lasting threat to the natural ecosystem.

Organic farming excludes artificial agrochemicals, or it involves them to a limited extent only. It is sustained or regenerated by natural recycling of natural soil-replenishing nutrients, e.g. biomass, compost, manure and other forms of organic matter. It relies on biological methods to control pests and on crop rotations and the intermixture of species to sustain agroecological stability, food security and balanced utilization of soil nutrients. It is nature based and involves lower artificial external energy inputs than the exotic monocultural methods of, especially, the "green revolution."

Perhaps the oldest known indigenous West African farming systems that might be classified as organic, to the extent that they depend on naturally recycled biomass for soil fertility regeneration, are the classical shifting cultivation and its offshoot, bush fallow or land rotation.

Under a relatively low population pressure prevailing in the past, the main system of farming was shifting cultivation. This system enjoys the advantages of:

Under the influence of the growing pressures on land, which is associated mainly with population growth, the shifting cultivation system has, generally, been modified into more settled systems, notably bush fallow, whose main departure from the shifting cultivation system is a much shorter fallow period.

Shifting cultivation and its primary offshoot, bush fallow, have the advantage of securing food supplies with minimal ecological disturbance and minimal or no land degradation. However, because of their extensive land requirements, shifting cultivation and bush fallow can be sustained only under conditions of low population pressure and plentiful supplies of land. Because these necessary conditions no longer obtain in many parts of West Africa, the systems are disappearing. Therefore, one way of ensuring the survivability of the shifting cultivation and bush fallow systems is to reduce population pressure, so that more land becomes available for their operation. Alternatively, they may be modified (Gyasi 1992,1994).

Increasingly, particularly since the 1970s, scientists in Africa and in the third world as a whole have been paying closer attention to improving the indigenous farming techniques, which are based on the recognition that the only truly effective way of controlling erosion is the maintenance of vegetative soil cover during the rainy season. These techniques include mixed cropping, intercropping, various forms of fallowing, crop rotations, no-tillage or minimal tillage and various forms of agroforestry (Gyasi et al. 1990).

Agroforesty research is now being undertaken in a number of countries, spearheaded by ICRAF with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and by IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria.

The combination of the fast growing Leucaena plant with crops such as maize and yam has the advantage of maintaining the fertility of the soil while at the same time providing trees for fuelwood. The Ministry of Agriculture in Ghana is promoting agroforestry in the country. Although agroforestry has been practiced by African farmers for decades, there is the need for more research in identifying the most productive species, breeding improved varieties, and testing out management methods. Inevitably it will be the farmers who will develop the detailed combinations suitable for their specific environment, their needs and possibilities.

Research into mixed cropping, another traditional farming practice, is also yielding interesting results. The combination of maize and groundnuts reduced corn borer damage to one-sixth of the level in corn alone, and attacks by diamondbacked moth on cabbage fell sharply when cabbage was planted closely with tomatoes.

A major cause of the deteriorating environment of Africa is the increasing number of poor people, who in effect mine the land to produce their crops and feed their livestock. They have often been blamed for land degradation as if they had a choice of resources to depend on for their livelihood when really they do not. They are too poor to adopt simple innovations, to add organic or inorganic fertilizer and to undertake soil and water conservation, etc. In the context of basic survival, today's needs tend to overshadow consideration for the environmental future. It is poverty that is responsible for the destruction of the environment and not the poor. Poverty at all levels of society establishes a vicious cycle of poverty inappropriate methods of exploitation of environmental resources, degradation of the environment, low productivity and poverty. As the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi observed: "Poverty is the greatest polluter."

It is in this context that Africa's poor economic performance is an important factor in any attempt to arrest environmental degradation. It is futile or does not seem fair to tell a poor deprived person not to damage the environment if he has to take care of today's pressing needs irrespective of what the environment would turn out to be tomorrow.

Judging by the generally negative news of drought and famine from Africa which attracts the world press, we are tempted to give up hope of Africa ever solving its problems. Yet there are signs of hope especially at the grass-roots level, where people are beginning to feel responsible for their environment at the same time they exploit it to meet their pressing needs. They are being encouraged by nongovernmental organizations as well as other agencies.

There are numerous examples of grass-roots initiatives to improve the African environment. We need to focus on what does work, not what has gone wrong, on successes rather than failures even though there is advantage to be gained in learning from past mistakes. We need to document the success stories not only to derive encouragement but also to learn about their rich and relevant experiences. We need to encourage people by emphasizing the fact that sufficient progress is being made and it is not utopian to work for a sustainable environment. It can be achieved.

Although the relationship between population growth and environmental degradation is not very clear, there is no doubt that a slower rate of population growth in Africa will alleviate the pressure to overwork existing farms and to open new ones on marginal lands, and minimize destructive agricultural practices. Thus a combination of sound agricultural practices and reduced population growth can lead to sustainable development. This view has now been accepted by most African governments.


Mr. Chairman, Honourable Ministers, Distinguished Participants, West Africa and indeed the whole of Africa abound in indigenous systems of utilizing and managing the environment on a sustainable basis. As succinctly echoed in the PLEC concept, "Effective [environmental resources] management systems do not have to be invented only by modern science. They exist, and have been continuously developed by the world's farmers."


Benneh, G. 1972. Systems of agriculture in tropical Africa. Economic Geography 48(3): 24457.

Benneh, G. 1990. Towards sustainable development: an African perspective. Geografisk Tidsskrift 90: 1 4.

Ehrlich, P.R., Ehrlich, A.H., and Holdren, J.P. 1977. Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Gyasi, E.A. 1992. Sustaining oil palm farming by organic methods in Ghana. In: V. Kopke and D.C. Schultz, eds., Proceedings of the Ninth IFOAM International Scientific Conference on Organic Agriculture: A Key to a Sound Development and a Sustainable Environment, 233-38. Tholey-Theley, Germany: International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM).

Gyasi, E.A. Forthcoming. Countering Land Degradation by Organic Methods: Prospects in Commonwealth West Africa. Proceedings of the Silver Jubilee Symposium of the Commonwealth Geographical Bureau, Hong Kong, 5-7 December 1994.

Gyasi, E.A., Amaning-Kwarteng, K. and Oware-Gyekye, L. 1990. Mampong valley agroforestry project baseline and evaluation survey report for the Ghana Rural Reconstruction Movement, University of Ghana, Legon. Unpublished.

PLEC Scientific Advisory Group. 1994. Population, Land Management and Environmental Change (PLEC): a short statement by the Scientific Advisory Group. PLEC News and Views 2 (February): 1.

United Nations. 1992. Agenda 21. United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: The Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro.

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