Restoring and Maintaining the Productivity of West African Soils: Key to Sustainable Development

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The Earth has become a Global Village, and West Africa is a slum in a dismal state of disrepair. More especially the all-important agricultural sector - the engine of economic growth - is going through unprecedented hard times. Locally produced cash crops, the main revenue earner for most governments, face increased competition from other producing regions where there have been substantial productivity increases and greater production efficiency. In some instances, consumer nations have found substitutes. Yields of food crops have steadily declined; at the same time, the number of mouths to feed is increasing more rapidly than at any other time in history. Market incentives for farmers are few because cheap imports of rice, wheat, and meat have become staples for the urban wage earners. Much-needed structural adjustment programs have had their downside effects on agriculture as the ensuing higher prices of external inputs such as inorganic fertilizers have discouraged farmers and caused them to avoid fertilizer use. Because of increased demographic pressure and decreasing yields, established practices for the restoration and maintenance of soil fertility as is typical of shifting cultivation have given way to exploitative continuous cropping. As farmers' yields decrease, area expansion is the only means available to them to increase the absolute amounts of food produced. Marginal lands are thus brought under cultivation. Deforestation, uncontrolled erosion, loss of biodiversity and overstocking continue to destroy an already fragile ecosystem while investments to maintain the productive capacity of the soil, i.e., its nutrient stocks, are virtually nonexistent. The net result is that more and more of the rural population is being drawn into the heart of the poverty spiral. For these people, the pains from the population, poverty, and environment nexus are all too real. The above scenario has to be viewed in the context of a region where the inherent fertility of the soils is very low. Increased cropping intensity without replacing the nutrients that the crops remove annually has resulted in the mining of this small pool of native nutrients. Meanwhile, soil degradation, both physically and chemically, has become irreversible in many ecosystems because the soil resilience is very limited. For the next 10-20 years, West African governments and the international community cannot afford a "business-as-usual" attitude. Sustainable development, however, calls for a clear assessment of the constraints to agricultural growth and the development and implementation of a number of interventions. This must be done soon and conscientiously. Time is not on the side of the West African people. The implementation of the interventions must be led by national governments, using the ingenuity of a properly sensitized farming community. Inevitably, the implementation also requires considerable institutional, scientific, and financial support from the international banking and donor community. Technologies Over the past fifty or more years, technologies to improve the productive capacity of West African soils have been generated. Unfortunately, these technologies have not been transferred to or implemented by the intended beneficiaries. The known technologies for restoring soil fertility can be grouped as follows: • Increased and more efficient use of mineral fertilizers. • Exploitation and use of locally available soil amendments such as phosphate rocks, lime, and dolomites. • Maximum recycling of organic products, both from within and from outside the farm (crop residues, animal manure, urban refuse, compost, etc.). • "Improved" land use systems, based on both indigenous and science-based technologies (rotation in addition to intercropping, agroforestry and related tree-based farming systems, increased use of species that can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, alternatives to slash-and-burn so that fallows can be improved, etc.). • Effective methods to control wind and water erosion, tailored to indigenous knowledge and using local biological and physical resources. • The concept of "integrated nutrient management," which translates into the use of most efficient and attractive combination of previously known technologies, tailored to local farming systems and to specific agroecological niches that play a role at different system levels: regional (subhumid vs. semiarid), district (peri-urban vs. rural), watershed (rainfed uplands vs. valley bottoms), and farm (home garden vs. plots farther away). Constraints Agriculture can only be persistent and sustainable when the technologies are developed with the participation of the end users (and taking into consideration these clients' needs, means, and circumstances). As much as possible, local institutions should lead the way but with adequate support from external research and development institutions. Sustainability is also enhanced by the existence of an enabling policy environment. Constraints that impinge on one or more of the technologies previously listed are as follows: • Mineral fertilizer use is hampered by unavailability of capital and credit, by national and international disincentives, by poor marketing and pricing, and by gender bias. • Use of much cheaper soil amendments is hampered by lack of awareness and misconceptions on the returns to investment in soil fertility restoration using local resources, by low availability of identified local resources, and by lack of institutional support and extension. • Use of organic inputs is limited mainly by lack of labor and sheer relative scarcity as a result of multiple uses. • Non-adoption of "improved" land-use systems is exacerbated by limited knowledge on the need to integrate land use systems into farming systems and thus increase farmers' awareness and perception of the benefits, while specifically highlighting the role of women; by failure to recognize that tree systems and such other long-term investment packages require clear-cut land tenure arrangements. • Labor availability, perceived high investment cost, reluctance to accept a long payback period, and lack of clear-cut land tenure arrangements are the major constraints to adoption of soil conservation measures. • The constraints to integrated nutrient management are combinations of aforementioned constraints; major constraints at this time are limited awareness and perception by researchers, extension workers and (to a lesser extent) farmers, and the open questions that are still to be answered regarding the agronomic performance of integrated nutrient management practices, i.e., is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Interventions