Rethinking soil and water conservation in a changing society : a case study in eastern Burkina Faso

V. Mazzucato, D. Niemeijer

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


<p>Soil and water conservation is at the top of development agendas in Africa. Virtually every project related to agriculture or the environment has a soil and water conservation component to it and environmental protection plans are being drawn up by African governments in which soil and water conservation figures dominantly. This focus on soil and water conservation is due to its being perceived as a way to address both productivity and environmental sustainability questions. Land degradation and population growth are thought to be rampant in Africa and soil and water conservation helps to increase productivity to feed a growing population and does so in an environmentally sustainable way.</p><p>Three broad approaches characterize how soil and water should be conserved. The first is a focus on capital-led intensification in the form of machinery and purchased inputs (such as mineral fertilizer and pesticides). This school of thought claims that this is the only way to obtain a fast enough increase in productivity to feed the growing population. The second approach instead focuses on "indigenous technologies", or what farmers develop, adapt, and innovate on their own account. This school claims that technologies will only be used if they are developed by and with farmers so as to take into consideration their social and environmental contexts. There is also what is called the neo-liberal approach in which it is argued that it is not enough to look at technologies, but also policies, infrastructure and markets need to be in place to stimulate the appropriate kinds of land husbandry practices.</p><p>Despite these variegated approaches, soil and water conservation projects have, at best, had a checkered history. There is a need thus to look at the problem in a different manner than is done by studies that have lead to the above approaches. This study picks up this challenge and tries to theorize and operationalize a different approach to the study of soil and water conservation. It uses elements from previous studies but integrates them in a new way. In part 1 of the book approach, analytical framework and methods are discussed, while part 2 consists of a case study in Burkina Faso (former Upper Volta) in which the proposed approach is put into practice.</p><p>Chapter 1 describes this approach which is based on three elements: (1) working in an interdisciplinary fashion to allow the integration of different aspects of soil and water conservation, (2) using a grounded theory methodology in which the principal element relates to starting out broad and allowing the concepts and principles to be studied to emerge from fieldwork, and (3) giving particular attention to developing a mutual relationship of trust with villagers in order to allow their opinions and views to influence the focus of the study.</p><p>Chapter 2 presents the analytical framework that emerged out of the grounded theory methodology. It is an end-product of the research but, nonetheless, figures at the beginning of the book, as a guide to the analysis in part 2. It is presented by discussing the most influential theories that have affected the study of soil and water conservation, followed by an explanation of which elements of these theories have been used in the analytical framework. Malthus and Boserup have had a strong impact on how the land degradation problem is perceived. Both of their theories place the emphasis on population pressure as either a cause or a remedy to land degradation. Because Africa has been experiencing such strong population growth rates since the 1960s, these theories have been particularly influential in placing the emphasis on soil and water conservation technologies as a remedy to an otherwise serious land degradation problem. Neo-Malthusians argue that without outside intervention in soil and water conservation, there will be widespread death and degradation. Neo-Boserupians, instead, explain that once population pressure increases to above certain thresholds, it will act as a stimulus for populations to intensify agriculture and therefore develop better land husbandry practices. Here too, outside intervention can help stimulate this process of intensification.</p><p>The framework resulting from this study instead, influenced by political ecology, indigenous knowledge, and social anthropological approaches, argues that the dynamics behind African agricultural systems are much more variegated than a single trend towards land degradation allows. The framework questions land degradation narratives and, rather than focus on population density as the harbinger or cure to land degradation, it focuses on the interactions of social and environmental histories of an area in order understand the dynamic landscapes that emerge as a consequence thereof. Part 2 of the book operationalizes this approach by paying attention to social historical processes that took place in the research area within the past century (chapter 4), focusing on long-term environmental change (chapter 5), looking at farmers' soil and water conservation technologies (chapter 6), understanding local economic concepts that influence allocative decisions in agriculture (chapter 7), and how social institutions, and their change over time, affect agriculture in the study region (chapter 8). The last chapter of part 2 pulls the different parts of the analysis together to explain how, in a region that is experiencing all of the trends thought to be harbingers of land degradation, no evidence of land degradation is found (chapter 9). The contents of each of these chapters will be discussed in detail below.