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Africa's Next Green Revolution

The world's billion and a half poorest people -- the quarter of humanity malnourished to the point of brain damage and deformity -- are mostly rural and live on mostly arid lands. Global warming will increase the stock of such lands, especially in Africa, which already has the world's most abundant stocks of desperately poor people. Sub-Saharan Africa, however, also has Kenya, abundant wildlife, and nomadic herders like the Masai, who have learned something about the rules for inhabiting arid grasslands.

Heretofore, the preferred solution to rural poverty was extending irrigation and farming. Undeniably, the Green Revolution, the great leap in agricultural productivity two generations ago, did benefit places like India and Mexico, so much so that the world is now awash in cheap grain. We have enough food, yet poverty persists, especially in Africa, where the Green Revolution failed for reasons that are the subject of ceaseless academic bickering. Nonetheless, we do know the poorest remain hungry not because the world lacks food, but because they can't buy it, or afford services such as education and health care.

The success of the Green Revolution has led us to prescribe for Africa more irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and improved seeds. In some places, these may help, but the real failure here is not of technology; markets have failed. Markets see farming alone as the way to generate income for rural people. In fact, there are better ways. Rural landscapes, especially forests and grasslands, can provide not only cash but other advantages: preserving open space, protecting watershed and habitat, and absorbing carbon from the ever-warming atmosphere.

Grasslands favor pastoralists over farmers; they are the lands of Abel not Cain. Grasslands favor people like the Masai in southern Kenya and their close relatives, the Samburus, who have for hundreds of years herded sheep, goats, and cattle around Mount Kenya. There is nothing inherently wrong with grazing. Grasses and shrubs coevolved with big grazers and browsers to the point that the flora actually prosper when grazed by the proper animals at the proper time. Today, however, the Samburu grasslands are over grazed because of human population pressure, so the community of about 150,000 Samburus is plagued by poverty.

But telling a Samburu herder he is overgrazing is telling him he has too many cattle, which in his terms is like saying he's too rich. Telling him to protect wildlife is telling him to harbor the enemy; elephants do indeed stomp cattle to death, so Samburu warriors do indeed kill elephants with their four-foot-long spears.

Rancher Ian Craig's solution to the problem was economics. Craig, a third-generation Kenyan, took over his parents' 45,000-acre ranch in 1977. He was uninterested in raising cattle, so he sold his and stocked the place with wildlife bought, donated, and attracted from a variety of public and private sources. One enters Craig's ranch -- now called the Lewa Conservancy -- from the drought- dried, cow-burned Samburu lands, and it feels five degrees cooler, looks green and lush. The ranch holds a full complement of grazers and predators, with some crown jewels: 425 Grevy's zebra, or 20 percent of the world's total population of that endangered species, and 37 black rhino, or 8 percent of Kenya's total.

At first, Craig's animals seasonally migrated between the conservancy and Samburu National Reserve to the north, and the Samburu retaliated by killing some elephants. But Craig convinced the leaders of a neighboring Samburu ranch to create wildlife areas on their own land and brought in experts to teach interested Samburus everything from rotational grazing and wildlife management to microlending and lodge management. Eight Samburu communal ranches have signed on now, creating a 1.5-million acre mosaic of wildlife habitat between Craig's 45,000-acre ranch and the 74,000-acre complex of game reserves anchored by Samburu National Reserve. Each Samburu community has built an upscale, low-impact, and successful guest lodge. Wildlife is building economy, which in turn is building clinics and schools.

Until now, our idea of development has been to urge the poor to grow a few more pounds of surplus corn on lands too dry to farm. In Africa, the poor can do better by selling a more precious commodity: the experience of watching black rhinos, Grevy's zebras, lions, and Samburu herders in a single survey of a broad, grassy plain.

image of Richard Manning
Richard Manning is an award-winning journalist and author of eight books on topics including agriculture, poverty, and the American prairie. His articles have been published in Harper's, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Audubon, and more. He ha... READ MORE >