Long-term change in African drylands: Can recent history point towards development pathways?
The problem of poverty in Africa was often discussed in terms of the agro-ecological specifics and the internal social relations of societies, production systems and economies. It appeared necessary, therefore, for states and international organizations to intervene. Because poverty was identified with production constraints, such interventions took the form of technological transfer in agriculture. Later, as agro-ecological constraints became more widely perceived, and supposedly "fragile" ecosystems were believed to be under threat from population growth and other factors, emphasis shifted to "environmental sustainability". As with the new technologies, so with sustainable natural resource management, it was often assumed that the new knowledge must come from outside, or from "science", and must be promoted against the natural "conservatism" of smallholders by whatever means necessary--from coercion at one extreme to "participation" at the other. Recently there has been much movement away from such stereotypical positions towards more subtle and varied statements of the problem. However, I believe there is still a lacuna with respect to the autonomy of the smallholder in the "fight against poverty". Intervention is still the name of the game, and receives far more attention than the resources or achievements of poor people themselves. Analyses of long-term trends in the management of resources at the village, regional and national levels in dryland Africa suggest that African farmers have made considerable achievements in the face of a trying environment. An understanding of this long-term trend may provide a better framework for the diagnosis of current problems and the formulation of future policy on poverty and livelihoods in the drylands.