</p><p>The approach used in this study requires a wide variety of methods because different aspects of soil and water conservation need to be studied and because the emphasis on allowing the relevant research concepts to emerge from fieldwork requires starting out in a broad fashion. Chapter 3 presents the methods used in this study and explains the reasoning why these methods were used.</p><p>Part 2 of the book presents the chapters that aim at answering the three main research questions: (1) what evidence is there of land degradation? (2) how do people go about conserving soil and water? (3) why do people conserve soil and water in the way that they do? Chapter 4 introduces the research area and villages and focuses on the social history of the area since the late nineteenth century. The study takes place in two villages in the eastern region of Burkina Faso and focuses on the Gourmantché system of agriculture. The emphasis on historical changes experienced in this system allows the analyses of the following chapters to be placed within a broader historical picture. Some of the major changes experienced within the last century that have significantly altered the livelihood system are an increased individualization of production and consumption in conjunction with a decline of traditional authorities, increasing cultivation in bush camps, more extensive livestock ownership among the Gourmantché, and an increased monetization and market orientation. These changes have been spurred, among others, by oppressive colonial practices and increased market integration. At the same time, population and livestock densities have risen steeply, raising the question how this has influenced the state of natural resources.</p><p>Chapter 5 picks up on this question and conducts a multi-scale analysis of the indicators and proxies that are normally used to argue the presence of land degradation trends. Crop yields, agricultural productivity, biodiversity, and soil fertility are analyzed both spatially and temporally at the national, regional, and village levels. No evidence is found to support the land degradation narrative. Furthermore, the chapter highlights some of the weaknesses inherent in the methods used to analyze land degradation. Given the lack of evidence of land degradation, the strong population growth experienced over the last 40 years, and the relatively high rural population densities found in large parts of the country, the chapter excludes Neo-Malthusian predictions of widespread degradation and starvation. In agreement with Boserupian thinking, the evidence put forward in this chapter suggests that some form of agricultural intensification is instead taking place that allows food production to grow along with population. However, contrary to Boserup's theory, there seems to be little evidence that this form of intensification is based on high use of external inputs and increased mechanization. Neither are there any indications that certain population thresholds need to be surpassed before farmers undertake intensification or improve the environmental sustainability of their land use practices. How this intensification takes place and in what form is the topic of the chapters that follow.</p><p>Chapter 6, takes an indigenous knowledge approach to the study of farmers' soil and water conservation technologies, but focuses not only on descriptions of the technologies as is common in indigenous knowledge studies, but also looks at farmers' theories of soil formation and degradation processes and their own roles within these processes as users of the land. It is found that Gourmantché farmers make use of an extensive repertoire of soil and water conservation practices, most of which are agronomic/biological practices that make use of management skills and biological material. Mechanical practices that make use of physical structures are used, but to a limited extent, and they seem to have declined compared to some 30 to 40 years ago. It is argued, based on stories of informants and an analysis of aerial photographs, that this is not an indication of a decline of "traditional" practices, but an adaptation of their use to changing environmental conditions.</p><p>One of the most important points raised in this chapter is that Gourmantché farmers adapt their management practices sequentially in the course of a single growing season, as well as during the cultivation cycle of a field. This process of adaptive management has allowed farmers to maintain soil fertility or even improve it on cultivated fields relative to uncultivated land. Adaptive management involves strategic thinking and experimentation, as well as responses to changing soil fertility and unpredictable environmental and socio-economic production constraints. Thus adaptive management is a dynamic process of experimentation, fine-tuning and exploration of new opportunities.