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Rural societies in the face of climatic and environmental changes in West Africa

Benjamin Sultan
Richard Lalou
Mouftaou Amadou Sanni
et al.

Part III. Social changes in rural populations

Chapter 12. Land rights and fertility management

Two different perspectives: Djougou (Benin) and Niakhar (Senegal)

Fabrice Gangneron et Élodie Robert

Texte intégral


1Here we consider land as a support for cropping, pastoral or agropastoral activities at two study sites (Fig. 1) of the ESCAPE programme: Djougou (the villages of Angara, Alhéri and Sew Sewga) and Niakhar (the villages of Ndoffane Mouride, Ndoffane Nomad, Sanghai and Sob) with two aspects analysed:

  • control of land (rights of use, appropriation, inheritance, customary or legal institutions) distributed socially according to groups belonged to and the date of settlement;
  • management of soil fertility (rotations, fallows, taking new land, organic and inorganic fertilisers).

2In Niakhar, the land rights systems are no longer those of 1960-1980. The authority of the old lineages has weakened in favour of family farm units, while in Djougou the land chiefs have kept their administration powers and maintain land rights inequalities between ‘native farmers’ and ‘non-native herders’. In both cases, within the farming systems the family units currently have a degree of autonomy as regards lineage institutions and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between right of use and right of ownership. Furthermore, heritages are regularly divided between several men (brothers, sons) thus stimulating a land fragmentation process.

3Soil fertility management in Djougou is based on long fallows and the clearing of new land. However, the increasing density of agriculture is gradually shortening fallows and yields have dipped strongly. Fallows have practically disappeared in Niakhar and fertilisation is now based on the livestock/plant cycle by returning organic matter in the fields produced by livestock. In spite of this system, which has become extremely sophisticated (composting, organic matter placed in sowing holes, etc.), farmers also report decreases in yields.

4Comparing relative performances (in land rights or fertilisation methods) with population dynamics leads to wondering about the limits of the two systems. Indeed, demographic data show that the population of the district of Djougou doubled from 1992 to 2013, increasing from 34 persons per km2 to 68 persons per km2 (Insae, 2013). The population of Niakhar district increased from 111 persons per km2 in 1985 (Lombard, 1995) to 140 persons per km2 in 2000 (Delaunay et al., 2006), and then to 169 persons per km2 in 2008 (ANSD, 2009).

5As the increase is strong, demographic trend forms a limit for both these farming systems. In Djougou, how can the end of fallows that is taking shape be envisaged? What fertilisation technique will replace it? In Niakhar, how can sustainability be designed for the small family farms that would seem to be at the end of the densification process? How can this family farming based mainly on food crops succeed in feeding households?

6Our hypothesis is Boserupian and neither that of collapse (famine, massive migration) nor an increase in poverty but one of changes (continuous processes) or transformations (technology jumps, changes in the rule for access to land, etc.) of farming systems. According to Ester Boserup (1970, 1985), the dynamics of farming systems has strong links with demography. However, unlike Malthus for whom farming systems defined their capacity to feed a limited population until they failed (epidemics and famines), Boserup considered that population growth is a source of changes and innovations. These changes can be in the form of rapid transitions (the adoption of animal draught, etc.) or a continuum (the gradual replacement of fallows by organic fertilisation, etc.).

Figure 1. Study zones.

  • 1 According to Albergel (1988), ‘they represent specific and essential “environment units” within tr (...)

7In Djougou, environmental and technological potential indicate a comparatively large margin for intensification. In contrast, the public policies aimed at land registration and the emergence of a landowning class carry a risk of weakening land rights, in particular for social groups with no territorial legitimacy. The risks linked to the land rights in Niakhar seem to be mainly the result of the fragmentation of land at each inheritance. Scope for intensification is markedly smaller than in Djougou. The system is already extremely sophisticated (little loss of organic matter) and has only minor potential based on the last areas available (“bas-fond1, French expression) and/or the farming calendar (crops staggered in relation to rainfed crops). This is demonstrated by a few successes in market garden crops and watermelon.

Administrative rights and rights of use

8In the two agropastoral areas Djougou and Niakhar, land is not a simple production element as in northern countries. The reality of land rights has nothing to do with the combination of usus, fructus and abusus or ‘imported’ legal vocabulary (‘owner’, ‘tenant’, ‘sharecropper’, ‘tenant farmer’, ‘lease’ etc.). There is no question of property as understood in Roman law in these rural areas (Plançon, 2009). Land rights form part of the social relations that make a distinction between the lineages of the first persons settled (first installations enhanced by mythicized stories) and all the other social groups. Beyond its obvious economic functions, land has a political, social and even magico-religious aspect. The question of land can therefore be understood only with the taking into account of the kinship system and the foundations of the authority of those who control land (Lericollais, 1999).


