Livelihood strategies and soil fertility at Fandou Beri, southwestern Niger
This is a study of the relationship between livelihood strategies, soil fertility investment and land use in the village of Fandou Ben, southwestern Niger. The aim has been to place alleged soil degradation in a specific, differentiated and dynamic local context. The village, which is populated by Djerma and Fulani, has a low population density. The agricultural system is dominated by millet cultivation on poor soils. It now depends on short-fallow periods to restore fertility, other sources of inputs being limited. There are high erosion rates and an annual precipitation of 600mm with high variability. The local narrative can be interpreted to represent this landscape as a lifescape: an environment that is a product of a complex sequence of agricultural decisions and livelihood responses. The flexibility in the ways in which the farmers manage their soil is a reflection of the ephemerality of the factors that govern soil productivity and the need to adapt to natural biodiversity and spatial variability. They relied on their local knowledge to maximise productivity, as in their precision application of organic inputs, the ways in which they are increasingly integrating smallstock into their strategies, and the increasing signs of ethnic cooperation. Using a Sustainable Rural Livelihoods framework, the key determinants of land allocation and soil investment were found to be household productive capacity, the productive potential of the land, the degree of household livelihood diversification, and the farmer's capacity to recognise opportunities, prioritise and enact entitlement. The household's endowments were dynamic and spatially differentiated. The diversity of livelihood situation, knowledge, experience, and perceptions of power and identity created many different routes of livelihood response, and varying rates of agricultural investment. Within these multiple pathways, there were dynamic transformations between natural capital and the non-farm component of rural dwellers' livelihoods.