The nature of the technology-constraint combinations has led to structuring of intervention at three levels, i.e., supranational and regional (West Africa), national and district, and village and farm. The major interventions proposed at the different operational levels are summarized below: Supranational and Regional Level • Revisiting impacts of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in view of the need for positive incentives on fertilizer use and agricultural production. • Raising awareness and arriving at a general consensus regarding the use of phosphate rock as a capital investment to enrich the phosphorus pool in West African soils (The World Bank Initiative in this respect is to be lauded). • Developing and promoting economic valuation and discounting of externalities (productivity loss by not implementing anti-erosion policies, failure to consider the residual effect of phosphate rock, export of nutrients to other regions, impact of practices on greenhouse effect, and global climate change). • Raising awareness of the threat of gross migration and the necessity for urgent action to promote survival through, e.g., worldwide funding of a "Marshall Plan" for West Africa. • Promoting meaningful interdisciplinarity in research and development efforts through broadbased ecoregional consortia. • Fostering regional collaboration on all issues where economies of scale would prove beneficial (e.g., common procurement of fertilizers; coordinated production and distribution of phosphate rocks). • Developing and implementing agricultural market development policies, including promotion of crop diversification, improvement of domestic and export market structures, and market information. • Formulating and implementing policy directed at creating economically viable off-farm employment in rural areas (e.g., processing units for oil and karite, small-scale manufacturing). • Implementing and coordinating large-scale soil conservation investment schemes that integrate erection of structures with systems to improve soil fertility (e.g., use of phosphate rock in districts where stone lines have been erected). National and District level • Establishing, at a high political level, Natural Resource or Soil Fertility Management Units to design and implement strategies for the effective development and management of natural resources with special attention to soil fertility restoration and maintenance. • Reinforcing national agricultural research and extension systems and encouraging collaboration with all members of the farming community, including nongovernmental organizations. • Creating an "enabling environment" that promotes agricultural growth: action on credit schemes, post-harvest operations that add value to farm output, output marketing schemes including, where necessary, price guarantee schemes, clear-cut land tenure arrangements, support to institutional and physical infrastructure, fine-tuning fertilizer recommendations for specific cropsoil combinations, and other nonfinancial incentives. • Developing an inventory of natural resources available in the country for use in increasing soil fertility. • Developing policies that reward the maximum use of organic inputs for increased biomass production and that optimize the use of external inputs in the rural and peri-urban sector. Village and Farm level • Promoting a participatory approach to technology generation and validation as the only way to achieve greater adoption. • Promoting financial, technical, and moral support to women's groups. • Promoting "nutrient-saving" and "nutrient-adding" as opposed to "nutrient mining" technologies, where appropriate, while sensitizing farmers to the advantages accruing from adoption of these technologies (e.g., use of energy-saving stoves, kraaling on fields rather than in stables, N-fixing fodder species to be mixed with phosphate rocks through composting, planted stone bunds, fencing off fallows periodically}. • Promoting fertility buildup and intensified production on land that is of high potential such as land in close proximity to homestead and compost pit (relatively highly fertile) and where labor and water are available, in order to give land without such advantages a recuperative period. The Way Forward: The Role of the International Fertilizer Development Center-Africa Since its inception in 1987, the Togo-based Africa Division of the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC-Africa} has gained most valuable knowledge on soil fertility and fertilizer use within West Africa. IFDC-Africa has established two networks on fertilizer trade and X marketing (African Fertilizer Trade, Marketing and Information Network, AFTMIN) and on soil fertility management (West African Fertilizer Management and Evaluation Network, WAFMEN) to anchor its two programs- Policy Reform, Market Research and Development Program and Watershed Management Program. IFDC-Africa has conducted detailed fertilizer sector studies in Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Ghana, and Mali. These studies address issues related to fertilizer demand, procurement, and domestic marketing. Complementary studies have also been conducted in Ghana and Mali on such policy issues as food security and fertilizer use, agroeconomic potential of fertilizer use, and pricing and macro-economic policy environments. These detailed studies conclude with recommendations for all players in the national fertilizer sector. Program scientists conduct follow-up activities to help ensure that policymakers act upon these recommendations. In 1994 the Federal Government of Nigeria commissioned IFDC to design a program for the liberalization of the fertilizer sector. Recently, IFDC-Africa completed a study on Ghana titled "Ghana Fertilizer Privatization Scheme: Private Sector Roles and Public Sector Responsibilities in Meeting Needs of Farmers." In November 1994 IFDC-Africa organized a seminar on the use of locally occurring phosphate rocks for soil fertility improvement in West Africa; the proceedings of this seminar have been published. This accumulated knowledge is valuable and is beginning to have an impact on the "character" of agriculture in the respective countries. It is also apparent that an action-oriented approach by governments to tackle the problems of degraded soils, deforestation leading to loss of biodiversity and desertification, and stagnant or declining yields has proved elusive. IFDC-Africa is firmly convinced that the restoration of soil fertility is key to West Africa's resurrection and is prepared to cooperate with West African governments to design and implement programs that would remove the aforementioned constraints and pave the way to sustainable development.
Agricultural development, Agricultural productivity, Livestock production, Soil fertility