From arable Savannah land to barren desert? the political ecology of land cover and land use change in Northeast Ghana

2017-03-02T23:11:25Z (GMT) by Boateng, Peter Kojo
Much of literature on the Sahel-savannah region of West Africa centres on whether the region is a degraded version of a former densely wooded landscape and whether it is becoming further desertified. The dominant view of many West African parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification asserts that this zone is increasingly being desertified due to climate change and destructive practices of peasant agriculture. Other researchers have challenged this claim and argued that the high climate variability characterising the savannah zone is responsible for fluctuations in vegetation cover. Although recent research supports the latter view, this perspective has been ignored by Ghana’s National Action Plan in favour of the desertification discourse. The Plan also ignores the cumulative effects of colonial and postcolonial government policies and market forces in influencing land use and vegetation changes in the savannah zone. This thesis investigates the changing patterns of land use and land cover changes in the savannah region of northeast Ghana. It adopts a long-term historical perspective for understanding the interactions and combined influences of climate variability, political-economic factors and perceptions of local communities on changes in vegetation cover. It uses archival records, in-depth interviews and social participatory GIS mapping techniques to examine the combined influences of political-economic factors and rainfall variability on vegetation distribution and cropping patterns. The historical analysis shows that pre-colonial traditional knowledge systems were ignored by the colonial authorities who altered the organisation of settlements and agriculture to benefit the interests of colonial enterprise. In the early twentieth century, the colonial government sought to increase agricultural production by imposing strict environmental ‘conservation’ measures on peasants, claiming that these communities had destroyed a previously dense forested region and turned it into a degraded savannah. The postcolonial governments continued to assert this claim against local communities and pushed for agricultural industrialisation to promote economic development. During the 1970s and the early 1980s, the Sahel droughts and bushfires severely affected agricultural production and reduced tree cover in northeast Ghana. This reinforced and institutionalised the prevailing view that traditional farming methods of local peasant communities under severe drought conditions were threatening to turn the savannah into a desert. The long-term rainfall analysis showed high inter-annual and intra-seasonal variability. This variability was reflected in the cropping patterns, areas under cultivation and tree cover. In wetter years, agriculture extended into areas that had developed tree cover, while in drier years, tree cover extended into previously cultivated land. Agriculture and tree cover showed similar variation between the annual wet and dry seasons. The GIS analysis and perception-based mapping also confirmed this variability in seasonal and annual variations in rainfall, showing ‘greening’ and afforestation in some areas and tree cover reduction in other areas. Changes in the government’s agricultural and land management policies were also critical drivers in altering crop and tree cover. Local communities highlighted government policies and market conditions as prime factors influencing their land use decisions, and emphasised that these factors reduced their capacity to respond effectively to the climate fluctuations typical of the Sahel-savannah region. The thesis concludes by showing that northeast Ghana has never been a zone of desertification, but rather a natural savannah zone characterised by high fluctuation in rainfall and vegetation cover both in the short and longer terms. It supports the arguments that high climate variability affects fluctuations in vegetation cover in the savannah zone. In addition, the thesis shows that the long-term influences of colonial and postcolonial government policies and market forces have contributed to greater variability in vegetation cover within this highly variable climatic zone.