9Land rights are held by the land chiefs who all belong to the Yom socio-linguistic group except in the north of the district and beyond its eastern boundary where the Bariba live. ‘Ownership fact is not like right of ownership’ (Kouassigan, 1966: 132), but rather like that of a small landed aristocracy. The relations between this aristocracy and the others do not form a mercantile relationship but territorial, social and political subjection. ‘Agrosedentary’ people do not pay for use of the land (in the form of sharecropping or cash) but contribute to the community activities of the village (weddings, religious festivals, etc.), by their presence and/or ‘gifts’ in kind (sorghum, a cock, etc.). They grow the crops they want on the land attributed to them and keep the entire harvest. They have a few restrictions, such as the forbidding of tree planting as this would form a lasting marking of areas, an act of appropriation of land reserved for those with rights of possession, the land chiefs. The latter (and their lineages) thus exercise control of land (Le Roy, 2000) or a right of administration, of regency in the village area. They take decisions concerning grants of the land still free—if the village has any—and settle land conflicts (inheritance of rights of use, rights of possessions) and cases of animals loose in the fields.

10These regulation functions are generally still active but a few old rules like the forbidding of tree planting have become flexible in some villages, and where the picking of néré (Parkia biglobosa), when it is still performed, is no longer supervised by the chiefdom.

11The relations between farmers and landholding authorities have changed somewhat. In certain places, such as Angara (a Lokpa village), they have been dissolved because of the absenteeism of the land chief (Yom): regulating land and settlement conflicts are handled by the heads of families and the village chief and the forbidding of the planting of fruit or forage trees is not applied any more.

  • 2 Literally ‘the Peuls of Djougou’ who arrived in the region and settled, starting in the 19th centu (...)
  • 3 The BarguuBe Peuls came from Borgou and the MBororooBe Peuls came from northern Nigeria.

12Historically constituted land rights make a distinction between several fairly closed categories of populations: the lineages of Yom land chiefs, the other Yom, the other ‘agro-sedentary’ farmers (consisting of Lokpa, Ditamari, DjugureeBe Peuls2 and many minorities) and finally itinerant herders (BarguuBe Peuls and MbororooBe Peuls3). Distinction is made in the rights between the descendants of the founders of the lineage and all the others; these are the base of identity and form the frontier between ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’. However, the time since settlement brings a relative land security of; rights of use and rights of possession can thus be seen as a continuum that can be expressed as follows:

  • holders of rights of possession and administration: the kings/land chiefs and their lineages;
  • farmers, linked to the former (they accompanied them when the village was founded or possess a degree of seniority in the village area): Yom, Lokpa, and DjugureeBe Peuls;
  • all those who arrived late, like the Ditamari from Sew Sewga who do not have the right to plant trees and must change fields often (sometimes every year).
  • 4 Transhumance and nomadism can be considered as two forms of pastoral animal husbandry. The former (...)

13All these groups are farmers, with strong ties to the land. Alone among the Peuls, the DjugureeBe, former livestock farmers and now crop farmers (or crop and livestock farmers), have close links with the Yom. They have historical functional relations that still operate and are often friendly with them. They reared livestock either for themselves or on behalf of certain Yom. This practice has not been abandoned completely but it is becoming increasingly rare. Nevertheless, pastoral herding is still practised and is even increasing in the district, but in other forms and by other groups, BarguuBe and MbororooBe Peuls. They are still considered as foreigners and their rights to land are practically non-existent (Gangneron, 2011). It is possible to add a fourth group to the typology above, consisting of these herders who are barely tolerated in ‘interstitial spaces’. In fact they are in a situation of land relegation and are only tolerated where there are not (or not yet) any issues or agricultural pressure in enclosed zones (far from lines of communication and village centres). Animal husbandry and crop farming are thus ‘disconnected’ as they are practised by distinct social groups with few functional links (trade, fertilisation, barter, etc.) and whose activities are also in competition with each other on the same land. In fact, the case of these herders is quite special as the practices of transhumance and nomadism4 do not follow the same logic as that of sedentary farmers. Transhumant pastoralists from the Borgou have their territorial base there (village, permanent dwellings, families and fields), where nomads (MbororooBe) have light camps that can be moved rapidly. Neither aims at obtaining land but rather its resources on a seasonal and/or opportunist basis. This does not place them in a landholding approach (Robert & Gangneron, 2015). Their difficulties stem more from the absence of pastoral corridors and farm sub-division that hinder the movement of livestock and carry risks of stray animals in fields and hence conflicts with crop farmers and crop and livestock farmers. The land in the district has a history of agriculture, constituted and administered by groups of sedentary farmers whose customary institutions do not award pastoral legitimacy to transhumants and nomads and the latter do not possess institutions that would enable them to draw up rules for the joint management of land and resources. They only have ‘narrow spaces’ in a corpus of customary law formalised by and for sedentary farmers.

