The meaning of Johannesburg


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The world associated the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro with Chico Mendes and forests burning in the Amazon. In contrast, Johannesburg was about rural Africa and the people that globalization left behind. For those people "environment" means the food they eat, the water they drink, the medicines they take, and the houses they live in. Their lives depend directly on what they can get from their fields, forests, and woodlands.

USAID’s "Nature, Wealth, and Power in Africa" addresses that reality. In a continent where 70% of the people earn their living from natural resources, the key questions boil down to who has access to those resources and how they get managed. For rural Africa those are the bread and butter issues on which democracy must deliver.

Fortunately, there is cause for hope. The media has focused on certain environmental crises and overlooked many examples of people restoring their landscapes. Community wildlife conservancies in Botswana have produced more wild animals and higher incomes. Farmers in Mali’s upper Niger River Valley now manage their forests and soils better and no longer clear new areas for agriculture. Madagascar reduced deforestation in targeted areas by strengthening its farmer associations and supporting agricultural intensification and tourism.

To succeed, strategies should capitalize on the trends that are already driving the economy and people’s decisions and nudge them in the right direction. They should use infrastructure investments, credit, and public works programs to help people take advantage of market opportunities and promising resource management options. They should give villagers more rights and opportunities to express themselves and create systems of checks and balances. They should foster a culture of sharing information and learning, and of thinking through how things might be done better.

In Johannesburg, as in the rest of Africa, a lot of people were talking about the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). They knew it wouldn’t provide any magic bullets, but they also knew Africa must do something to get back in the game. This paper gives some good ideas on what that might be.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of this paper or send queries or comments to the author, you can write Jon Anderson at:

In connection with this topic, POLEX readers will also be interested to know that CIFOR will hold an international conference on "Rural Livelihoods, Forests and Biodiversity" in Bonn, Germany on May 26-30, 2003. Germany’s BMZ, DSE, and GTZ will co-sponsor the conference. To find out more, visit the conference web site through the following hyperlink: