A New Model For The Ecological And Social Revolution in Africa
An observation: rural farmers left behind
Africa is at a crossroads. Without proactive social policies to improve the population’s well-being, there will be no economic development and no ecological revolution. Failure to take this fork in the road would see us move, whether slow or fast, towards chaos — reaching far beyond Africa’s borders.
In Africa, just as elsewhere, the ecological transition must go hand in hand with a social transition, towards greater justice. Despite bearing the least amount of responsibility, the most marginalized people are most vulnerable to climate change due to the lack of resources needed to adapt. Small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are among the first to be affected by climate disruption, which impacts soil activity first and foremost. According to French agricultural research institute INRAE, climate change has already reduced their productivity by 20% since 1980, particularly in the tropics where conditions are more extreme and soils more fragile. This affects three quarters of farmers — the largest number — who still produce nearly 80% of what we consume in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa is therefore one of the regions which faces the greatest number of challenges. With its population set to double over the next twenty-five years, despite the demographic transition that is underway, the decline in productivity and soil fertility over the past 40 years has reached untenable levels for rural African farmers, who are among the continent’s most overlooked population. Rural areas have been largely neglected. Cities have been given preference in the name of political stability and progress without small farmers in mind; but these farmers have reached the limit of their capabilities and can no longer absorb the rural exodus. This trend has continued despite efforts to adapt, which have led to improved techniques — agrochemicals, as well as combining agriculture and livestock farming — and to an increase in the population since 1960, thanks to the expansion of crops on pastureland and forests.
For those left behind, whose numbers will continue to grow, the future will be one of migration out of the continent — since internal migration to cities or the richest countries has already taken place — which has been kept in check as best as possible until now. For those who stay, the future will be one of resource conflicts that will degenerate into “interethnic”, regional, and intercontinental conflicts, all under the specter of terrorism. Such conflicts have already broken out between farmers and herders in the Sahel and Central Africa — or between mining rivals, as in the DRC and Rwanda.
To paint an even darker picture, we are witnessing increased resentments and identity-based divisions, which are sometimes exploited by populists. They are the result of a lack of prospects for the future and the demand for a better life. Young people — who did not experience the African independence movements of the 1960s, but rather lengthy authoritarian regimes— are now rebelling, both in cities and in rural areas. If democratic momentum is derailed and concrete solutions are not forthcoming, the continent’s fragile geopolitical equilibrium will be threatened — and conflicts could even spread beyond the continent. And yet, these two axes of public policy are complementary rather than antagonistic. This is particularly true in Africa, where social practices and the collective consciousness have, to some extent, resisted the commodification of human relations and the damage caused in the wake of the liberalization of trade flows.
The failure of development policies
Let us return to cities and “development” failures. African economies, agriculture, and institutions are currently at an extremely weak point that is hard to imagine getting worse. Consider the explosion of menial, informal jobs, the complete lack of industrial jobs, and the wealth held by the political elite and the administrative class, who are increasingly unwilling to share with the impoverished rural populations from which they come.
What’s more, economic extroversion and resource predation have continued under independence despite attempts — which were often nipped in the bud — by a handful of African leaders who were educated during this period. Later, a new world economic order increased trade openness on the pretext of a perfect and unassailable theory: under unbearable competition — high agricultural and industrial productivity, subsidies — it smothered any hope of endogenous development, while failing to ensure a livable position as a satellite. Africa has found itself in a state of dependence that is only getting worse.
Theories in favor of liberalizing flows nevertheless left the free movement of people in the shadows. This oversight was managed after the fact by Western countries within the framework of an “every man for himself” policy in Africa, and did not hesitate to support authoritarian regimes — who acted as guardians of preliminary flows. We could hold up a mirror and point out that between 1850 and 1930, no fewer than 60 million Europeans migrated to overcome the rifts created by industrialization and demographic growth.
A method that should be revived: foster solidarity through the commons
What future, and more importantly, what ecological revolution, what “economic and social progress”, what environmental protection, can we envision for the continent when we can no longer blanket Africa with 2 billion tractors, cars, and air conditioners at a time when populations, and in particular small farmers, are becoming increasingly impoverished — with no access to water, no indoor toilets, no electricity, no motorized vehicles, and no industry either? Finding answers — from the local to the global — to the major issues that are currently threatening the survival of populations and world peace is our main challenge. The human community is no longer blind: with a third transition, that of digital technology, everyone knows everything all the time. And poverty is becoming increasingly unbearable for those who have nothing as they are faced with those who have everything. Rich countries have no shortage of poverty and the needy, and clearly do not know how to share their abundance.
What is needed is more jobs and a more dignified life for all people, meaning civil human rights, which will happen through redefining priorities and basing public policy on the endogenous strengths of a continent that has no shortage of them. For this to happen, it is imperative to bring about a change that makes development, environmental sustainability and the well-being of all not only compatible, but, more importantly, complementary. This would be a truly “sustainable” future, meaning tolerable for all — and one that can be “supported”, in Africa as well as the West.
This is not a matter of abandoning so-called modern well-being — even though this has been aided by colonization, exploitation and a quasi-religious hold on people’s minds — but, in order to base public policy on a long-term strategy rather than a mad dash into the future, we need to redefine human well-being in terms of a different relationship with the living world. To accomplish this, we need to return to the best traditions of times past, when human beings knew that they were living beings among others, an idea now lost in our materialistic world. Faced with the threat of collapse, the stakes are high; an enviable and desirable future must be re-established, in the South as well as the North. In Africa, endogenous forces already exist to channel this new momentum. I have referred to them as the common goods or the commons to be developed. These forces bring into full play the different levels of democratic subsidiarity adapted to each of the issues at stake. The commons to be promoted fall between the market, which is too inefficient, and the State, which is too weak and further weakened by structural adjustments and its dependence on the interests of multinationals and major powers.