14Finally, whether the question is one of possession/administration rights or rights of use, heritage management is always patrilineal among farmers. On farms (nuclear or enlarged family type), the oldest man of the lineage (brother, father, grandfather) always plans and manages the land and the farming calendar and those with the lowest social status (unmarried young men, women) are always subservient.


15In Niakhar, lands authority comes from the founders, with the first waves of migrants setting up ‘lamanats’. These are large administrative areas centred on village cores that grow when the lamanes entrust new arrivals with land to clear. Payment in kind was made by these new farmers, thus marking the power of the lamanes, but the land allocated could not be taken back. Rights of use were acquired gradually and provided a degree of landholding security, which could be inherited. The rights of the founders, known as ‘fire rights’, were passed on via uterine lineage (the eldest son of a sister), as in Sob or Petiaka (a hamlet linked with the village of Sanghai). Awards of land by the lamanes to arrivals in subsequent waves resulted in inheritance rules that were agnatic in this case (from father to son; Lericollais, 1999), and ‘axe rights’, that is to say for those clearing land. Whether agnatic or uterine, the lineages for village cores can still be recognised by the names of the families who are often organised in quarters consisting of several dwellings, forming the highest rank of the land management scale.

16The agricultural management of land is handled at the mbind, a term indicating the houses and a dwelling unit for the extended family under the responsibility of an elder, or ngak–kitchens–which are sub-units of the mbind consisting of nuclear families. The ngak is the basic unit of production and consumption and has comparative economic autonomy in relation to the mbind.

17The lamanes have disappeared, replaced in the inheritance of land rights by the ‘great families’ and even more by the mbind. Semi-structured interviews even refers to divisions of land within the ngak, thus giving land independence to the nuclear family (Lericollais, 1999). Land does not ‘leave’ the mbind or the ngak but is shared between several sons. Many families have lived in the same mbind and on the same land for several generations, thus displaying great homogeneity and great population continuity. The few great families have almost always been there since the founding of the village.

18The change in the management scale has been accompanied by changes in inheritance regulations, with the passing on of land between generations in uterine lineages (from maternal uncles to nephews) now ancient history.

19This twin evolution is doubtless the result of a combination of the growth of the power of the state, and in particular, the law of 1964 (concerning the national domain) and the weakening of the landed aristocracy since the death of Mahécor, the last king of the Sine, in 1969. The law of 1964 stipulates that unregistered land is in the national domain and cannot be ‘appropriated’. Inspired by socialism, it recognises rights of use but not of ownership (no sales and no transactions are permitted) for those who farm. It specifies the ‘withdrawal of this land […] either because of inadequate farming or if the person concerned ceases to farm it personally, or for reasons of general interest’ in Article 15. The rural council elected by universal suffrage (Faye, 2008), handles the application of the rule and is responsible for withdrawals, but only in the case of a conflict reported to it. As for the rest, land authority has shifted from the old lineages to smaller, mbind and ngak units. Inheritance—now from father to younger brother or elder son—gives them joint authority on management of the farming calendar and land. Divisions between sons have increased and elder sons seem to have lost their precedence, except for benefiting from the land closest to dwellings and that are better manured and hence more productive, as reminded by Guigou et al. (1995: 203): ‘The eldest son takes the land closest to the house, the next one takes the next land and the youngest takes the land furthest away’. Fieldwork for the ESCAPE programme revealed the increasing independence of ngak with the sharing of land that was sometimes even organised when the father was alive.

20The rights instituted by the state did not put an end to the old rules immediately. For example, a few hybrid forms of heritage were observed between sons and nephews until the end of the 1990s. These heritages between several children in a context of continued population growth and the saturation of land caused worrying scarcity, with the fragmentation of parental farms with no possibility of clearing new land. In this context of saturation, the 1964 law awarding rights to farmers has reduced the possibility of loans (in Sob in particular; pressure on land is not as strong in Ndoffane Mouride and Ndoffane Nomad and the situation is intermediate in Sanghaï) and procedures have changed. The lender takes care to loan land for only one year whereas loans for at least a crop rotation were common before the 1964 law.

21Independence in land management is leading to considering right to land in ways other than those of the period of the lamanats and the great families that regulated land rights. Today, family organisations grouped in dwelling units and farming systems grouped in production/consumption units form the land management system. Nevertheless, in the Sanghai and Ndoffane Nomad areas, the rights of management and use of the old lineages are still visible in the bottom land (the Khoer, Soss and Diouf families in Sanghai: ‘me yoto na bandiale’, literally ‘it is me that stays in the “bas-fond”). This land was little affected by landholding pressure and was only a minor resource that was nonetheless useful for grazing and a little rice crop. The current pressure on land has changed the situation and the issues are such that the old families issue reminders about their rights to these areas that are a focus for numerous market garden crop initiatives and are the last nearby grazing areas that are not cultivated.

