Since independence, each of the northwest African countries has pursued a different development strategy. Algeria, emerging from a traumatic colonial experience and devastating war of independence in 1962, has attempted to achieve economic independence through a comprehensive program of industrialization. Morocco, since independence in 1956, has emphasized export agriculture, investing heavily in irrigated production of citrus and market vegetables. Tunisia has adopted the most balanced development strategy since its independence in 1956: it has invested in export agriculture and has also encouraged export-led industrialization by multinational firms.
All three countries recovered ownership of colonial landholdings and have engaged in limited land reform. However, much of the former colonial land passed into the hands of more prosperous native landowners. Furthermore, most of the large landholdings acquired by native landowners during the colonial period were never subject to land reform.
For at least two decades following independence, the northwest African countries seriously neglected domestic food production. By the early 1980s, all three countries were experiencing a food security crisis. Key symptoms of this crisis were declining per capita cereal production, alarming, ever-growing levels of cereal imports; heavy foreign indebtedness related to these imports, and massive food subsidy programs.
By the early 1980s, Algeria was importing approximately two-thirds of its cereal supply, Tunisia was importing nearly half, and Morocco was importing over a third (FAO, various years). In each country, a significant percentage of the population was having difficulty meeting daily food needs. The political implications of this crisis became clear by 1981, when Morocco experienced a bloody food-related riot. Similar food-related riots erupted in Morocco and Tunisia in 1984 and in Algeria in 1988.
Since the early to mid-1980s, all three countries have been undertaking major agricultural reforms (Swearingen, 1996b). The overriding objective is to increase dry-land cereal production. Reforms include privatization of the state agricultural sectors to improve efficiency and promotion of modern seed varieties and fertilizers. In terms of drought enhancement, however, the most significant reforms involve changes in crop prices, especially in Morocco, promotion of agricultural mechanization, and a "new lands" policy in Algeria.
Since independence, northwest African governments have maintained tight control over producer prices of basic food crops. Prices for these crops, cereals in particular, were held artificially low until the 1980s. Indeed, for much of this period, crop prices were only about a fourth of what they would have been without government intervention (Cleaver, 1982). Government rationale was that low crop prices would enable them to provide cheap food to their urban populations, helping to keep wages low and thereby assisting industrialization and other urban development initiatives. An ulterior motive behind the cheap food strategy was to help prevent social unrest among the growing ranks of the urban poor. Unfortunately, fow crop prices acted as a major disincentive to farmers, creating a vicious spiral of declining production.
Beginning in the late-1970s, fixed producer prices for cereals and other basic food crops were gradually raised. In Algeria and Tunisia, these prices approached world market levels by the mid-1980s, helping to stimulate cereal production and extension of cultivation to previously uncultivated rangeland areas. However, in Morocco, changes in pricing policy were far more dramatic. Here, the government boosted producer prices of barley and wheat to nearly twice world market levels. The stimulus effect has been remarkable and has led to a major expansion. Average annual cereal acreage during the 1980 to 1984 period was slightly over 4.4 million hectares. However, during the 1985 to 1989 period, it expanded to 5.2 million hectares—an increase of over 15% (FAO, various years). This increase has come primarily through the extension of cereal cultivation to marginal rangeland and reduction of fallow. Both of these processes are increasing vulnerability to drought.
Government efforts in all three northwest African countries to promote mechanization have facilitated the extension of cereal cultivation to drought-prone rangeland. The tractor and disc plow have colonized large stretches of rangeland in all three countries. In southern Tunisia, for example, roads created by oil exploration crews have enabled mechanized farmers to penetrate regions that previously were accessible only to pastoral nomads. Similar penetration of previously remote grazing lands has also occurred in the other two countries. Some of these new lands normally receive as little as 200 mm of annual rainfall. Their poor soils can sustain cultivation for a few years, as long as higher-than-normal rainfall prevails. However, the return of normal (reduced) rainfall forces their abandonment. Desertification quickly advances in the abandoned areas.
In Algeria, cultivation of marginal lands has actually become official policy. In 1983, Algeria's government passed legislation that established an ambitious home-steading program. The overriding purpose of this program is to encourage Algerian citizens to maximize the agricultural potential of the country through development of public domain land that has not previously been cultivated.
The government views the program as a way to expand the agricultural resource base, increase the food supply, combat peasant exodus to the cities, and counterbalance excessive urban development along the country's northern coast. The goal is to put approximately 800,000 hectares of new land into production. About half of this land will be in the Saharan zone and involves small (less than 3-hectare) irrigated plots. However, the other half, some 400,000 hectares, involves larger dry-land allotments in the country's high plateau region. Virtually all new "cropland" in this region is low-rainfall steppeland suitable only for stockraising. The
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homesteading program, then, will significantly increase the proportion of Algeria's cropland in drought-prone areas.
The homesteading program, however, is only part of Algeria's current new lands scheme. In 1984, the Algerian government initiated a comprehensive agricultural plan that includes the goal of putting 2 million hectares of new land into production. Two-fifths of this new land is to come from the homesteading program. The other three-fifths, or 1.2 million hectares, will come from reduction of fallow in the traditional crop rotation system. This major reduction of fallow, for reasons previously discussed, will substantially increase the risk of drought in Algeria.
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