</p><p>As was argued in the analytical framework, an absence of land degradation is not only a sign that appropriate technologies and inputs are being used in a cultivation system, but also that there is a social organization around the land that allows resources necessary for an environmentally sustainable form of agriculture to be accessed. Chapter 7 analyzes the concepts that guide economic action in order to then, in chapter 8, be able to analyze how these concepts influence access to resources for agriculture. Chapter 7 analyzes the local economy by making no a priori assumptions about the type of economy, traditional or market, that guides allocative decisions. Instead, the chapter explores the concepts guiding local economic reasoning. It was found that these concepts cannot be categorized as either purely capitalistic nor traditional. Rather, a mixture is found of market principles and social considerations. Market transactions are pervasive and livelihoods are earned not only through subsistence farming but also through incomes earned with off-farm activities and livestock husbandry. People also engage in profit making activities such as buying grain when it is cheap and reselling it when prices are high, or livestock fattening. At the same time social transactions such as gifts or interest-free loans form an important part of daily life. Even market transactions are characterized by the giving of gifts or discounts. Together, these transactions aim at a delicate balance between earning profits and establishing and maintaining social networks. An analysis of the historical development of market and social institutions does not indicate that the latter are being replaced by the former. The resulting mixture of principles that guide economic action is what we term the cultural economy.</p><p>Chapter 8 looks at how the mixture of social and market principles affect the way in which agriculture is practiced, and in specific, how they influence the way land is conserved. The chapter highlights how social networks have changed to increasingly be used to access resources for agriculture. With the increased use of land for cultivation, borrowing of land is an option used for not over-cultivating one's own lineage land; as production units have been getting smaller, networks are increasingly used to access labor; with women's greater involvement in agriculture, their natal family ties are used to access necessary resources for conducting agriculture; as more technologies are available for cultivating, networks are used to access them; as Fulbe settle on village territories, new forms of network building are created to allow the rearing of livestock; and finally, as cash needs become greater, ways of networking to access cash are being developed. By looking at networks as a source of access to resources, the issue of accessibility is treated in a broader way than most studies on agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability that instead focus on access of resources through monetary means.</p><p>The various analyses of the chapters 4 through 8 are drawn together in chapter 9 to explain the lack of land degradation found in the study region while the final chapter of the book draws the conclusions from this case study to a theoretical level. The most important conclusions relating to the study of soil and water conservation are (1) land degradation narratives need to be questioned by analyzing the data on which they are based; (2) while population densities can act as a stimulus to technological intensification, farmers respond to more than just population densities in order to change their agricultural practices. It is therefore necessary to study how populations adapt to changes in the social, economic and physical contexts; (3) technological intensification obtained by some African agricultural systems is based on the knowledge of crops, soils and the environment and the management skills with which this knowledge is applied. This form of intensification has obtained higher levels of productivity and environmental sustainability than approaches advocating capital-led intensification recognize; (4) there is a need for improved scientific methods for understanding the effects of farmers' practices on the environment and agricultural productivity; (5) institutional development that takes on other than capitalistic forms, can, contrary to the assumptions made by studies of capital-led intensification, lead to productive and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices; (6) social networks are not the unchanging characteristics of a traditional system but rather change as a result of people dealing with changing social, economic, and environmental contexts. As such they can be fundamental to making an agricultural system productive and environmentally sustainable; (7) people dispose of both technical as well as social means to affect agricultural performance; (8) forms of intensification in African production systems can only be understood in terms of the dynamic interplay between social and environmental histories. Consequently, there is a need for analytical frameworks that focus on this interplay between social and environmental contexts, rather than assume a simple trend towards increasing land degradation. This kind of approach reveals the dynamic and contrasting trends that can be present in different localities at different points in time. This study offers an example of such an analytical framework and how it can be operationalized, leading to innovative perspectives on African land use systems.</p><p>The authors can be contacted at: &</p>
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Stroosnijder, L., Promotor
  • Röling, N.G., Promotor
Award date20 Jun 2000
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058082503
Publication statusPublished - 2000


  • soil conservation
  • water conservation
  • land evaluation
  • sustainability
  • social change
  • farmers
  • farming systems
  • intensification
  • Burkina Faso
  • cum laude

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