22In short, land does not change hands (inalienable), the management scale approaches that of production units and it is handed down from father to son, with several sons being able to take their fields when they marry and form their own ngak. Land may be fragmented in the ngak or managed by a real or classificatory elder at the level of the mbind.

  • 5 The information was collected by interviews in which maps were used, allowing an assessment of are (...)

23The fragmentation of land at each generation is a logical consequence of the inheritance system (land is left to several children) and landholding pressure (no free land remains to be used for cropping). In addition, the introduction of the plough in the 1960s and 1970s accelerated the movement towards extensive crops. Lericollais (1972) noted these limits in the early 1960s when population density reached 80 to 100 persons per km2 in the old farmland and was already concerned about the effects on farming systems (marginalisation of livestock, reduction or disappearance of fallows, etc.). The observation is the same 50 years later but the trends are more marked as the population has grown by 50% and livestock grazing and the areas operated per ngak have decreased considerably. At the scale of ngak farm production units, the land managed is some 5-6 ha in Sanghaï and Ndoffane Nomad, 3 ha in Ndoffane Mouride and a little more for isolated farms5.

24Finally, the extremely homogenous population (in contrast with that of Djougou) is mainly Serer and analysis of the complex of rights concerns practically only the Serer. The few Toucouleur families are not particular wanting or under territorial constraints.

25The question of landholding pressure is not discussed ex nihilo but shows all its meaning when seen in relation to farming systems and in particular with soil fertility, the other factor that we examine here.

Maintening soil fertility


26Djougou is in the Sudan-Guinean zone (Aubreville, 1949) with average annual precipitation of 1,220 and 1,330 mm in the 1990s and 2000s that marked the return to normal climate conditions after the deficit of the preceding decade (1,070 mm in the 1980s). This rainfall makes it possible to grow remarkably varied crops—those with high water requirements such as yam and maize (the largest crops). Sorghum, cassava, cotton and groundnut are grown in other districts with less rainfall. Secondary crops are added to these and for some families can form a substantial complement; in particular these include cowpea, voandzou and millet (Sdac, 2010). Market garden crops (mainly during the rainy season) and cashew are also grown but the areas devoted to them remain modest.

27Grown as an open field rainfed crop, yam requires rich soils and is always first in the rotation, followed two or three years of crops such as maize/sorghum, groundnut/sorghum or groundnut, cotton and maize for example. Cassava is quite common at the end of the rotation. Soil fertility is maintained by long fallows and burn-off before the land is cultivated again. Although it cannot be compared with that of Niakhar, population pressure nonetheless has direct effects on the duration of fallows, which used to be some 10-15 years or more and is now about 3 years. The area cropped formed only 40% of the area of the district in 2012 (Leroux, 2012; Robert et al., accepted) but is increasing strongly. It grew from 13% of the total area in 1991 to 22% in 2000 and 36% in 2006, (Judex et al., 2009: 85) and land for clearance has become more rare close to villages. No land is available at Sew Sewga and Alhéri since the 2000s.

28Maintaining soil fertility is based essentially on fallows and, secondarily, on clearing new land. Both these alternatives are becoming delicate under the pressure of population. As in Niakhar, the farming system is based on the core family and inheritance concerns several boys when they marry. The parental land is thus fragmented—divided between several children at each generation. Maintaining the crops required for the new family is not achieved by affecting the cultivated areas (these are still 5 or 6 hectares per production unit) but by shortening fallows, thus calling into question the capacity for restoring soil fertility. Only the compound fields fertilised with animal manure maintain their production levels. Animal manure is fairly rare for the rest, except for a few DjugureeBe who have managed to continue livestock farming (a few dozen animals) alongside crop farming.

  • 6 In these oral contracts livestock is left in the fields to be manured. In return, the crop farmers (...)

29Crop and livestock production are generally separate. Cattle raisers grow few crops or none and arable farmers posses little livestock or none at all. The two worlds are sociologically distant from each other and do not cooperate any more than in northern Benin where no manure contract is recorded6 (De Haan, 1997). The major herders in the region are now the MbororooBe and the BarguuBe. Their relations with crop farmers are still strained and the latter sometimes forbid the grazing of crop residues after the harvest. But agronomic solutions for transferring organic matter to fields are simple and the results are good (Landais and Lhostes, 1993). The problem is a sociological one, crop and livestock farmers have frequent conflicts for soils resources and the movement of herds and legitimacy (livestock farmers are considered to be foreigners and have no rights). The reciprocal confidence needed for the combination remains to be developed.

