Land is a key factor in sustainably managing the environment for development in Africa, but there are many challenges to be overcome. The region has sufficient land resources to produce enough food to feed its people and yet one in three people in the region is presently undernourished (USAID 2003). Increasing agricultural production in Africa – the dominant economic activity in most parts of the region – is the key to addressing extreme poverty and hunger (USAID 2003).

Although mainly arid and semi-arid, Africa has significant freshwater resources to harness and expand irrigated agriculture and enhance food production, and yet governments often depend on food imports and/or humanitarian aid. The challenges of physically accessing the water resources, as well as inadequate investment in appropriate technology, limit irrigation expansion. The funds available to import food could, over the next decade, be invested, for example, in strategic areas to incrementally build food security at different levels.

The region is a mining giant: Africa produces 77 per cent of platinum in the world; 62 per cent of aluminium silicate; more than 50 per cent of vanadium and vermiculite; more than 40 per cent of diamonds, palladium and chromium; and more than 20 per cent of gold, cobalt, uranium, manganese and phosphate rock (ECA 2004b). And yet its industrial base is insignificant on the global market, and the majority of its people live in growing poverty. There is a need for Africa to move from being a major exporter of primary resources to strengthening its industrial and manufacturing base.

Africa has numerous tourist attractions, ranging from wildlife to cultural heritage, and yet it contributes only 4 per cent annually to the multi-million dollar global tourism industry. Issues of poor infrastructure, lingering perceptions of instability and other external factors such as adverse travel advisories conspire to retard any significant development in this sector.

The region has the human resource base to tackle these and other challenges, but many who have acquired the necessary skills and experience or are in the process of doing so, are faced with the threat of HIV/AIDS. This is the greatest threat to the security and development of the region, and to individual countries. In some countries, life expectancy has been cut by about 50 per cent in the past two decades. Women are the most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and are at least 20 per cent more likely to be infected than men as a result of inadequate education and poor gender relations. Malaria is another serious threat to the realization of the MDGs, contributing to the decrease of the region’s GDP by about US$12 000 million annually (USAID 2003). Malaria kills 2.5 million people every year – 90 per cent of them in Africa (USAID 2004).

Environmental governance in terms of land is well entrenched with so many laws and policies, institutions and stakeholders but yet effectiveness remains a mirage due to various factors, including policy failures.

Some governments have made great strides in opening up the democratic space, with more one-party states being abandoned, and general and presidential elections being held. Since the end of 2002, presidential or parliamentary elections have taken place in countries such as Nigeria, Togo, Rwanda, Guinea, Algeria, South Africa, Ghana, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Opposition politics has flourished since the 1990s and has become entrenched in governance systems across Africa. Even though many stakeholders are now involved in governance, inequalities still persist, particularly in terms of access to land resources, especially for women. Human Rights Watch (Ganesan and Vines 2004), for example, reported that governments in many resource-rich countries are abusive, unaccountable and corrupt: “Rather than representing the citizenry, the government becomes predatory, committing abuses to maintain power and controlling the resources of the state for the benefit of a few.”

Managing Africa’s land resources is complex, requiring the input and participation of different stakeholders and interests as well as transparent and effective governance structures. Governance systems should be able to balance the needs of small and large investors, community and national interests as well as sectoral demands and conflicts. It is evident from different economic data provided in previous sections that land is the foundation upon which the eight MDGs – from eradicating extreme poverty and improving gender equality to ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development – can be realized in Africa. Land in Africa is a social, economic and environmental good, and as long as all the ingredients critical to achieving the MDGs through the available land resources are rationed, the goals will remain a chimera.

The importance of stronger tenure rights, with related improved governance system as the basis for improving sustainable management and enhancing opportunities can not be overemphasized. Long before the MDGs were adopted by world leaders in 2000, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was visionary in its analysis of the role of land in sustainable development, saying in its 1987 report:

“In many countries where land is very unequally distributed land reform is a basic requirement. Without it, institutional and policy changes meant to protect the resource base can actually promote inequalities by shutting the poor off from the resources and by favouring those with large farms, who are better able to obtain the limited credit and services available.”

“By leaving hundreds of millions without options, such changes can have the opposite of their intended effect, ensuring the continued violation of ecological imperatives.”