Sustainable economic growth is essential for improving human well-being. However, the tendency to push production and consumption beyond the Earth’s ability to support them makes such an achievement impossible and, if this trend is not stopped, it could herald a disastrous tomorrow for Africa. Sustainable development is only possible where economic growth, social justice and equity, and environmental integrity are achieved.
The three pillars of sustainable development need to be addressed in an integrated manner in order to achieve the desired outcome. Peace and stability are necessary for development, and the environment can create important opportunities for collaboration. An equitable society in which people are empowered to participate effectively in policy making and decisions that affect their well-being is essential. Fairness and equitable distribution of natural resources, as well as other local, national, regional and global wealth and benefits, the rule of law, and respect and tolerance of differences in culture, religious beliefs and traditions are essential for harmonious and sustainable development.
Most economic activities in Africa are based on the natural resource endowment; the depletion of natural resources beyond their regeneration rate and their pollution and reduction of their waste assimilation capacity will impede growth. The social and cultural aspects of use need to be considered as well, and in particular the issue of equity needs to be more effectively addressed. Africa can create new opportunities for growth and well-being through the effective implementation of policies by developing appropriate strategies, project planning and sustainable practices. Incorporation and operationalization of sustainable development principles, including intergenerational and intragenerational equity, the polluter pays principle, the precautionary approach, community participation and the mainstreaming of environment and gender into development planning and decision-making will go a long way to achieve sustainable development.
Growth in Africa in the 1990s became associated with income inequality and this trend has since continued. It is now widely accepted that inequality in access to assets, and especially productive assets, such as land, are critical factors driving inequitable growth and poverty. The Gini index measures the extent to which the distribution of income (or consumption) among individuals or households within a country deviates from a perfectly equal distribution: a value of 0 represents perfect equality, a value of 100 perfect inequality. Many countries in Southern Africa have high values due to the unequal land and natural resource distribution that forms the basis of their economies. Zimbabwe, for example has a value of 56.8. A similarl pattern is evident in Nigeria, with a value of 50.6 as a result of an economy based largely on mineral and oil exports and poor local benefit distribution. A reduction in inequality can add a "redistribution component" to growth, leading to faster overall poverty reduction.
The World Development Report 2003 points out that, with the global economy growing at a projected rate of 3 percent per year over the next 50 years, there will be a fourfold increase in world gross domestic product (GDP). This growth will require major investments in new human-made capital to expand capacity and to replace existing capacity as it ages. It is projected to generate more environmental and social stress. Increased income can facilitate better social and environmental outcomes if countries adopt more equitable and pro-poor strategies. Countries should take preemptive action to deal with impending social, economic and environmental catastrophes, such as energy and water crises among others. Adopting an approach to investment and development that incorporates sustainability criteria is critical in avoiding adverse impacts. Development paths in Africa can be shifted, provided institutions for implementing the constructive policies are developed.
In order to achieve sustainable development in Africa, financial and other resources, both local and global, have to be mobilized as pledged in many world fora including the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. Investment strategies need to focus more directly on creating opportunities for growth that favors poor people. The downward trend in foreign direct investment (FDI) and development aid needs to be reversed. Technology is potentially an important tool for achieving sustainable development, therefore its transfer and accessibility should be improved. Technologies may be useful in promoting more efficient utilization of resources as well as cleaner production and consumption. The developed world, through the World Trade Organization (WTO), needs to facilitate the achievement of fairer international trade. This will give developing countries better access to international markets and thus boost their production and economic growth. Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) can also provide an opportunity to tackle poverty through improved health and education, and also through mainstreaming the natural environment into everyday decision-making processes for management and utilization of environmental resources.
Opportunities from the endowment value of natural resources
To enhance the opportunities available from Africa’s natural resource endowments, current patterns of unsustainable resource management must be changed. 'Development now, environment later' is not a sustainable option for Africa. Harvesting of natural resources that has limited regard for regeneration capabilities and focuses primarily on meeting growing demand and ensuring continued supply will have long-term implications for economic growth and the ability to reduce poverty. Agricultural land is being degraded due to overutilization and hence productivity is generally going down, demanding more use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides which pollute the environment.
Many extractive activities of non-renewable natural resources, such as mining, are done in an environmentally damaging manner through, for example, the clearing of vegetative cover in sensitive water catchment areas and forests. These activities can be undertaken in a more environmentally responsive way, through the use of environmental impact assessment (EIA) systems which give greater attention to restoration and rehabilitation. Many human activities are also polluting the environment through the use of hazardous chemicals, such as mercury and cyanide in the case of gold mining. These heavy metals and chemicals respectively go on to contaminate the water, which is a habitat for aquatic life and enters the human food chain with deadly effect. Forest clearing for either farm expansion or other development also harms the environment through habitat destruction, which in turn contributes to biodiversity loss. The conflicting objectives and uncoordinated strategies by different sectors contribute to the degradation of natural resources. Revising management and utilization strategies and practices, and bringing them in line with sustainable development objectives, is a good starting point for realizing Africa’s development objectives.
