Land resources in Africa are priceless, as they support the majority of the people, particularly in terms of agriculture and livestock production. Land is an environmental, social and economic good and is a key resource for the realization of development opportunities. Trends show continued degradation of the resource, particularly due to desertification and climate change, but also as a result of poor management and planning. Such degradation undermines productivity and the achievement of the MDGs, especially those pertaining to hunger and poverty.

Although land degradation is usually defined by reference to productivity, its effects may include diminished food security, reduced calorie intake, economic stresses and loss of biodiversity (Stocking and Murnaghan 2000). Land can be degraded or lost through unplanned and badly planned activities related to agriculture, forestry and industry, as well as urban sprawl and infrastructure development. Natural disasters, such as cyclones and floods, result in land loss and deterioration in the functional capabilities of soil. Industrial pollution is increasingly contributing to land degradation as well. An estimated 500 million hectares of land in Africa have been affected by soil degradation since about 1950 (Oldeman and others 1990), including as much as 65 per cent of the agricultural land (Oldeman 1994). This includes 25 per cent or 320 million hectares of Africa’s susceptible drylands (Secretariat of the CBD and others 2001), and the degradation-drought-famine linkage exacerbates vulnerability to livelihood insecurity. Recurrent droughts increase soil degradation and this soil degradation then magnifies the effects of drought (Ben Mohamed 1998). This situation, therefore, has implications for the attainment of many of the MDGs and the NEPAD goals.

Increasing population pressure on land combined with reduced fallow periods, inequitable land tenure regimes and poor land-use planning contribute to overcultivation. While overgrazing is a common problem in countries with large livestock populations, the conversion of traditional grazing land into protected areas, use of perverse subsidies that encourage overstocking, poor siting of watering points and the imposition of sedentary agriculture or ranching on pastoral communities also contribute to overgrazing.

These factors have negatively impacted on the capacity of Africa’s biologically productive land to sustain its population at current consumption levels. This is referred to as its ecological footprint (Stocking and Murnaghan 2000). The estimated per capita productive land available in Central and Eastern Africa varies from the low of 0.69 ha in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 0.75 ha in Burundi, 0.85 ha in Ethiopia, 0.88 ha in Uganda, 0.89 ha in Cameroon, 0.90 ha in Rwanda, to 1.12 ha in the Central African Republic, 1.15 ha in the Congo and 2.06 ha in Gabon. Other things being equal, increasing consumption levels will definitely put severe pressure on the ecological footprint.

Africa is extremely dry, in both percentage terms (43 per cent of the land area is classified as drylands), and in total available moisture (5 000 m³ per capita per year). These drylands are unevenly distributed in the region. For example, the percentage of total land area considered semi-arid and arid is low in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (3 per cent), Burundi (5 per cent), the Central African Republic (12 per cent), Cameroon (17 per cent), Rwanda (19 per cent) and Uganda (25 per cent) and high in Chad (no percentage given), Ethiopia (74 per cent) and Kenya (87 per cent). The percentage of the country populations having to derive their livelihoods from such lands are 2 per cent in the Democratic Republic of the the Congo, 4 per cent in Burundi, 9 per cent in the Central African Republic, 10 per cent in Rwanda, 16 per cent in Uganda, 23 per cent in Cameroon, 39 per cent in Kenya and 42 per cent in Ethiopia (UNSO/UNDP 1997).

Countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya have hotspots within their drylands where a combination of land degradation and grinding poverty seriously undermine income and food security, exacerbating human vulnerability. These hotspots present serious development challenges, requiring a thorough understanding of the poverty-environment nexus to implement programmes which enhance human well-being and effective environmental management. Opportunities exist for investment in drylands to fight poverty and promote sustainable human development. For example, focusing on high-value crops, such as fruit and vegetables, can intensify cash crop production. New opportunities for livestock production can be found, including the range farming of game animals. Ecotourism with fair and equitable benefit-sharing arrangements with local communities can be promoted in wildlife reserves to the benefit of both people and biodiversity (Dobie 2001). Small-scale irrigated agriculture can more equitably expand the frontiers of opportunity for the poor in the drylands of Africa.

In Africa’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS) heavy pressure on land has resulted in the conversion of natural vegetation, clearing of forests, loss of productivity and soil erosion. In Mauritius, for example, land degradation is a major problem such that only 1.5 per cent of the original native vegetation cover remains (IOC 2004). In addition, agricultural trade in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) has declined and continues to be threatened, mainly due to the fact that they are small, vulnerable and remote, and also as a result of the changing international trading environment (FAO 2004).

The issues of land tenure and land-use management are critical in ensuring that land is effectively used to benefit poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods in Africa. In many countries this will require fundamental land-tenure reform. A related issue is that of land conflict, which, if not properly managed, can have adverse consequences for livelihood security.

Africa’s main policy responses to the land issues highlighted above have included reforms in land-tenure policies and laws, and the translation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification into strategies and plans for sustainable land management. Tenure reforms have yielded mixed results with access and control as issues of contestation. Rarely have efforts been made to take due account of the links between land and water rights, yet that link is fundamental to land productivity. While progress has been made on the formulation and implementation of the National Action Plans to Combat Desertification (NAPs), their effectiveness has tended to be undermined by the failure to integrate the NAPs into national policies and strategies and/or other relevant action plans such as those for biodiversity conservation and adaptation to climate change.