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Agricultural Decolonization in West Africa

August 11, 2022

Farmers in Burkina Faso and Niger are reinvesting in their relationship with the land and reaping massive benefits.

European agriculture is largely centered around livestock and working against nature through pesticides, monocultures, and culling wildlife. During the colonial era many of these practices spread throughout the world, with disastrous results. Burkina Faso and Niger, two West African countries, have been suffering from desertification and soil erosion since the 1970s. These nations make up part of the Sahel region, a strip of land separating the Sahara Desert to the north from the greener Sub-Saharan region to the south. The early 1970s and 1980s brought devastating droughts to the Sahel, which rid the region of much of its vegetation, and resulted in massive losses to human and other animals. Desertification has proven to be one of the long-lasting impacts of these droughts, meaning the land is significantly less productive and the change seems to be permanent. The European agricultural systems implemented in West Africa during colonization were not producing enough food and were only contributing to the environmental degradation. Over the next decade, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) introduced the concept of agroecology – a combination of agronomy and ecology – to local farmers who subsequently implemented practices based on the new discipline.

Agroecology reframes agriculture to focus on the connections between all individuals and how human food systems affect these relationships. Humans are moved from the center of the agricultural model into a place which holds equal weight to all other species. The application of agroecology brought layers of economic, social, and environmental progress to the Sahel. In the fight to end industrial agriculture, this story can be inspirational in how the people understood and acted upon the crucial role of a close relationship between people and their food production.

The agriculture of the decades following the droughts was defined by “farmer-managed natural regeneration,” or FMNR. The West African farmers continued some of the INGO-introduced agricultural practices and created new ways to restore water and soil quality even after the aid organizations left. Some of these soil and water conservation measures include zaï—planting pits which retain moisture and nutrient-rich manure—and stone walls which hold back rainwater long enough for it to soak into the soil. The farmers also started schools and community organizations with the goal of directly sharing their knowledge of how to successfully farm in the region known for its hard, infertile soil and low rainfall.

What has agroecology changed?

Women’s empowerment is a consistent thread throughout the agroecology movement in West Africa. The reforestation efforts completed through agroecological methods allow women to remain closer to home while collecting firewood. The reduction in travel time gives them more time to spend at home with their families. They also learn how to start gardens, whose products they can sell to generate income aside from their husband’s. The extra cash flow allows them more independence from their husbands and better education for their children. The documentary Burkinabè Bounty: Agroecology in Burkina Faso showcases a group of single women running their own business. The leader of the group attributes their success to the unity women can find in working the land together. These women found a way to align ecological goals with personal and social goals so their progress does not require any harm to their environment. In fact, it actually relies on environmental rejuvenation.

Beyond social changes, agroecological practices are concretely improving the financial and environmental conditions of the region.  A study published by the NGO Oxfam titled “Regreening the Sahel” documents an average increase in household income between 18-24 percent. The Sahel region has historically been considered one of the poorest areas in the world, so an income increase this substantial is noteworthy. Additionally, over six million hectares, or 14 million acres, of land have seen a reversal in degradation, specifically desertification. Over 200 million new trees have grown, which hold a production value of $260 million (USD) and more importantly form a strong foundation for the ecosystems. Researchers have documented decreased soil erosion, wind speed, and local temperatures and increases in annual rainfall and overall biodiversity. Taken as a whole, these statistics represent a region undergoing substantial environmental, social, and economic improvements.

European agricultural practices centered around human control of natural systems and profit can damage ecosystems’ strength and reduce how much the earth can provide for all animals. Taking the United States as an example, the intensive industrial agriculture which produces 99% of the meat, dairy, and eggs eaten in the US has roots which can be traced back to European agricultural philosophy. As explained by William Cronon in his book about New England’s colonization Changes in the Land, one example of a major agricultural shift triggered by European colonization of the Americas was the shift to fenced pasture-based farming with the same crops and animals regardless of season. 

Indigenous agriculture revolved much more around what would prosper in different conditions, and hunting animals such as deer, beaver, and moose which themselves underwent annual cycles. Conversely, English settlers penned livestock on their property, and defined the animals  themselves as property or “stock”, hence the term ‘livestock.” English property law dictated that a person owned the same land and animals at all times until an official sale happened. Indigenous law dictated that animals could only be owned once they were killed. This difference meant that European farms relied on consistent nourishment from the same plot of land year after year, while Indigenous agriculture was more free to move and give soil time to regain nutrients. After the genocide of Indigenous Americans, European property law became the standard for understanding how to establish farms in the United States. These old thoughts about property as a legal way to have dominion over animals can be seen in the factory farming system today. 

Agroecology vs. Regenerative Agriculture

The beneficial results from agroecological practices like these have caught the attention of people around the world,with each culture and state bringing unique ideas to the table. Many of these innovations sound similar on paper, but in practice create very different systems. Regenerative agriculture is one of these new farming proposals. The term is a buzzword in the sustainability world, and has been defined in Europe and North America as a new agricultural style which sequesters carbon and improves soil health. Some of the aspects of this idea include feeding cattle grass and cycling grazing animals through multiple fields. Crop-field soil is not tilled, and the farmers don’t use pesticides, antibiotics, or other chemicals. Proponents of this set of practices highlight the large amount of greenhouse gasses stored in the soil by using these methods.

