I got a new world atlas recently and I took a look at agricultural patterns around the world. I was especially struck by the shifting cultivation mode in the equatorial areas of South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The complementary mode of production alongside shifting cultivation (or horticulture) was herding (or pastoralism). This is most clearly seen in Africa where the Sahara butts up against tropical forests. From an anthropological perspective, shifting cultivation is characterized by leaving some fields fallow and moving the cultivation around, oftentimes by slash and burn production methods. It is most effective in areas of low human population densities. Herding is also most effective for low human population densities, since it requires more land. However it can fit in alongside shifting cultivation, where it is useful in arid areas not suited to cultivation. In other words, most of Africa is doomed. The indigenous cultures are locked into a small population farming mode when their human populations are booming. The current border wars are exacerbating a problem that is already critical and the AIDS epidemic adds yet a third layer on top of the toxic mix of population pressure and ethnic violence.
Intensive cultivation requires more labor (especially if terracing and irrigation is used) and soil amendments to restore soil fertility, but it can feed larger rural populations. So . . . is the answer for Africa to transition into high labor, high fertilizer input intensive cultivation? Clearly, the American model of petrol-intensive industrial farming with tractors and chemical fertilizers has failed, all the hype about the Green Revolution notwithstanding. Can some of the methods that US sustainable farmers are using be applied to the equatorial belt and specifically to Africa? Are there actually NGO's on the ground in Africa that are concentrating on wise use of human labor to be more productive? The genus Homo arose in Africa around 2 million years ago and this was a real revolution, unlike the phony revolution based on petroleum, high capital costs and proprietary seeds. I suspect there are indigenous sustainable solutions that could be implemented right now in Africa and other parts of the world, some prompted by what sustainable farmers are doing in the US, but mostly prompted by indigenous people. Traditionally, anthropologists and aid workers have not listened very closely to what indigenous people have to say. Perhaps this is changing by the weight of necessity.