World Rainforest Movement

Senegal: Deforestation by expansion of groundnut monoculture

Senegalese exposure to European trade started in 1444 when the Portuguese established trading posts along the coast on the river Senegal: Goree (which eventually became a major slave transit post), Rufisque and along the south as a whole.

Reflective of the European struggles for power along Africa’s coast, the Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch and these eventually by the French. During the time around World War 2, French colonists promoted cultivation of groundnuts (peanuts) as an export cash crop. Monoculture groundnut crops encouraged clear cutting and contributed to deforestation and desertification. Forced labour for roads to export groundnuts accompanied this conversion and prevented local people from growing native African rice, which had cultural and spiritual connotations for them. After colonialism, the French continued trying to sever the ties between the traditional ethnic groups of Senegal and their forests and rice fields in order to keep them cultivating groundnuts for French markets.

Historically, Senegal used proceeds from groundnut exports to finance food imports, especially cereals imports such as rice and wheat. Since the 1970s, however, falling world prices for groundnuts and its related products, poor weather conditions, domestic and international economic shocks, in addition to the emergence of substitutes, significantly reduced the earning potential of groundnut exports for Senegal. Groundnut production also led to the environmental degradation of an already fragile ecosystem (the Sahel). It also impedes the production of major food crops such as millet, sorghum, rice and maize. Decreasing groundnut proceeds coupled with rising food imports, estimated at 700,000 tons per year, led to chronic balance of payment crises for the Senegalese government.

In spite of that Senegal is still at present among the world’s leading exporters of groundnuts. This crop, on which Senegal’s economy is dependent, uses an increasing share (more than one-half) of the national cultivated area in an ecological zone subject to recurring drought cycles.

Deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, constitute some of Senegal’s major environmental challenges, caused in part by the rapid expansion of and continued dependence on peanut cultivation. These signs of environmental degradation are even more visible in the Groundnut Basin area. In the 1960s, the state encouraged farmers to cut down trees as a way to expand areas for groundnut crops, creating a vicious pattern of deforestation, soil erosion, flooding, and periodic drought which have devastated regional agriculture. The vast majority of the peoples of the Sahel and Sahelo-Sudan region depends on agriculture for their livelihoods, but due to soil degradation and desertification, the ability of these people to support themselves is becoming increasingly precarious.

The following example illustrates the general situation in many parts of the country:

“In the department of Bambey, some 100 km from Dakar, there is not much to catch the eye. The landscape runs on endlessly, broken by nothing more than a few stunted trees buried under the dust. Sandstorms ravage the area, from January to May. The soil has lost its protective cover and lies exposed to the relentless forces of wind and sun. Here and there, between the scattered villages, a few flocks struggle for survival, nibbling at the last dried remnants of grass left from the previous winter. And yet, ‘this valley used to grow peanuts that were the pride of the Baol-Baol and Sérère tribesmen’, the chairman of the rural community of Lambaye likes to recall. He still cannot come to terms with the drop in peanut yields, or the damage that this crop has done to the soil. Today, many of the villages of Senegal are losing their people: the men are deserting them for Touba, Dakar, or lands abroad. Only the women and children are left behind.”

Article based on information from: “Casamance River’s Native Rice Bonds Sacred Traditions”, Mark Millar, http://www.cmaq.net/es/node.php?id=16588 ; “Senegal’s Trade in Groundnuts: Economic, Social and Environmental Implications”, Coura Badiane, http://www.american.edu/TED/senegal-groundnut.htm

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