Changes in livelihood strategies in northern Benin their environmental effects
by Dr Leo J. DE HAAN
Livelihood strategies have been subject to rapid change in northern Benin since the 1970s, partly because of the drought in Western Africa and partly because commercial agriculture has developed. This has led to ecological deterioration in various places, but fortunately steps are being taken today to preserve the environment and come up with new ways of managing the land.
The National University of Benin and the University of Amsterdam, in conjunction with the National Centres for Agro-Pedology and for Remote Sensing (two departments in Benin's Ministry of Rural Development and Cooperative Action), and at the request of the Commission of the European Communities, are investigating how changes in relations between the region's main forms of livelihood- farming and breeding, that is to say- have affected the environment and how the ecological changes in turn have affected reciprocal relations. The study project is particularly concerned with the highly dynamic Borgou prefecture (50 905 km² in area and with a population of 600 000), where cotton production has soared, nomadic herdsmen from the Sahel have immigrated in large numbers and the European Development Fund is active in animal health and the development of water tanks for the cattle. The study comprises a socio-economic analysis of farmer-herdsman relations and a pedological and botanical analysis of the environment, using field surveys and interpreting satellite pictures.
Relations between the two forms of livelihood-farming and herding-in Northern Benin have been subject to considerable change. This is something which happens often in the semi-arid regions of Western Africa, where the environment determines the zone of contact between agriculture and trans-humance cattle rearing (nomadic pastoralism). There used to be interaction, based on the interdependence of the two groups and making for greater security of livelihood in a relatively unstable climate, but in the 1980s, circumstances were such that tension between the two groups mounted. This was partly due to technological changes (introduction of draught animals and motorised pumps) and the farmers' increasing involvement in the market - which led to considerable extension of cotton and groudnut crops and market gardening, something which happened particularly fast in Northern Benin-and partly to a period of relative drought affecting the country's herdsmen especially. At the same time, the flow of herdsmen immigrating from the Sahel increased considerably. There is nothing special about this immigration in itself. The people of the Sahel have been migrating over the Sudanese zone of Western Africa for centuries. This recent immigration is the result of aridification in the Sahel. In fact, it is only one element of transhumance movements on a vast scale. Typically, large numbers of nomads flock in from Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo and even Ghana and Mali during the dry season. There are many of them, particularly when drought in the Sahel is dramatic, as it was in 1984 and 1985. It is a long time since the Sahel herdsmen confined their migration to the Borgou prefecture and now they go into prefectures in the centre and south of Benin too-where the peasants are not used to nomadic herdsman and immigration creates a problem.
The Borgou region
In the far north of the Borgou prefecture lie the valley of the River Niger and the sub-prefectures of Karimama and Malanville. These sub-prefectures are limited to the north west by the River Niger, which also marks the national boundary. In the south, the Government has opened the National Park of the 'W', the Cygenetic Zone of Djona and the Listed Forest of Goungoun-an uninterrupted sweep of protected areas closed to farming, herding and housing. South of the protected areas are the sub prefectures of Kandi and Banikoara, heavily used by farmers and herdsman, with a very dynamic cotton trade working solely for export. Further south in the Borgou are areas where cotton, maize and yams are grown.
The Borgou is in the Sudanese climatic zone. The northern parts have previously had average rainfall of 800-950 mm-a figure reached rarely since 1969. Annual variations are considerable. The rainy season runs from May to October. Annual rainfall is as much as 1 100 mm in southern Borgou. Almost all the villages in the Niger valley have been built along the river. The water has rarely covered the banks over the past 20 years, because there is very little rain and irrigation has been augmented upstream. The broad bed of the Niger is currently being used to grow sorghum, maize and rice and there is market gardening along the tributaries. The vegetables are sold on the national market via Malanville, a small town with a sizeable frontier market, the second largest market in Benin.
There has been little development of agricultural techniques in the Borgou and the natural conditions, like the variability of the rainfall and the poor quality of the soil, are crucial. Draft animals and motor pumps are two major exceptions to the region's traditional agricultural practices. In the 1980s, the arable land was extended enormously thanks to draught animals and expanding cotton production. The shortage of land has not been an absolute problem so far, but the extension of the fields combined with the herdsman's use of the land are putting increasing pressure on the environment and leading to a process of soil deterioration. In the far north, motor pumps have been used to irrigate market gardens along the rivers and extend the growing period.
