Published as:

Batterbury, S.P.J. 2001. Reviews of Howorth, C. Rebuilding the local landscape: environmental management in Burkina Faso & Stone, G. Settlement Ecology: the social and spatial organization of Kofyar agriculture. Land Degradation and Development 12: 87-92.


REBUILDING THE LOCAL LANDSCAPE: ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT IN BURKINA FASO. C. Howorth. Ashgate, Aldershot. 1999. ISBN 1 84014 846 2   £35.00 (cloth)   172pp


SETTLEMENT ECOLOGY: THE SOCIAL AND SPATIAL ORGANISATION OF KOFYAR AGRICULTURE. G. Stone. Arizona Studies in Human Ecology. Arizona University Press, Tuscon. 1996. ISBN 0 8165 1567 0  $47.50 (cloth) 256pp


Today's semi-arid farming and pastoral landscapes of West Africa reflect centuries of human resource use, the changing fortunes of agriculture, population movements, climatic fluctuations, and the distinctive imprint of particular development efforts. Understanding contemporary agrarian landscapes requires skill, dedication, attention to detail, and - increasingly - recourse to a wide range of research techniques and methods that can link together disparate data sources with detailed fieldwork and historical analysis. These two volumes illustrate how this may be achieved.


Chris Howorth's book is the latest of several accounts to examining of agrarian production in Burkina Faso. Burkina (formerly Upper Volta) was a colony quite marginal to the French colonial project. It became better known internationally following the localised famines and widespread hardship of the 1970s Sahelian droughts, when aid money begin to flow in large quantities. The revolutionary politics of Thomas Sankara’s leadership (1983-1987) focussed additional attention on the country. The book examines three cases of agrarian change in  southern Burkina Faso, in a zone of relatively high rainfall (900-1,200 mm p.a.) near the Ghana border. The first few chapters present a standard regional geography of Burkina Faso and of the study zone. An interesting account of the agrarian practices of the indigenous inhabitants (the Nuni), temporary or permanent immigrants (the Mossi, who generally inhabit the central and northern provinces of Burkina and are the country's largest ethnic group) and the itinerant Fulani is offered. Each ethnic group, and individuals within these groups, have left an imprint on the landscape and have different indigenous classifications systems for soils and plants, and belief networks.


Howarth, who worked for a British NGO while also researching this PhD study in the mid 1990s, is clearly fascinated with unfolding patterns of land use and has devoted considerable effort to understanding its local dynamics. In particular, the clashes and accommodations reached between the Nuni and the immigrant Mossi are treated in some depth. He provides descriptive, historical overviews of land use change and production systems in three villages, broadly following the systèmes agraires approach of the French tropical geographers (Gilles Sautter and Paul Pelissier). Having conducted a similar study a few hundred kilometres further north (Batterbury 1997), I understand that this descriptive approach provides fascinating local detail, but unfortunately it is unlikely to captivate the non-specialist reader as much as a broader, process-based analysis of the agrarian system might do. Indeed these chapters are stand-alone vignettes that raise more questions than they answer about agricultural knowledge and power relationships in a transitional zone that we know has suffered political and economic turbulence, and a transformation of biophysical systems under rising population densities. A brief conclusion, that could have offered comparative insights from the three village studies and commented on agrarian change and contemporary rural development policy, fails to do either. It argues that "lifescapes" exist in distinct temporal and locational contexts. The fact that 'environmental management' is presently dominant in Burkina's rural development policy, appears in several World Bank and international donor projects, and is a constant and highly political feature of planning in Burkina at the present time, is hardly mentioned.  Howorth's recent article in this journal (Howorth and O'Keefe 1999) offers more insights on rural development, and may usefully be compared with a similar study by Lesley Gray in Tui Province which presents detail on the degradation and land use histories of Bwa communities similarly impacted by Mossi immigration (Gray, 1999), and also with Nick Atumpugre's study of Naouri  (Atampugre, 1994).


While Howorth's major points about the vitality, heterogeneity and adaptability of the region's lifescapes are well taken, this is really a study of local resource use and local agrarian change that treats the landscape as an outcome of temporal and spatial processes. The book's title would suggest a much broader discussion of environmental management issues than is actually offered, and reference to wider debates in rural sociology, geography and anthropology would broaden its appeal. It will be a useful source for scholars of West African farming systems, and I would recommend it as a library reference text since it does offer new insights into one of West Africa's most intriguing nations.