30Finally, the inorganic fertiliser alternative involves purchase. This would require the reallocation of part of the monetary resources generated by cash crops, but these are barely enough for other expenditure (health, education, transport, etc.). Inorganic fertiliser is used only on maize and cotton.


  • 7 520 mm during the period 1968-1987, 463 mm for 1988-1998 (Delaunay et al. 2003), 440 mm for 1999-2 (...)

31In both Niakhar and Djougou, land management and the farming calendar are organised with two targets and in two different ways. On the one hand are the family fields whose crops are for feeding the household, with the head of the family controlling the calendar. On the other, small individual fields cultivated by women, youngs or even the head of the family himself are used for cash crops. The two different approaches are not necessarily in competition with each other but are hybrids. Calendar priority is awarded to the food crops in family fields but the family and its members would also like to have monetary income. Part of the cash from the individual fields goes to the family (to cover medical expenses, school expenses, building materials for the home, etc.) while the rest covers more personal expenditure (purchase of pagnes, telephones, etc.). The cash crops in Djougou are cotton, cashew and rice; market garden crops and a proportion of the food crops (maize and yam) may also be sold. The choice of crops is more limited in Niakhar, where there is less rain and no signs of a recovery7. Among rainfed crops, groundnut, sold by all families, and watermelon can locally generate substantial complementary monetary income. Millet is the basic food crop.

32The usual 3-year crop rotation (early millet, sometimes combined with long cycle millet, or sorghum, followed by groundnut and then fallow) from the end of the 19th century until the 1960s (Lericollais, 1972) became more simple with the gradual disappearance of fallow as a result of landholding pressure and the introduction of draught ploughing. At Sob, pressure has led to saturation. All the usable land is cultivated and fallows have disappeared. They are holding on a little better at Sanghaï, Ndoffane Mouride and Ndoffane Nomad. The difference between Sob and the other sites is not the cultivated areas, which are nearly identical, but lies in the maintaining or disappearance of fallows. It is therefore not certain that if the families at Sob had more land they would grow more but would probably reintroduce fallows in the area currently limited to the biennial alternation of millet and groundnut or to intercrop millet and groundnut and then millet or sorghum and beans for example. The maintenance of fertility in this system cannot be based on fallow and implies the import of organic matter to the fields. The Serer have an agropastoral tradition and the livestock/crop agronomic cycle is incomparably easier to manage than at Djougou. In spite of the overall reduction in head of cattle, fertility is still based on livestock dung and urine. The very sophisticated recycling uses several pathways. Sheep, goat, donkey and horse manure is collected at resting places near dwellings. For those fattening livestock—common at Sob—all the manure is collected in the pens. It can then be just stored (sometimes composted in heaps or in pits) before being incorporated into fields (before the crop is installed). When the le ngak has cattle they are tied up to pickets in the dry season and moved every three days. These practices show that a densification process in under way as ‘traditionally, the main supply of organic matter was from the paddocking of livestock on fallows during the cropping season and, in the dry season, on the fields to be sown with millet’ (Lericollais and Waniez, 1993).

  • 8 A person at Ndoffane Mouride explained that the type faeces and their use according to the season:(...)

33The organic matter balance is not necessarily excellent insofar as what is incorporated is mainly the reimporting of crop residues given to livestock as feed. Even more sophisticated fertilisation techniques are used for watermelon crops, with application of manure or composts directly in seed holes or furrows. In spite of these techniques for the optimisation of the animal/plant cycle8, all the farmers are worried about falling yields. Millet yields in the Diakhao region are reported to have fallen from 700-1,100 kg/ha to 350-600 kg/ha in a decade (according to the Plan local de développement de la communauté rurale de Diakhao, 2001). Furthermore, isolated trees and hedges that formed a typical feature of the Serer landscape until the 1970s and 1980s have not survived well because of pressure on wood supplies, the end of fallows (that left young trees two or three years to grow and thus allowed them to emerge) and agricultural mechanisation. Certain species were pillars of field fertilisation, such as Faidherbia albida whose numbers had already decreased by 34% from 1965 to 1985 at Sob (Lericollais, 1999) and the trend has continued since then.

34The use of inorganic fertiliser is rare as in Djougou. Structural reforms ended aid in 1989 but the state resumed subsidies for fertilisers in 2003-2004; they were modest at first and increased in 2008 following the world increase in agricultural commodity prices at the end of 2007. Then, after being nil in 2002 subsidies reached $ 9 billion en 2011 (USAID, 2011).

35Finally, with the exception of the pombod (field of early millet near the habitats) where manure is applied regularly, yields of other crops are decreasing with the application of a biennial rotation and little organic fertilisation in spite of relatively sophisticated techniques.