Deterioration of the environment
From an environmental point of view, the ecological situation in various parts of the Borgou is cause for alarm. In the northern sub-prefectures of Karimama and Banikoara and part of Kandi too, soil and vegetation are deteriorating badly because of commercialisation and a series of demographic and climatological factors. In a subprefecture like Kalala in south east Borgou, the situation is better, as lower population density and better rainfall have meant less deterioration of the environment-although there are too many cattle overloading it in the dry season.
Tree formations are deteriorating badly in the National Park of 'W'. The gallery-forest has disappeared. The clear forest and the park savannah are dwindling and shrub and grass savannah have gained a great deal of ground. The deterioration of the plant life is caused above all by brush fires and roaming cattle. Transhumance activity in the Park has increased since the 1970s. Several herds crop the grass throughout the year and the pastureland is over-exploited as a result. Heading does not take place and brush fires burn the grasses and prevent germination. So the pastures of the Park are replaced by neither regrowth nor germination-indication that the land is overloaded.
But herding is not the only cause of decline. There is deterioration in the cotton-growing areas of Banikoara and Kandi too. Draught animals mean trees have to go. A large number of young trees have been felled to make way for cotton fields. Soil usually declines because its physical and chemical make-up is upset, but various types of erosion are already at work here and there. In the Kandi subprefecture, observation of deterioration suggests that the zone can be divided into two. One part has bare hillocks, fields generally along old valley floors and a fairly serious threat of erosion, which is gradually attacking the fields. The other part has hills of quartz-also found on the neighbouring plains. The fields are on homogeneous soil and there is less erosion.
In the sub-prefecture of Banikoara, observation of the deteriorating soils suggests that this area can also be divided into two parts. One is the eastern and northern area with one or two flat-topped hillocks, where the soils vary from slightly leached to leached and the degree of deterioration is fairly moderate to moderate. The other is east of Banikoara, where there are slightly leached ferruginous and hardened ferruginous soils or slightly leached hydromorphic soils on basic rock. Both types are very degraded.
Symbiosis of livelihood strategies and the management of lasting natural resources
The symbiosis between herdsmen and farmers in northern Benin until the 1960s and 1970s cannot just be seen in terms of socio-economic relations between the two groups, because, as we shall see, it also involved regulation of the management of natural resources.
More than a century ago, Peul herdsmen in search of good grazing land penetrated northern Borgou en masse. The Bariba and the Dendi had settled in this region a little earlier and had developed agriculture (Bariba) and farming combined with fishing, an activity which they had depended on before (Dendi).
Since the farmers had the longest-standing rights to the land, the Peuls had to ask them for permission to use it-a principle which still holds good today and l which for years did nothing to prevent genuine equality and relatively harmonious relations between the two groups. Relations between farmers and herdsman until the 1960s and 1970s can be reconstructed as follows.
Interaction of the groups ensured the best living conditions in a fairly capricious, semi-arid climate and symbiosis was founded on this interdependence. It included the bartering of goods and services and-something very interesting from our point of view - land management in the form of alternate use of space. The types of relations differed i according to season and in periods of severe drought. Contact was not always l free of tension, but it was efficient, overall, for both groups.
The Peul used their period of space-sharing in the farmers' crop cycle, of course, to feed and water their herds. Relatively permanent camps served as bases. Families stayed there in the dry season with one or two head of cattle and food was grown there during the rainy season. In the driest months, the herds left for transhumance pastures further south, where there would be grass and water, and at the beginning of the rainy season, they came back for the new grass. They never went too near the fields, preferring cropless land a few kiLométres outside the villages.
When the harvest was over, the animals went into the fields of stubble and deposited dung and the farmers often gave grain in return - the 'manure contract'. As soon as the stubble had been eaten and the water reserves were dwindling, the herds went back south.
The fact that this livestock system helped preserve a physically vulnerable environment is of vital importance from the ecological point of view. Transhumance herding is extensive, but calculations suggest that it is a satisfactory response to climatic instability. The seasonal water shortage especially forces herds to go south in search of waterholes. As they come back only with the first rains, they do not overburden the land. Peasant farmers used to get the Peul to look after their cattle-which therefore left for the transhumance pastures too-and the Peul herdsmen kept the milk and some of the calves in exchange (keeper contract).
The fact that the peasant farmers did not put down fertiliser, but had herdsmen graze their cattle on the stubble fields and leave their dung in exchange, is also important from the ecological point of view. This method was one of the rare traditional methods of countering soil deterioration.