The second volume is by Glenn Stone, an American anthropologist whose 'settlement ecology' unfolds on the Jos Plateau in central Nigeria. The book is based on repeated study of Jos farming systems over a fifteen year period, including several projects carried out with Stone's former advisor and friend, Robert Netting. Netting's work - a form of behavioural cultural ecology that searches for patterns in the process of agricultural intensification - consistently argued that the 'small farmer knows best' (Netting 1993). Stone's central question here is less explicitly populist than Netting’s - explaining settlement patterns among the Kofyar people, in a region where Kofyar have moved from their homelands to inhabit a 'frontier zone'. Turning to archaeology and geography, he finds scant tools that might help him analyse these questions. Von Thünen's location models and Christaller's central place theory provide some dated insights, less appropriate in the context of semi-arid Nigeria. Of course Stone would have located kindred spirits in the systèmes agraires approach referred to above, and now in numerous contemporary studies of land use/land cover change, that identify patterns and processes of land degradation - using a combination of field survey, sampling, and geographical information systems.  Nonetheless, he sets out to develop his own techniques for understanding settlement dynamics using a form of inductive reasoning that leads towards a general theory of agrarian settlement.


The resultant stories are fascinating, and this is an accomplished book. Stone believes Boserup's classic arguments about agricultural intensification under increased population pressure become more refined and realistic when the actual local agroecology is considered - the food potential afforded by the local area's soils, slopes, rainfall and other resources provide "bumps and turns that vary with local conditions" (p39). Furthermore, as population pressure rises, farmers generally have the option to relocate themselves or their fields, or may try to eject their fellows as pressure on resources rises. As in Howorth's account, increasing numbers of farmers relocate their huts to be near their distant fields, and then settle - what Stone calls "satellites evolving into homes" (p 51). Decisions to move are "based on comparison of the present location with alternative locations" and for the Kofyar, alternatives to their high, secure plateau home were increasingly explored over time in a series of "downhill movements" to the almost empty savannah plains, particular once secured from raiding by other groups under colonial rule under Nigeria's 'pax Britannica'. Stone examines settlement histories in great detail, tracing through individual cases and linking these to patterns of labour use. High labour demands have let to dispersed settlements, so that farmers minimise their travel between 'home' and 'work' - homes are pulled towards farms. In two small plains villages, Stone analyses a dataset consisting of 17,000 agricultural labour activities for which distance and point of activity were known. The results are striking; Kofyar prudently regulate their trips and 'commuting' distances but since farming is part of social life, their ethnic ties also play a role, alongside soil type and access to water, in influencing settlement patterns and journeys. Agricultural intensification reaches a plateau on some soil types, for example waterlogged soils, beyond which it cannot proceed; necessitating moving to a new farm if possible - this provides a common sense modification to Boserup’s agricultural intensification thesis to include "agrospatial alternatives" (p175).


In sum, this marvellous account of settlement patterns provides a detailed descriptive and explanatory account of a particular region's land use and the decision making of its inhabitants. No claim is made that these patterns, or the driving forces behind them, may be generalised to different areas. Yet their origins are uncovered sensibly and with methodological rigour. The modest weighing given to other variables, such as the influence of British colonial rule, might be disputed, but the combination of field data and Robert Netting's nearby datasets make a convincing case for a behavioural, observed-pattern approach. Stone believed Boserup's agrarian intensification theory borders on being a 'near - oversimplification' since it almost overlooks settlement patterns and land use trends.


The book proves the lie to those who argue that inductive field research cannot response to deeper theoretical questions about land use in Africa. In explaining land use and settlement, culture and ecology are clearly closely linked, and we ignore either at our peril. Accessible to a non-specialist audience and well produced with excellent illustrations, geographers and anthropologists will lean much of use. The sophisticated graphics are excellent. From these two books we learn that the natural environment is not, by any means, wholly responsible for settlement patterns - but, neither can we say that  ecology and geomorphology play no part in shaping them.


Simon Batterbury

Development Studies Institute

London School of Economics, London, UK.


Atampugre, N. 1994. Food Security and Social Transformation in Burkina Faso: A Case Study of Nahouri Province. PhD dissertation, Dept. of Politics, University of Leeds.


Batterbury, S.P.J. 1997. The Political Ecology of Environmental Management in semi‑arid West Africa: Case studies from the Central Plateau, Burkina Faso. PhD dissertation, Graduate School of Geography, Clark University. University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI.


Gray, L.C. 1999 Is Land Being Degraded? A multi‑scale investigation of landscape change in southwestern Burkina Faso. Land Degradation and Development 10: 329‑344.


Howorth, C & O'Keefe, P. 1999. Farmers do it Better: Local management of change in southern Burkina Faso. Land Degradation and Development 10: 93-109


Netting, R.McC. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture.: Stanford University Press, Stanford CA.



Simon Batterbury