Dynamics compared

36Population pressure thus has two types of effect: first, land availability through the question of local rights and usages that lead to the fragmentation of farms at the two sites and to the exclusion of the immigrant population of Djougou; second, the maintaining of fertility, which also shows its limits via a reduction or disappearance of fallows and difficulties in maintaining or setting up a sustainable animal/crop cycle. The dynamics that have led to the present situation operated in combined processes—some being slow (continuous process) and other fast (breaks and transitions)—and permanent features at the scale of the last 20 to 30 years.

37We provide a synthesis with some information about the context.

Permanent features

38The passing on of rights of use are between parents and several sons in both Djougou and Niakhar, but:

  • in Djougou, a landed aristocracy splits numerous social groups into ‘native’ and ‘immigrant’; pastoralists suffer territorial and political relegation;
  • in Niakhar, the mbind/ ngak have landholding autonomy with regard to the lineages; land is not transferable.

39Fertility management is handled in two ways:

  • in Niakhar, maintenance is based on the livestock/crop cycle;
  • in Djougou, fertility management is based on fallows and secondarily on the clearing of new land. Tension between crop and herders block the integration of crop farming and animal husbandry.

40In spite of signs of the taking of autonomy by young social inferiors (in particular young unmarried people who migrate to earn their own living and who sometimes refuse unpaid work for the household), labour is fairly easy to find in both places.


41Population growth is still strong at both sites:

  • densification is continuing in Niakhar, reaching a very high level for a Sahelian environment thanks to strong agricultural intensification;
  • densification is continuing strongly in Djougou; environmental potential is still significant but limited by permanent features of farming systems based on long fallows and strictly manual means (no animal draught).

42Food-based family farming is still practised in both cases but has gained a distinct monetary aspect because of the emergence of new needs (educational material, health, housing, transport, telephone, etc.). Agriculture now has a hybrid aspect in which crops for sale on the market have gained a substantial position.

43A gradual impoverishment of the soil and a decrease in yields are observed.

44The fragmentation of land caused by inheritance systems reduces the farm areas held by households.


45Only Niakhar experienced a true break in the 1970s after the rapid generalisation of animal traction (horses and donkeys) and the use of ploughs and seeders.

46In Djougou, the first attempts at introducing animal draught have failed. However, a break is possible as the recent land law (2013) that encourages the registering of land may suddenly put some farmers in a fragile position (especially those whose installation was recent), together with itinerant pastoralists not benefiting from customary law.

Boserup’s analysis

47Population growth—a continuous process at the two sites—is a major point in the dynamics of the systems. Rural densification can be considered as an extra load on the environment but its full significance can only be seen in relation to farming systems and their transitions; it could be ‘the mother of innovation’, one of the main factors in the evolution and/or change in farming systems.

48Boserup’s contribution was to have understood this link and to have described forms of intensification, and especially the five procedures for land use in the intensification process (Boserup, 1970). She described them as forest-fallow (the most extensive type with the land left for about 25 years), bush-fallow (with a regeneration time of less than 10 years), short-fallow (lasting for only 2 or 3 years), annual cropping and finally multi-cropping. These forms of land use intensification are accompanied by the intensification of labour, technological jumps and changes in land rights. The two sites can easily be classified in the five forms of land use.

49In publications that now date back a long time (1970, 1985), Boserup mentioned that a large part of Africa possessed areas to be claimed for farming and environmental resources were still plentiful in moderately populated areas. She added that there was little scope for earning money from agricultural activities because of the comparative scarcity of markets and the isolation of production areas with regard to consumption areas. These factors, together with the mobilisation of work force consisting of every member of the household (men, women and children) are features of permanence. It is clear that this is no longer the situation at the two study sites: markets (and even distribution or processing and distribution sectors) are now firmly present and neither zone is isolated at all. Sales of groundnut, fattened cattle and watermelons at Niakhar confirm this; sales of livestock are easier at Djougou where there are several cattle re-export markets. Cotton, cashew, rice and timber production are also demonstrations.

What are the future prospects?

Fertility, techniques and labour

50Niakhar has practically finished with fallows and there is no hope of switching to multi-cropping as rainfall is not sufficient. Intensification is taking another form with market garden crops and watermelon. This is not a double crop on the same land but use of the labour force outside the season for rainfed crops. Indeed, vegetable crops fit perfectly in the farming calendar as they come right after the millet harvests as long as water is easily accessible (until December or January). Watermelons can be grown using the same calendar as that of rainfed crops but they are also suitable for staggered production during the same periods as vegetable crops. This is therefore the optimisation and densification of the work calendar and also a process for using the “bas-fonds” and the banks of the Sine that was not of great interest until recently.

