Africa: winds of dangerous change!
In April 2006, two cargoes crossed the Atlantic from West Africa, landing in different parts of the American coast
In Barbados, a man fishing along the coast discovered a 20-foot boat adrift with the bodies of 11 young African men on board, bodies that were “virtually mummified” by the sun and salty ocean spray. They were all that remained of a group of 52 who had apparently left senegal on christmas eve aboard a boat destined for the Canary Islands, a jumping off point for Europe. Instead, they had drifted west for 2,000 miles, ending up three months later in the Caribbean. As the end drew near, one passenger had left a note tucked between two of the bodies: “I would like to send my family in Basada (Senegal) a sum of money. Please excuse me and goodbye”.
The second cargo to cross the Atlantic in the same (Harmattan) winds that year was a huge dust storm, that began in the African Sahel region and drifted across the Atlantic. This huge khaki coloured cloud stretched to over 3,600 kilometres (roughly 3,300 miles). Fred Pearce (in his new book: The Last Generation) thinks the dust clouds can grow to three kilometres high as they cross the Atlantic. Lester Brown says NASA reckoned this cloud would have covered the entire United States and extended into the oceans on both coasts, if it had drifted in that direction. Instead, it headed for the coast of south America and finally settled over the Amazon where it emptied its load across the forests; soil that Africa could not afford to lose. Richard Washington from Oxford says that two-fifths of the dust in the atmosphere comes from the Sahara.
Of course, neither the dust cloud nor the boat load of migrants were unique that year: they both cross from Africa regularly. Early in September 2006, police intercepted boats from Mauritania with nearly 1,200 people on board. In another, reported in October, 2003, the Italian authorities found a boat, adrift for more than two weeks and running out of food, water and fuel. Many of the passengers had died. At first the dead were thrown overboard but, as the others grew too weak to do this, they left them on board. One of the rescuers described it as “a scene from Dante’s Inferno” (International Herald Tribune, 21 October 2003). People thought these refugees came from Somalia, although the migrants had destroyed all their papers so that no one could send them back home.
We do not know exactly how many thousands of young people leave Africa by boat each year, filled with the hope of arriving at some place in Europe where they can create a modest life for themselves. They probably want to earn enough to get by with something to send back home so that their families have money for food. This never ending stream of would be migrants keeps growing each year. Scientists at a 2006 UN Tunis conference on the deteriorating soil in Africa reckon that this flow of migrants trying to reach Europe each year could reach about sixty million by 2020.
But no one really knows exactly how many people leave their homes in this part of Africa, to try to get as far as Europe. Huge numbers of people probably never make it. They die along the routes, with no one to take account of their dying. Joseph Winter, a BBC reporter (April 2004) tells about the hazards that one migrant faced: “Marcel spent the equivalent of $200 on his journey from Ivory Cost. The truck that carried him and 44 others from the city of Kidal in Mali to their destination in Algeria became lost in the desert. "I spent four days with little drink before the driver could find his way again," he recalled. He says that he saw fellow passengers die in front of him on the journey. "These immigrants prefer to risk their lives to come to Algeria rather than go to other neighbouring countries because - job opportunities aside - they know that if they perish on Algerian soil the authorities will work to identify their origins and send them back to their countries," says Sami Riyad, a journalist with the main Algerian independent El-Khabar daily. "If unsuccessful, they will be buried properly here." Binta from Niger said she had walked across the desert (in a group) for two weeks. One woman had fallen sick. At first, the others had carried her for two days before they tired and they abandoned her. The next group of migrants had later found her dead and buried her. These are extremely remote areas, with nothing for thousands of miles. The only passers-by are other illegal migrants or people smugglers. The bones of thousands of migrants probably lie beneath the desert sand.
There are simply too many people living on land that is no longer fertile enough to feed the people adequately. Sudan’s population, for example, has climbed four-fold from 9 million in 1950 to 39 million in 2007. This problem is exacerbated through the huge increase in the numbers of animals on the land. The cattle population rose six-fold from fewer than 7 to 40 million. And the sheep and goat herds increased eight-fold from 14 million to 113 million. The animals cause massive damage by walking across the soil in search of grass. They break up the soil into small particles as they trample across it. This then gets sucked up into the windstorms. The vegetation just cannot survive with all these extra mouths to feed! As the population of herders and farmers have soared, so the competition for this land has intensified. Clashes in most places have been managed by local elders and law enforcement officials: fines have been levied, grazing boundaries have been set, and deals have been struck. In Mali, Oxfam workers coaxed leaders of both sides to work out new rules on when and where grazing was permitted. This happened in Nigeria, some years ago, in a village called Kassa, where farmers accused cattle herders of deliberately sending their long-horned beasts to trample across their plots. Somini Sengupta, reporting for the BBC, in June 2004, says that cattle herders accused farmers of deliberately setting their grassy meadows on fire to keep their animals from grazing. These conflicts flare up from time to time. It is a clash of men of two cultures: farmers are attached to the lands and the herders arcommitted to their flocks.
This erosion is nothing new. What is different now is the rate of erosion. We take for granted the slow process of soil formation caused by the weathering of rock, providing a build up of soil to support vegetation and this vegetation reduces erosion, building up rich topsoil from the vegetation. But this process has taken hundreds of years to produce such a rich topsoil in the world. Much of this soil is being lost each year through this wind erosion as well as water erosion caused by the heavy tropical rains on this now arid African soil. Once it has gone, it can never be replaced.
