Good news, yes, but….

John Liu, a film-maker who has been documenting the transformation, told a conference on “human security” in Caux, Switzerland, this week that the results had “far exceeded expectations”. Other speakers had similarly surprising experiences. Yacouba Sawadogo – an innovative, illiterate and eloquent small farmer from Burkino Faso – experimented with digging holes every metre across his barren land and filling them with manure. His yields of millet and sorghum quickly jumped from nothing to 1,500 kilos a hectare in years of good rains, and tens of thousands of his neighbours have followed suit.

And Dr Chris Reij, of Amsterdam’s Vrije University, who has worked in the Sahel for over 30 years, described how farmers in Niger had greened five million hectares of unproductive land simply by protecting naturally sprouting tree seedlings from being eaten by goats. The result: an extra 500,000 tons of grain a year – enough to feed at least 2.5 million people.

He reckons that two thirds of the world’s degraded land could be similarly restored. But encouraging as the grassroots greening has been, it remains piecemeal, and largely unknown – still less supported – by local governments, let alone the world at large.

At the heart of such practices is \”investment\”.

Digging holes to put shit in doesn\’t exactly cost a lot of money. But there\’s most certainly a time and labour investment there.

And one of the things about human beings is that they\’ll only make such investments when they get to at least share in, if not entirely capture, the rewards from such investments.

Which in turn means that a farmer will make such investments in upgrading \”his\” land, but is less likely to do so with communally owned land and really isn\’t going to put the effort in at all if he doesn\’t have secure tenure at all.

I dimly recall a story from one of the Sahel states (Burkina Faso I think) where a farmer had started planting trees. By the time the area became sylvan glades the government took the land off him. Something to do (from imperfect memory) with forests being state owned, farm land being privately I think. That\’s really not the way to get people planting forests.

Similarly, all land in Ethiopia is state owned. The peasantry have \”permanent\” leases on the land. \”Permanent\” meaning \”can be transferred by the government any time the government decides to\”. This simply is not the way to get farmers to make these kinds of long term investments in the land.

Yes, I know that there are those who still whine about the enclosures of 300 years ago in the UK. But that is how you get long term investment in farmland and it is what needs to be done in other areas. Not necessarily the hedges and the walls, but the security of tenure.

Owners invest in the land: sharecroppers don\’t.

Which brings me to an apocryphal (possibly) story about one of the greatest pieces of development aid ever. From the US to Madagascar. Interesting language they have there, requires specialist keyboards/typewriters. One of the aid officials noted that a really serious problem the farmers were having was registering land they had bought. Or inherited etc. Not because of corruption, feudal landlord vileness or anything. Just because the office that did the registrations couldn\’t keep up with the volume of such.

So they had some fresh typewriters (not computers, for \’leccie supply reasons) made up and delivered. This removed the bottleneck, provided provable security of tenure and cost a few thousand $.

Excellent work: and an interesting guide to where aid really ought to go. In working out what actually is the problem and then solving that specific problem.

9 thoughts on “Good news, yes, but….”

  1. So, the Sahara is getting greener because of private ownership.
    Good.
    Turning now to the world’s oceans…

  2. Yes, but you are mixing up ‘security of tenure’ with individual private ownership.

    It can just as well be ‘community’. Not states – the heavens forbid – but local communities or something like, oh I dunno… corporations?

    There’s no reason to think that the introduction of new farming techniques wouldn’t have been achieved without the enclosures.

    Politicians passing laws to steal land – are on the side here you want to be here?

  3. “The peasantry have “permanent” leases on the land. “Permanent” meaning “can be transferred by the government any time the government decides to”

    This is, I believe, an identical tenure to what we call “freehold” in the UK. All land is owned by the “Crown” – which is why unclaimed land reverts to state ownership.

    The difference is arbitrary government – in the UK we call it a “Compulsory Purchase Order”.

  4. Yes but targeted aid doesn’t fill a leftists heart with their craved “moral glow”…

    It has to be huge amounts spread indiscriminately..

  5. “there are those who still whine about the enclosures of 300 years ago in the UK.” Especially if they have never read up on them.

  6. dearieme

    Good point, the enclosures are one of those things that have entered a sort of background folklore, nobody knows much about them but nearly everyone knows they were a bad thing. They sit alongside that other great myth of the English countryside – that all the oaks were chopped down to provide ships for the navy.

  7. Doug, with a local community owning something, doesn’t this increase the costs and reduce each individuals’ incentive to engage in trying out new technologies? To get 10 people to agree on something is harder than getting 1 or 2.

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