51Another intensification pathway would seem to concern the evolution of agricultural technology that remains much as it was in the 1970s and 1980s after the adoption of animal draught. The hypothesis of a switch to motorised tools seems excluded because farms are small and fragmented and the income likely to be generated would be too small with regard to the investment needed. In spite of the small returns from farming, the use of inorganic fertiliser seems to be a more probable hypothesis, at least if the fertiliser subsidy policy is maintained.

52Shifting our focus a little from agricultural activities to activities as a whole, it is seen that many diversification initiatives are emerging or growing stronger. These are not in the fields but still in the ngak (with the aim of family subsistence). The diversification activities are not new, strictly speaking, but form an increasingly common source of income in a relatively open world. The older activities (healer, now dispensed for cash, builders of granaries, makers of bricks or mattresses, blacksmiths, saddlers, etc.) are now accompanied by ‘trades’: masons, shopkeepers, tailors, drivers, mechanics, carpenters, cooks, educated activities (in administrations, associations, aid programmes, etc.). These strongly growing occupations are gradually changing the rural human landscape. It is timely to observe this not just through agricultural activities but in a pluriactivity complex that maintains a dense rural fabric.

53On the Boserupian scale, land use in Djougou is between bush-fallow and short-fallow and not (yet?) accompanied by technological jumps. The district has a margin for the intensification of soil and labour management, at least as regards two aspects.

  • 9 However, small ruminants (sheep and goats), and even pigs among the Ditamari, are common but never (...)

54Introducing livestock in the farming cycle would allow the import of organic matter but would run up against the obstacle of the total lack of connection between native farmers and immigrant herders. It is difficult to imagine a true rapport between the two groups. In addition, the old systems of confiage between DjugureeBe and Yom have almost completely disappeared. The forbidding of livestock farmers to allow cattle to graze harvested fields seems to be a major trend likely to aggravate the cleavages between crop and pastoralists. The emergence of an agro-pastoral continuum as with the Serer in Senegal does not seem possible: the divisions described above seem to be insurmountable and the incorporation of cattle farming9 by the groups of crop farmers seems unimaginable for the moment.

55The second aspect concerns the introduction of animal draught. Unlike the case in Niakhar, cultivation is still manual, with tools limited to the daba and the machete. Agents from the CeRPA (Centre régional pour la promotion agricole) tried to introduce draught cultivation in 1990-2000 but the attempt failed and animal traction, ploughs and carts are practically non-existent. Failures of mechanisation by exogenous processes are not rare and there can be several kinds of reason. Knowledge of the most productive technologies is a prerequisite but not sufficient for its adoption. The plough—known in Europe for 3,000 years, took a long time to become common (Boserup, 1970: 62). First of all, knowledge of the management of draught animals (feed rations, identification of symptoms, etc.) is not obvious and the farmers in Djougou do not have the experience; in addition, a pair of oxen is a substantial investment, even with subsidies. But the determinant factor is doubtless the relative availability of family labour. The family logic of the farming system is still fairly significant and the organisation of the entire household (children and unmarried persons of both sexes, wife/wives) is the rule. However, movements towards autonomy can be felt. Young people affirm themselves more strongly; individual fields and diversification initiatives are often driven by a desire for individuation. Migration from the district to the towns in the south and to Nigeria display evolution. Whereas this long expressed the strategies of heads of families—sending young people to earn a little money elsewhere while conserving sufficient labour at home—its is increasingly the desire of the migrants themselves. And they do not hesitate to leave, against their fathers’ advice, to find a paid job doing agricultural work that they refuse to do free of charge for the family. The mobilisation of family labour is thus tending to become more difficult. Furthermore, the gradual monetisation of farming leads to supposing that a fresh attempt to introduce draught cultivation would have more success than in 1990-2000.


56Like the problem of soil fertility, hypothesis of increasing land tenure insecurity is not the same in both sites. In Niakhar, only the fragmentation of farms seems to be a cause of difficulty and the population, whatever their community—Serer, integrated or Toucouleur—does not seem to be threatened. If they continue, public action and public land policies are not a source of worry either.

57In contrast, the hypothesis of a point of rupture in Djougou (and in all rural areas in Benin) can be put forward. The relations between people and the land are undergoing ‘reification’: ancestors’ tombs are neglected, ceremonies abandoned and sacred places cultivated. The land, in the hands of authorities that intend to conserve revised customary law privileges, is beginning to be the subject of the first transactions. Unthinkable some 20 years ago, this is becoming feasible (that is to say morally acceptable) and the land tenure fragilisation of those who have only secondary rights is a real risk. As regards the state, the rural landholding plans (plans fonciers ruraux, PFR) resulting from the land laws of 2007 and above all 2013 can make these transactions possible legally. They are presented as a simple technical facility aimed at collecting oral customary rights and transposing them into written legal documents. But they are more than that: they are a political tool for land reform.

  • 10 These operations have speeded up since the MCA (Millennium Challenge Account), a United States coo (...)

58They cause (or accompany) a shift in the sets of rights (to land, resources, gathering, farming, of land chiefs, farmers and graziers) towards forms closer to a market system. The PFR in Djougou is in the initial stages and is to award new rights by drawing up ‘land certificates’ as a base for launching a land registration procedure (Le Meur, 2008; Lavigne Delville, 2010). In effect, these certificates form only ‘presumption of ownership’ and can be turned into land deeds, that is to say property as understood in Roman law10. In this system, some beneficiaries of these new rights—land chiefs and a few notables in their lineages—become owners with rights of use, usufruct and sale. Relations with land are thus tending to turn into economic relations, with fragility for the great majority of future non-owners. Thus the rights to land and environmental resources of groups considered as immigrants (farmers and, above all, pastoralists) might be contested.


59We have not observed what is strictly a rapid change, a conversion from one farming system to another more intensive and productive one under the effect of demographic pressure. The two systems continue, one with fallow, plentiful labour and manual techniques and the other on land cultivated each year and with increasingly insufficient application of animal manure.

60But the farmers continue to live—often better than in the previous generation. Although they have not (yet) performed an agrarian transition, they use strategies and innovations while assuring the historical function of their farming, that of producing their own food. Initiatives are generally cautious (small fields of cashew or market garden crops, etc.) and are developing and diversified little by little to the point at which they concern practically all families, first in the form of new crops and then by work separate from farming.

61The most noteworthy change in family farming at the two sites is that diversification is always aimed at generating cash income. Ways of life inspired by town dwellers’ standards have arrived in rural environments. For example, mobile phones and motorcycles are very widely distributed. Housing has changed considerably with the arrival of steel roofing and concrete. Even eating habits have changed, as is seen with the introduction of bread. In Niakhar, one meal in three (the midday meal) commonly consists of rice that has generally been purchased. This has replaced millet or sorghum grown on the farm and that is now eaten only at the morning or at the evening meal. These changes are not Boserupian breaks but the gradual affirmation of ‘hybrid’ agriculture that continues to serve its primary function of food supplies in spite of the decreases in yields, while also developing cash crops to gain access to the market. The difficulties described in this study have thus not been solved but avoided or overcome by the effect of the hybridisation/monetisation of small family farming.

62If the public authorities succeed in guaranteeing the land rights of farmers, whatever group they belong to (by taking a little distance in registration procedures for example) and if they succeed in accompanying them by training policies and subsidies (animal traction, seed, etc.), agricultural densification will do better than enable farmers to survive. It will give sustainable assurance of another function that is essential for small farming, that of supplying towns where consumption is increasing continuously (on this point, see FAO, 2014).



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1 According to Albergel (1988), ‘they represent specific and essential “environment units” within tropical landscapes. These are the preferred convergence axes of surface waters, hypodermic flows and phreatic tables’. These lands are interesting for secure and diversified agriculture.

2 Literally ‘the Peuls of Djougou’ who arrived in the region and settled, starting in the 19th century and then arriving in waves of migration until the mid-20th century.

3 The BarguuBe Peuls came from Borgou and the MBororooBe Peuls came from northern Nigeria.

4 Transhumance and nomadism can be considered as two forms of pastoral animal husbandry. The former refers to regular seasonal movements of groups–here the BarguuBe from Borgou. The latter in the district concerns the MbororooBe, who originated in northern Nigeria, and who move with families and camps. Their movements are less regular and their installations may last for years.

5 The information was collected by interviews in which maps were used, allowing an assessment of areas.

6 In these oral contracts livestock is left in the fields to be manured. In return, the crop farmers supply the livestock farmers with millet or sorghum.

7 520 mm during the period 1968-1987, 463 mm for 1988-1998 (Delaunay et al. 2003), 440 mm for 1999-2007 (Vandermeersch and Naulin, 2007; Chipaux, 2005; ANSD, 2009).

8 A person at Ndoffane Mouride explained that the type faeces and their use according to the season: loli–from October to December, the grass still has a high water content, excrement is moist and disappears rapidly; nour–from January to March when the weather is dry and the livestock are given water only once a day, the women use the dung for burning; thoron–from April to June there is less feed and excrement is small and can last for a year without decomposing; nawet–rain decomposes excrement immediately and this is the best.

9 However, small ruminants (sheep and goats), and even pigs among the Ditamari, are common but never in sufficient numbers to fertilise the fields.

10 These operations have speeded up since the MCA (Millennium Challenge Account), a United States cooperation agency, has taken land reform in hand alongside the new Ministry of Urbanism.

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Légende Figure 1. Study zones.
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