The equitable sharing and use of water resources and its efficient and sustainable management present numerous challenges as Africa tries to meet growing demand from industry, agriculture and human use in managing the available water resource, issues of its efficient allocation and use must be considered. The existing situation is that in some quarters water is inefficiently allocated and utilized, potentially leading to increasing water-use conflicts across the region. Environmental impact assessment is one tool that can be used to effectively include the environment in this and other spheres of planning.
The valuation of environmental goods and services is another opportunity to understand the value of the natural environment outside the conventional markets, which may not fully be able to access the rate of and consequences of degradation. Creating markets for environmental services could create new opportunities for enhancing the value attributed to such resources. In the forest sector, markets could also be used for biodiversity conservation, watershed protection, and landscape beauty. The Kyoto Protocol, which introduced carbon markets and trading, creates opportunities for countries and their inhabitants to engage in forest conservation and/or reforestation, providing a carbon sink function of forests.
Although entry into the market can create new opportunities, the high levels of inequity in global markets potentially undercut the opportunities available to poor people. Markets may also place new threats on assets and the range of values available at the local level. A major challenge in developing environmental markets is how to ensure that such development is pro-poor and contributes to growth with equity objectives. Markets transform environmental services into private commodities, creating new sources of income for sellers, improved service delivery for buyers, improved efficiency of resource use and allocation and new investment. To ensure poor people benefit from market access is essential, and support may be necessary to help poor people participate effectively. This can be supported through secure tenure, skills development and education, access to finance and market information, better commodity design, and improved transportation and communications infrastructure. Since markets are multi-stakeholder – incorporating the public and private sectors, communities, nongovernmental and local organizations, donors and individual entrepreneurs – it is important for there to be clear governance systems.
Peace, good governance and democracy, and cooperation as an opportunity
More equitable distribution of Africa’s wealth will promote harmonious coexistence among people, while polarized benefit sharing brings with it deprivation, insecurity and unrest. Peace and cooperation are crucial for any kind of economic activity leading to economic growth to prevail, and for equitable benefit sharing. Addressing these issues requires multidimensional responses.
Even with good knowledge and understanding of the environmental processes, there can be unsustainable use of the natural resource and a high rate of degradation of the natural environment. Deficiencies in governance are key contributory factors. Corruption, which is a growing scourge in Africa, undermines people’s rights and fair distribution and access to resources and national wealth. In countries with weak governance systems, the values and aspirations of important but not powerful sections of society may be under-represented. In such instances, a small group of interests become dominant, resulting in benefits accruing to a few. In “effective” democratic processes, the participation of communities in decisions which affect their well-being and livelihoods creates an opportunity for multiple interests, views and knowledge (including indigenous knowledge) to be incorporated in planning and in the decision-making processes. This ensures ownership of the processes, costs and benefit sharing, and inculcates a sense of responsibility in all involved and is thus preferable to a top-down process.
Furthermore, in order to facilitate changing the current situation, environmental management, and legal and institutional reforms should take on board new initiatives, including market economic instruments for allocation and demand management of environmental resources. The operationalization of the polluter pays principle and precautionary approach requires the backing of enforceable legal provisions, which are still largely non-existent. In Africa, these processes are beginning to take root in many countries and therefore there is an opportunity to strengthen these efforts. It should, however, be noted that change dynamics are not linear or evolutionary. This means they differ from area to area and therefore require specific policies and solutions which take account of sub-regional, national and local specificities.
Weak and inappropriate institutions and practices undermine sustainable development. This is the case particularly when institutions lack capacity or are highly bureaucratic. In Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda, public sector institutions are often seen to be constraining rather than enabling people to construct their own livelihood paths out of poverty. In Tanzania, it was found that a combination of poorly functioning markets and disabling institutional set-up procedures, including high taxation and rent-seeking behavior, made it difficult for people to sustain their livelihoods. In Malawi, access to natural resources was difficult for most due to nonsupportive property rights regimes for land, forest and aquatic resources. Local government decentralization was found to create new business opportunities, although licences and imposition of taxes act as barriers to trade and enterprise development. In Uganda, as in Tanzania and Malawi, rural taxation was found to be a barrier to poverty reduction goals.
Technological changes and research
Technology is a key factor in improving productivity and efficiency in the utilization of natural resources and for improving human well-being.
Technology affects human development in two important ways. First, innovation can directly increase the ability of existing science, technology and innovation programs to reduce poverty and expand human capabilities, as is evident through technological innovations in public health, agriculture, energy use, and information and communication technology (ICT). Second, technology can indirectly affect human well-being by enhancing productivity and increasing economic growth and incomes through, among other things, promoting economic growth.
The adoption of technologies for more efficient and cleaner production activities, as well as for value-adding activities by small entrepreneurs, is severely constrained by the lack of adequate income as well as inadequate information. Ensuring the uptake of technologies will thus need multidimensional responses that improve the overall capabilities of people.
Unfortunately, local development of technology in Africa related to natural resources has been very slow, leading to over-reliance on technology developed elsewhere. In most cases, this technology is linked to foreign direct investment (FDI), with a principal focus on maximizing profits. The development of appropriate technologies that address African priorities and that are responsive to local conditions has not been a focus of research. Nevertheless, new technologies, developed globally, particularly in the areas of ICT, biotechnology (or genomics), nanotechnology, materials science, and spatial information technology potentially offer important opportunities for development, improving human well-being and sustainable environmental management.
