The African continent is a rich mosaic of socio-ecological systems, abundant natural resources, varied agricultural production supported by tropical climates, vibrant and diverse cultures and heritage, and active and growing economic centres. However, high and enduring rates of poverty and social inequality, which have been exacerbated through legacies of neo-colonial development policy (trade liberalizations, land reforms etc.), are underlying causes of limited productivity, land and resource degradation, and the inability of those with the greatest need to fully benefit from natural resources. The particularly high rates of rural poverty across the continent are indicative of the constraints of the agricultural economy and a disconnection between those that utilize and manage the environment for their livelihoods and those that accumulate wealth and benefits from it. The vulnerability of the rural poor, who are largely dependent on small scale agricultural production and local ecosystem services, is exacerbated by climate change, variability, and associated hazards, such as drought, which are widely thought to be increasing in frequency and severity. Poverty traps and persistent social inequalities are inherently linked to environmental change and undoubtedly contribute to political unrest and insecurity, which has been experienced in the form of civil war in Libya and terrorist insurgencies in West Africa, for example. This unrest has implications for fundamental human rights and all aspects of social and environmental sustainability; it is a driver of migration and strained international relations and resources, and impacts negatively on economies, markets, and trade (including with the EU).
Stephen Whitfield, Lecturer, Climate Change & Food Security, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds