Michael Mortimore

Michael Mortimore

Winner of the 2008 Robert McC. Netting Award

Michael Mortimore is a cultural ecologist and a geographer working within the “Netting tradition”, and a foremost proponent of the skill of Africa’sdryland farmers and agropastoralists in managing and adapting to harsh environmental conditions and constrained livelihood opportunities.Mortimore was very highly esteemed by Netting as a person and scholar, since both of them worked extensively in Nigerian agrarian societies over many decades. Their publications share a similarity of approach: fieldwork based on a fine attention to everyday life, and a rigorous submission of broader claims and theories about the West African landscape to empirical examination.

Trained at the University of Leeds in the UK, Mortimore taught at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, northern Nigeria between 1962 and 1979. He was then Professor of Geography at Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria from 1979 to 1986. He then continued research studies in the UK at several universities, and latterly as a partner of a policy consultancy set up with Mary Tiffen, Dryland Research. Mortimore’s research and publications are all concerned with the drylands of Africa.

Recalling some of his major contributions….

Adapting to Drought, published in 1989 by Cambridge, was a summation of his long-held view that even the most disadvantaged African smallholders ‘adapt’ more or less successfully to climatic change and severe drought, rather than submitting to it. It was based on first-hand, blow-by-blow observation over 25 years, and particularly of the Sahelian famines and droughts of the late 1970s and 1980s. It became standard reading for researchers interested in the cultural ecology of the region alongside Watts’ Silent Violence and other works.

Working the Sahel, [1999] was with the result of work with Prof. Bill Adams (Cambridge) and Nigerian colleagues. It presented a more detailed model of how agropastoralists deal with environmental and economic pressures, based on several in-depth cases in the same region.

More People, Less Erosion (1994). Mortimore embarked on a major project with Mary Tiffen and Francis Gichuki, in the Machakos Hills of Kenya, from 1991. This region was long held to have suffered serious erosion accompanied by population growth. The researchers set about testing population-environment models and relationships. Building on Boserup’s work, they discovered that population growth and environmental enhancement occurred thorough multicropping and other farming methods, terracing, and strong community organizations.  This ‘controverted’ Malthusian thinking. The launch of More People, Less Erosion at the ODI in London was electric – most of the relevant staff members of the Department for International Development, the World Bank, and academic researchers on East Africa were there, and the study has echoed through revisionist thinking about African degradation myths and agrarian policy ever since. It hit the policy world with a storm, and it remains one of the most controversial and talked-about theses on African development paths. It has been cited over 400 times. It took several years for aspects of the findings of the project to be contested by Murton and others.  But the “Machakos model” has survived professional scrutiny.

Mortimore embarked on a further project with Tiffen in the late 1990s, coordinating collaborative studies of long term change in natural resource management and livelihood strategies in dryland areas of Kenya, Senegal, Niger and Northern Nigeria. The idea was to test the Machakos model in areas of varying population density and environmental conditions, and they found it had broader relevance. The project concluded in 2001, although in 2006 he received renewed funding for the Niger-Nigeria component. It has provided nuance to their earlier claims, and allowed variance in economic and political conditions to be examined.

Desertification. Mortimore has been a long-term critic of the argument that the Sahara is ‘spreading’ as a result of poor land management, or that farmers and herders tend towards destroying their natural capital. In Adapting to Drought he challenged the well-funded international desertification apparatus to listen more to farmers, and almost two decades later, he was actually engaged by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification to make this case to them. He has authored numerous papers on the topic, including in Science.

Mortimore remains in demand from universities (particularly in Scandinavia and the UK) and development agencies. He is currently conducting a strategic assessment of ecosystem management and poverty relations in several African countries, spending many weeks in the field over the last year, despite recently celebrating his 70th birthday.

For those of us based in universities it seems remarkable that he has achieved excellence in scholarship without access to guaranteed income and funding – the 15 years of research leading to Adapting to Drought was, he says, conducted with only US$10,000, and he has always managed with modest funding. He has sought neither fame, nor personal advancement or professional rewards in his career, and remains deeply committed to the people of the region he knows and loves. In his lifetime, Mortimore really has shifted widely-held opinion, working tirelessly to overturn Africa’s ‘desertification and poverty’ myths.

The clarity of his prose, integrity and insight in his theory, care in his empiricism, mastery of geographical techniques, and key contributions to education and capacity building for research in developing countries, mark him out as a rare scholar of human-environment relationships.  He is an unusually worthy recipient this year’s Netting Award, and this would be an award that would have brought Netting himself particular pleasure.

Simon Batterbury, 2008

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