In some places, life is based on the common good. This is illustrated by social practices, collective symbols, and dynamic family solidarities — whose current perversion is tribal solidarity. This local solidarity could be used within the framework of a bottom-up democracy committed to inclusivity and the ability of local practices to be reproduced. What’s more, we need to capitalize on the inventiveness and creativity of our young people, who, with limited resources, are reinventing African low-tech every day. Digital technology and mobile communications have proven to be powerful tools for accessing information; we need to cultivate economically and socially useful applications.
On the economic side, large-scale public policy should be financed through common money — freed from the comfortable but counterproductive parity of the euro — and through the unused savings of the middle classes, guaranteed by international public financing and backed by regional integration schemes. The latter would be more relevant than integration on the scale of inherited colonial borders alone.
Universal access to sustainable, decentralized energy — solar, wind, geothermal, hydraulic — is a very attainable objective in this context, and an obvious factor in sustainable endogenous development, alongside the well-being of populations. The ability of small-scale farmers to move towards more productive techniques without the use of motorized equipment or aggressive agrochemicals, based on ancient agricultural practices and diverse land use patterns, is no longer in question — even though these practices are threatened by private acquisition and international land grabbing. Through these techniques, a more climate-resistant plant heritage could be developed than is possible with the standard technical packages of the “green revolution”, as well as a heritage that is less dependent on the energy-intensive inputs from multinationals.
At the same time, the continent’s wealth of biodiversity and the environmental benefits provided to the world by its vast primary forests and small-scale farmers are still undervalued; farmers today are too poor to degrade their land through agrochemical and mechanical means. The continent, particularly the sub-Saharan region, is almost carbon neutral, but it is under greater threat from climate change — but it is forced to remain so due to the effects of poverty and global environmental constraints.
Implementing African solutions: new public policies for the continent through international “rational solidarity”
In my most recent book 1 , I outlined the major elements of an African solution within the current context, based on the strengths mentioned above.
First and foremost, the only significant source of jobs is in rural areas; the agricultural sector is the only way to reconcile the growing scarcity of fossil fuels with the well-being of all people — meaning that it would help achieve social justice. This requires small farmers to intensify their land use using agro-ecological methods in order to double their current low yields, enabling them to feed the population as well as themselves. Through agro-ecological and agro-forestry science, the combination of low-tech and high-tech knowledge and techniques allows for infinite use of the sun’s energy and the air’s nitrogen, optimization of water use, resistance of biodiversity to climatic hazards and parasites, sustainable exploitation of the soil’s mineral elements via plant roots, and improving organic fertility and carbon-fixing capacity.
Secondly, building on this foundation, local sourcing and consumption must become the rule in both the south and the north, encouraging the transformation of local resources into artisanal and industrial products. The current growth of multiple dependencies must be reined in. This ambitious program has certain conditions: it’s what I call neo-protectionism, or rather “just trade” — not dogmatism, but economic pragmatism. With regard to these crucial issues, we must protect Africa’s farmers and processors from unsustainable competition from developed countries, by taking advantage of a protectionist tax system. Furthermore, consumers — who are already well attuned to these issues — need to be encouraged to prioritize this general interest, and the poorest urban residents need to be supported in the face of soaring food prices.
Lastly, there needs to be massive public investment in rural modernization and the agro-ecological revolution for small-scale farmers — in other words, a “doubly green” revolution. Life in rural areas must finally mean education, health, and sustainable electrification; this will also require a rapid demographic transition and progress in education coupled with progress in women’s rights — through the education of girls and boys, at least through the secondary level and in decent conditions.
To contribute to this enormous ecological investment, the environmental benefits provided by the continent, in particular by its rural population, must be fairly compensated: not by further deforestation, but by reforestation; not only by massive carbon sequestration in soils and vegetation, but also by developing sustainable energies. Let’s not forget the commitments that developed countries have been making to the UN since 1970, which have barely been honored: 0.7% public development aid, the use of Green Funds, Loss and Damage Funds and Biodiversity Funds.
In my view, this is the solution for Africa, at a time when the 2030 development goals — the end of food insecurity and the end of poverty — remain non-binding and will probably not be met by the agreed date. What is needed is a far-reaching change, a transition like that called for by the United Nations Secretary General. Global crises — banking, health, war — have shown the global system’s vulnerability, especially for African countries. The spread of conflict in the Sahel and Central Africa is hardly cause for optimism: critical lines have been crossed. Western support for authoritarian regimes seen as stable and complacent doesn’t help matters — because young people are champing at the bit and ideas are circulating.
More broadly speaking, this is a battle of ideas. We need to counter the pervasive illusions of “development” that lacks human development perpetuated by multinationals; we also need to counter the general lack of understanding about the daily lives of half of Africa’s population, who are considered backward — a misconception that has been perpetuated by decades of agribusiness glorification. Finally, we must defend ourselves against ecology-bashing, defeatism, and retreat.
If the right of all people to a dignified life was not already a sufficient argument for change, if the responsibility of each and every one of us for the fate of a billion human beings who are still in a state of survival were not enough, we would have to hammer the point home that such a change must be made, if only in the name of international “rational solidarity”.
Kako Nubukpo, A New Model For The Ecological And Social Revolution in Africa, Jan 2024,
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