The Colonial Period

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Algeria became a French colony in 1830, Tunisia a French protectorate in 1881, and Morocco a French and Spanish protectorate in 1912. The colonial period lasted until 1956 in Tunisia and Morocco, and 1962 in Algeria. In all three countries, colonization introduced major changes. The net effect of these changes was a gradual increase in the drought hazard.

Prior to the colonial period, agriculture in Northwest Africa consisted of an extensive system of dry-land cereal cultivation and animal husbandry, with irrigated orchards and gardens surrounding most urban centers and many villages and pastoral nomadism practiced in the desert regions (Bencherifa, 1986, 1988a; Swearingen, 1987a). Most land was communally owned. Rain-fed landholdings were concentrated in higher rainfall areas with above 400 mm rainfall per year. Landholdings were usually dispersed to provide for equity and to help counter the risk of crop failure. Each peasant fanned several dispersed plots. Surplus grain from bountiful harvests was stockpiled to cover crop failures during drought years. Some stockpiling also occurred at the national level during precolonial times. For example, many of the Alawi sultans in Morocco maintained large granaries as a hedge against drought and famine (Meyers, 1981). Fallowing (periodically letting cropland lie idle instead of cultivating it) was widely practiced. Fallowing both replenished soil moisture and helped to restore soil fertility. Low population pressure gave the arable expanses a relatively underutilized appearance. In addition, lower-rainfall areas were used only for seasonal stockraising.

French colonial planners viewed northwest Africa as ideal for large-scale French settlement. In all three countries, colonization dislodged peasants from much of the best land. Europeans acquired roughly 30% of Algeria's arable land (or 2.7 million hectares), nearly 20% of Tunisia's land (or 800,000 hectares), and 15% of Morocco's land (or 1 million hectares).

Exacerbating the effect of European colonization was land concentration by native large landowners. During the colonial period, indigenous landowners allied with the French were able to amass sizable landholdings in all three countries. In Algeria, some 25,000 native Algerians acquired a total of nearly 2.8 million hectares, somewhat over 30% of the country's arable land (Pfeifer, 1985). In Morocco, 7500 Moroccan landowners acquired 1.6 million hectares, or 24% of the arable total (Swearingen, 1987a). And in Tunisia, 7200 Tunisians acquired 630,000 hectares— 15% (Sethom, 1985).

Land concentration during the colonial period had two important consequences: First, as land was expropriated, peasants became concentrated on a diminished amount of land. This reduced peasants' ability to let part of their land lie fallow (Bencherifa and Johnson, 1990, 1991). Reduction of fallow significantly increased the potential for drought. The primary purpose of fallowing in semiarid regions like northwest Africa is to allow soil moisture to accumulate (WMO, 1975). Approximately 20 to 25% of the precipitation falling during the fallow rainy season (roughly October to April) is retained in the soil. Thus, fallowing substantially boosts the available water supply for subsequent crop use. In low-rainfall areas, this soil moisture component is often the critical difference between a successful harvest and drought. With the reduction of fallowing, this buffer was lost, and vulnerability to drought increased. In addition, excessive land-use pressure caused soil fertility to decline. The resulting impoverishment of their land made it increasingly difficult for peasants to stockpile grain as a hedge against drought.

Second, large masses of peasants were dislodged to marginal land that was not sufficiently attractive for colonization. The marginal areas were commonly characterized by poor soils, unfavorable slope, or deficient rainfall. Previously, most of this land had been used only for livestock grazing. Once under plow, it became prone to soil erosion and desertification. Unfortunately, it also became more vulnerable to drought (Bencherifa, 1996).

While land concentration was taking place during the colonial period, other significant changes were occurring. Health measures introduced by the French caused native death rates to plunge. Northwest Africa's population expanded dramatically, with roughly a fivefold increase during colonial times. This population explosion (combined with the expropriation of between a third and a half of the arable land by Europeans and indigenous large landowners) intensified pressure on remaining agricultural resources. Fallow was further reduced, peasant landholdings became increasingly fragmented, soil fertility continued to decline, and more marginal land was put under cultivation.

Colonial agricultural policy, per se, also played a major role in deepening northwest Africa's vulnerability to drought. Between roughly 1915 and 1928, colonial authorities in all three countries had a mandate from the métropole to substantially boost cereal production for France. The architects of this mandate were convinced that France's Afrique du Nord had been a bountiful breadbasket for Rome during classical times, and that France could restore this land to its former productivity (Swearingen, 1987a). Various subsidies and bonuses were offered to encourage cereal cultivation, especially cultivation by mechanized means. High market prices were also offered, particularly for wheat. Agricultural mechanization and high crop prices enabled marginal areas to be profitably cultivated during higher-than-normal rainfall periods. Although Europeans and native large landowners were the primary beneficiaries of the subsidies and bonuses, lucrative crop prices also encouraged peasant farmers to significantly expand their cereal acreage. Cereal acreage in the region increased dramatically.

Contributing to northwest Africa's vulnerability to drought was the fact that the colonial policy favored wheat production over barley. Previously, barley had been the predominant native cereal. However, wheat now became predominant, and consumer tastes changed to prefer this cereal. With the varieties at the time, the critical rainfall limits for barley were some 30% less than those for wheat. In addition, barley ripens and can be harvested significantly earlier than wheat; therefore, it is less vulnerable to the untimely onset of summer drought conditions. In short, by substituting wheat for barley, the colonial wheat policy increased the potential for significant drought impacts.

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