Disputes sometimes arose when herds went too near the crops. In relatively dry years, the herdsmen were forced to take their animals to waterholes in the croplands prematurely. Any disputes were settled at the level of the individual.
In the 1970s and 1980s, changes occured in the symbiotic relationship and, therefore, in land management too, accelerating ecological decline. A large number of the Sahel's herdsmen settled in the Borgou and made the overburdening of the pastureland worse. Now the Sahelian nomads also go into the Borgou in search of pastures in far greater numbers than they did before the drought and they do so earlier in the dry season and go ever-further south. They graze their cattle in places which Benin breeders have already left by this time of year, so the land is over-used, which leads to serious damage to trees, since branches are cut off so the cattle can eat the leaves. Relations with the farmers are far more of a problem for these foreign transhumance (or recently settled) herdsmen. They are viewed with suspicion, they have few links with the region and its inhabitants and they cause more damage to the natural environment and the crops.
Draught animals have made it possible to bring a great deal more land under crop, but this has restricted potential grazing land or rendered it inaccessible. The two groups' traditional space-sharing has been seriously upset. Since the herdsmen depend on the farmers for the right to use the land, the farmers think they can proceed to plant crops on pastures and cattle trails without consultation. Yet there is an imperious need for space, particularly during years of drought. This is why the protection areas are being used more and more, particularly in north Borgou where there are very few waterholes in places legally accessible to cattle-i.e. outside the protected areas. Things should be better in Karimama and Malanville because these two sub-prefectures are by the River Niger and crossed by two other rivers, the Sota and the Alibori. In fact, the extension of low-water crops has taken over the rich dry season pastures on the river bed and prevented the cattle from getting through to the waterholes. Herdsmen from the river valley are also forced to move south in the dry season. Even if they do not graze their cattle in, say, the National Park of the 'W', they are forced to cross it (despite this being officially prohibited) to reach the grazing land . further south.
Towards a new ecological balance and new land management
Cohesion between the farmers and the herdsmen is declining as their complementarity wanes. The shortage of waterholes, the influx of herdsmen and the extension of agricultural areas and market gardens are such that the farmers'; land is subject to increasing damage from cattle. As the farmers are making more and more use of chemical fertiliser, they attach less and less importance to the manure contracts. And with disputes getting more common, they are less and less inclined to have the Peul look after their animals - which now stay and graze around the villages throughout the season.
So reciprocal relations are in constant decline, which is regrettable, bearing in mind that new types of land management are needed if lasting use is to be made of the environment. Farmers and herdsmen have to enter into local agreements to settle such things as the routes cattle can take to the waterholes, the measures required to prevent grazing land from being hemmed in by fields and the times at which herdsmen can graze their cattle on the stubble fields.
New water tanks installed by development projects enable herdsmen to stay away from farmland and the protected areas. But they are still in short supply- and cattle come from all directions to crowd the land around them. Herdsmen should refrain from over-burdening the pastureland by regulating its use. The uncontrolled immigration of foreign herdsmen is also a particularly troublesome complicating factor. Nonetheless, the herdsmen will probably be forced to reduce the size of their herds in order to push up the quality.
The farmers must speed up their application of conservation techniques if the ecological decline of the agricultural areas is to be stemmed. There is still a lot of ground to cover here. Few farmers follow the recommendations and rotate their cotton crops with agricultural products and fallow periods to prevent soil damage and deterioration. Instead of alternating cotton with maize or groundnuts, they grow cotton in the same field year after year. They do not always stick to the different levels when tilling the fields either, nor do they bother with any other method of countering erosion- which is gaining momentum as a result.
Fortunately, peasants, often with backing from development projects, are trying out conservation techniques here and there all over the Borgou. These are still rare exceptions, but they are an encouraging example. There are one or two peasant farmers rotating their cotton fields strictly, working the land according to level and even planting trees around their fields to prevent erosion by wind and water. There are herdsmen and farmers in some villages who stopped using the brush fire technique years ago. And there are peasants who are experimenting with the small-scale ensilage of grass for fodder in the dry season or putting by forage in the form of hay. Yet they usually have no more than draught oxen. The most encouraging example of land management is the Pastoral Units in south east Borgou, which were set up on the initiative of the UNDP-FAO and the Livestock Directorate-EDF. They are organised around a new artificial lake and managed by a committee of herdsmen and farmers and they should gradually develop into an association which will both run a livestock input store and a cattle market and be responsible for managing the land.
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