In theory, these plans are similar to the practices of West African farmers. Even though regenerative agriculture presents itself as a productive and sustainable way to improve food production, the results are limited and its advocates often fail to credit  some of the idea’s original indigenous contributors. Soil can only sequester so much carbon before it is filled, and the greenhouse gas emissions from using land to raise cattle quickly erase any benefits from sequestered carbon equivalent. Additionally, these practices have been used by Indigenous Americans for hundreds of years, which current regenerative agriculture backers rarely acknowledge. Methods such as planting more than one crop on a single field and using natural insect-repellants were practiced by Indigenous peoples prior to the colonization of the Americas.

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) describes Indigenoues Peoples’ evolving body of knowledge about their local environment. Similarly to agroecology in West Africa, American TEK frames ecology through the relationships between animals, plants, and nonliving elements of the ecosystem such as rocks and water. Traditional ecological knowledge is less anthropocentric than the profit-motivated view of ecology held by the modern agriculture industry. Multiple branches of the US government, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, have acknowledged the crucial role played by TEK in the development of these agencies' responses to natural disasters and climate change. 

Agroecology as Decolonization

West African agroecology differs from regenerative agriculture beyond their ecological and economic elements. Agriculturists in West Africa tie agroecology into their efforts to empower women and rid their countries of old colonial practices. This means that agroecology is seen as one crucial component of a broad plan which includes interdependent social justice movements. North American and European regenerative agriculturalists often present the practice as a one-stop-shop solution for agriculture’s problems, without analyzing how it ties into other systems such as capitalism. 

Looking at the history of West African colonization in conjunction with the agricultural history of the region exposes some of the ways in which farming was used as a tool to replace local practices with those of the colonists. Cocoa plantations were first established in West Africa in the 19th century, with major production sites all along the western coast. The use of slave labor was public knowledge through the first decades of the 20th century among European-owned farms. Cocoa production in Ghana was mainly controlled by smaller African farms. Their production methods were less-intensive than European techniques, and did not have the 11 percent death rate found on Portuguese plantations in modern-day Angola. Across the harvests of 2019/2020 and 2021/2022, West African nations made up four of the top eight cocoa producers worldwide. Although cocoa was introduced to Africa by colonists, the crop’s success decades after these countries gained independence demonstrates the power of local knowledge to agricultural success in the region. These four countries have some of the highest output and were the ones whose production was least controlled by Europeans. Nevertheless, these countries do still fall short of standards regarding child labor. A study published through the University of Chicago estimated millions of children to be somehow involved in labor in the West Africa cocoa industry. 

In contrast to the European style of abstracting food products from the ethically questionable production methods, West African agroecology closes the distance between consumers and the source of their food. People are more fully informed of the benefits and harms of the agricultural system. Farmers are more in touch with the rest of their community, as demonstrated by the education centers they run to teach their neighbors how to get involved in local growing. The people are then taking control of more of their economic success by giving individuals the ability to work at multiple steps of the food production process. Growth in economic power is especially noteworthy in West Africa, where centuries of extractive European colonization have left the local people to build strong institutions while coping with enormous economic and political losses and destructive systems. The people of Burkina Faso and Niger are relearning the pre-colonization agricultural practices of their people and finding massive success.

West African agroecology is seen as one of the most successful projects of its kind. Multilateral cooperation amongst farmers, NGOs, and governments facilitated the widespread, rapid spread of the practices through the region. Nonetheless, agroecology cannot be applied to all different types of societies and ecosystems with the same results. In Oxfam’s report on agroecology in the Sahel, the authors highlight how “people’s willingness to invest energy and resources is increased or decreased depending on how far economic and political systems help or hinder those efforts.” People in Burkina Faso and Niger live under often corrupt post-colonial governments for whom ecology may not appear at the top of the priority list. Farmers and consumers were the ones to catapult agroecology to the forefront of the agricultural conversation and tie in women’s empowerment and general education. This is a powerful example of how societal and environmental progress can be spearheaded by the citizenry when the government is not leading.

Although agroecology is largely more ecologically beneficial, some criticize its inclusion of animal agriculture. While it is a fair point that any land used to raise animals for slaughter is land which could be more efficiently used to grow plants for human consumption, it’s important to acknowledge the real progress that took decades and many dedicated individuals. Many cultural dishes in the region incorporate meat with plant-based ingredients, and a plant-based movement takes time, education, and resources.

When thinking about factory farming in the United States, the most promising opportunity to emulate the positive changes in West Africa is by improving the connection between consumers and food production. While it might not be possible for the American farming industry to completely transition to small-scale farmers using totally Indigenous African or American methods, drawing inspiration from those philosophies could create a system which feeds people and nourishes the health of the planet.

Understanding that humans are an equal part of healthy ecosystems alongside plants and other animals, rather than the center, is an essential element of agroecology and TEK. The mindset of industrial agriculture has centered around dominion, leading to the spread of extractive and destructive practices that ignore basic ecological principles. Consciously restoring a value of equity among species is vital in the work against factory farming. Part of this includes respecting TEK as the critical underpinning to much Western ecological knowledge and including Indigenous American scholars and farmers for their experiential wisdom. All in all, the American factory farming system does not have to continue forever in its current state, and taking inspiration from Indigenous knowledge from around the globe can help facilitate a shift to a healthier, more sustainable food system in the United States. 

Lucy Whitney is a college intern with FFAC studying Global Liberal Studies with a concentration in Sustainability, Health, and the Environment at New York University.