The soil gets sucked up in the windstorms. At first, the dust storms remove the finer particles of soil. Once these have blown away, sandstorms become the prevailing measure of soil wastage. First, it blows across the desert and then across the farmlands, making both grazing and farming impossible. The soil is disappearing at a faster rate than it is being produced. We have an enormous soil deficit. These dust storms used to be rare events; but Andrew Goudie at Oxford says they are now commonplace. He thinks they have increased ten-fold over the last fifty years. In Mauritania, on Africa’s west coast, the number of dust storms has jumped from two a year in the 1960s, to 80 in the 2000s.
The worst part of the erosion occurs in the Bodele area in Chad. Half of all the soil in dust storms comes from the Bodele, which Fred Pearce calls the dustiest place on earth. This dust grew five-fold between the wet 1960s and the dry 1980s. This Bodele dust is especially valuable since it contains the dried-out remains of the vast Lake Megachad. Fred Pearce says that this dust contains trillions of microscopic fresh-water creatures that once lived in huge numbers in the lake. The fragments are light enough to blow freely across the oceans. An estimated 1.3 billion tons of wind-borne soil each year (a ten-fold increase since 1947) joins the rest of the 2-3 billion ton soil cargo from Africa to cross the Atlantic and end up in the Amazon, where the particles make great fertilizer! If only the Sahara had a decent amount of rainfall each year, Africa could retain these nutrients to create rich farmlands instead. This loss of soil is measured in billions of tons and drains the soil of its fertility and productivity.
Throughout the world the rates are staggering. Two billion hectares of land world wide is losing its soil. Put in perspective, that amounts to three times the area of land the world devotes to grain production. Yang Youlin of China reckons that 84 per cent of all the world’s arid lands are suffering from erosion. It is like a huge war where the enemy is gaining our land at a fast rate! And this erosion in Africa has caused the yield of crops to fall steadily each year by six percent, according to Lester Brown. Rattan Lal, an agronomist from Ohio State University, says that the African grain harvests have been reduced by eight per cent (i.e. 8 million tons) a year. He reckons this will double by 2020 to 16 million tons – enough to feed 80 million people at African levels of consumption.
The vicious cycle:
So in this region we have a never ending cycle. The African population grows and, with it, herders increase their flocks, so that the land gets overgrazed. The herds of sheep, goats and cattle then destroy the grass cover, leaving the soil to get blown away, which further reduces the crops that can be grown and the livestock that can be sustained on the land. This causes the poverty and hunger that drives people to cross the oceans or land in search of a better livelihood. How ironic that African bodies leave the West African ports as the African soil drifts across the Atlantic Ocean!
Changing our thinking:
One problem that cries out to be tackled is how to join up the dots of these disparate processes. Soil specialists do not know about migration streams. The pastoralists are not bothered about arable farming and the farmers’ crops. European politicians want only to stem the flow of migrants from Africa, coming to the Union. The different countries in the Sahel and the Sahara know about the soil erosion, but they probably do not share their ideas or develop their plans alongside the plans of other countries in the region.It is almost impossible to get a consensus among so many nations, in order to proceed together. Journalists report what they see day by day, without the time to investigate the underlying processes. So we the readers and viewers make our own moral judgements and focus on who we want to blame, without noticing that this is a really complex system of degradation and poverty that is out of control. Yes, probably there is a committee somewhere in the UN building in New York that produces papers on this complex problem (I think I have read some of them). And the officials probably have talks with the politicians in these countries. But so far, no one has taken the lead in tackling this process of decline in a serious, co-ordinated way. It could be done. We have the expertise, and probably the funding too. But the will is not there to tackle such an un-dramatic disaster!
Instead, President Gaddalfi wants to fry only the big fish! And people like President Sarkozy tend to think big too. He wants to build up his new Mediterranean Forum, and to create a massive solar energy resource out of the Sahara Desert. It will probably cost a lot and is aimed primarily at producing new forms of energy for……..Europe! He could also mobilise the potential wind power across the Sahara. Only today, Louis Michel, the EU development commissioner announced in Bamako (the capital of Mali) that she wants to set up a Migration Management Centre to dissuade Africans from trying to take ‘the hazardous routes’ to Europe! She does not seem to know what to offer the migrants in Bamako!
There are solutions of course. Paul Harrison, in his book The Greening of Africa (published as early as 1992) outlines many traditional ways that West African farmers have used to conserve the soil, reclaim the desert and replant with the missing shrubs and trees. He travelled across the continent at the time to record the numerous techniques that African farmers used to improve the soil. Then, President Oluseugun Obasanjo, when he was President of Nigeria, talked about a plan to plant 300 million trees in 3 million hectares of land in a long band stretching across Africa. What happened to that? In 2004, the Tree Woman, as she was known – Professor Wangari Maathai – was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her enormous work in getting over a million trees planted (in spite of huge harassment by her opponents and being thrown in prison too) in Kenya. The staff at Wageningen University in the Netherlands have worked closely with groups of farmers across the Sahara, encouraging many different forms of simple water collection sumps for improving the soil, as well as novel windbreaks to arrest the soil erosion. The work has been written up and is quoted endlessly. But is it being widely adopted across the Sahel yet? As far as I can tell, many other farmers know nothing of these initiatives. Improving the Sahel Region is painstaking work. It is not particularly newsworthy. Nor will it bring big kudos to European politicians flying in and out of African cities. But it could just save this region of Africa and encourage would be migrants to stay in the land and build up the soil in a collaborative way.