(Publication) Tiffen Mary and Mortimore Michael, ‘Questioning desertification in dryland sub-Saharan Africa’, Natural Resources Forum,26/3, 2002, pages 218-233.


Signs of desertification in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s were closely linked to rainfall fluctuations. There may now be an upward trend in the Sahel, but climate change models do not yet provide reliable predictions of rainfall. As family farms become smaller under conditions of population growth, some people move to new areas or new occupations (urban population is growing much faster than rural) and farmers attempt to raise the value of output (crops or livestock) per hectare. Long-term data for selected countries and areas provide some evidence of positive trends. Case studies show that adaptive strategies of small farmers include techniques to improve fertility, conserve water, manage trees, increase livestock, and take advantage of changing markets. However, their investments in improving land and productivity are constrained by poverty. Governments can best help by improving market access and opportunities for non-farm activities. The region’s climate is characterized by variable rainfall, which means that droughts will continue to occur unpredictably.

Keywords: Desertification; Natural resource management; Population growth; Policy; Soil fertility; Adaptation.