Increasingly, African countries are exploring the opportunities and risks posed by these new technologies. Many African countries recognize the value of ICT, not only for stimulating the economy, but also for environmental management. Some African countries are investing in the application of ICT for planning, management and monitoring of environmental resources. Ghana, for instance, is using ICT to facilitate the mainstreaming of environment in its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and development plans in its district assemblies. A novel aspect of this ICT application is the intricate networking that involves the presidency, the national parliament, the ministry of finance, ministry of local government, and the national development and planning commission: this enhances access and utilization of a common pool of information for decision-making.
In most African countries there is relatively low investment in research activities as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). However, research is important for improving responses and enhancing capabilities and thus this needs to be urgently addressed through the development of partnerships, stable investment environments, and legal and policy frameworks that provide for fair and equitable intellectual property rights. Research into various environmental goods and services, such as wetlands and forest lands, can make a difference in how they are used and the extent to which value is added to them. Apart from research based on modern knowledge, the value of traditional or indigenous knowledge needs to be acknowledged within Africa. There are various initiatives, particularly in the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector, which seek to apply this knowledge to product development. In the pharmaceutical and cosmetic sector, industry has had a keen interest in how to use this knowledge, as shown in Figure 4. The existing genetic and intellectual property regimes do not offer sufficient protection of these assets, thus allowing the benefits associated with their use to be externalized.
Increased investment in research by Africa will need to be complemented by a greater global commitment to the transfer of technology and the more equitable sharing of the benefits associated with this.
Traditional knowledge and cultural practice in natural resources management
Traditional natural resource governance systems are important in environmental management, often informing or complementing contemporary management regimes.
Communities in Africa have relied on traditional knowledge to manage natural resources since time immemorial. Traditional knowledge transcends all aspects of life (such as food, health, housing, communication) and the environment (relations between biodiversity and ecological factors, identification criteria of biodiversity elements).
Traditional cultural practices can make a significant contribution to sustainable development. Most indigenous and local communities are situated in areas where the vast majority of the world’s plant genetic resources are found. Many of them have cultivated and used biological diversity in a sustainable way for thousands of years. The abundance of wildlife species, especially in the savannahs of east Africa, is due in great part to the grassland management strategies of pastoralists.
Observations and experimentations in the environment lead to the selection of plant varieties as crops, medicines and timbers for various uses. The role of trees in nutrient recycling, soil organic matter build-up and erosion control has been recognized by traditional farmers, who have identified and have been encouraging the most effective tree species in the fallow. For example, in south-western Nigeria, especially around the city of Ibadan, farmers claim Gliricidia septum to be an effective fallow species which restores land productivity for food crops after a fallow of only two years. When land is abundant, the bush fallow system provides the traditional farmers with an efficient, balanced and stable system for maintaining soil productivity. Problems only arise when land becomes limited due to increasing population and land alienation.
The Barbaig of Tanzania used their land communally by moving their livestock in a seasonal grazing rotation. Although access to land was free to everybody, control was exercised and maintained through customary rules and traditional institutional procedures. Mobility and knowledge of different kinds of fodder is a strategy that can increase productivity of rangelands. Using milk as the main product also increases the number of people who can be supported on livestock. Also, Barbaigs, Maasai and Kurya split herds of cattle during shortage of grazing pastures taking account of the environment’s diminished carrying capacity.
Traditional knowledge has been overlooked in the recent past and, in some cases, is being lost.
Infrastructure development, including transportation, telecommunications and energy networks, is essential for improving economic opportunity as well as human well-being.
Infrastructure development may generate substantial positive and negative externalities. Infrastructural development creates opportunities to reduce the isolation, and lack of access to essential services, that many rural people experience. It is essential for enhancing the creation and application of science, technology and innovation in development. It may also exacerbate resource extraction, especially where weak governance regimes exist.
Many African countries inherited transport and communication systems that were designed to serve the interests of former colonial masters, focusing on the movement of goods to ports without facilitating crossborder trade and regional integration. One consequence of this is high transport costs. In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), freight costs are about 20 percent higher than those of their competitors.
Infrastructure affects patterns of production and consumption by firms and individuals. High transport costs, long distances from the point of sale and the lack of transport infrastructure undermine the market opportunities for natural resources. These factors coalesce to undermine the incentive to engage in value-adding activities that could result in the more efficient and productive uses of resources which may counter tendencies towards overexploitation. Access to electric power is crucial in terms of productive options, and telecommunications are essential for the flow of information.
African countries need to adopt strategies to improve their infrastructure in ways that address these challenges. Infrastructure is one of the eight priorities of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). Policymakers need to recognize the dynamic role that infrastructure development can play in economic growth, development and conservation. For infrastructure to become more effective, developing countries need to adopt and enforce infrastructure standards. From the early design stages, they need to promote the interoperability of infrastructure systems, not only nationally, but also regionally and internationally. Standards should be drawn up and implemented so that they do not create barriers to innovation.
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This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
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