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The Senegal Delta and Global Capitalism

Panel indicating the beginning of the buffer zone of the Ndiael Reserve

Panel indicating the beginning of the buffer zone (zona tampon), one of the three areas into which the Ndiael Reserve was divided in the 1990s following a participatory conservation and recovery project involving the resident herders. Credit: Maura Benegiamo.

Pietro Daniel Omodeo is a professor of historical epistemology at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, and holder of the UNESCO Chair on Water, Heritage and Sustainable Development in Venice. He is the author of Political Epistemology: The Problem of Ideology in Science Studies (2019).
Maura Benegiamo, La terra dentro il capitale. Conflitti, crisi ecologica e sviluppo nel delta del Senegal (Napoli-Salerno: Orthotes Editrice, 2021), 166 pages, €16, paperback.

Ecocritical interventions in the Anthropocene debate about the irreversible technological transformations of the Earth System have pointed out that socioeconomic structures and political decisions are fundamental causes of environmental alteration, both locally and on a planetary scale. Thus, an analysis of capitalism is fundamental for a sound explanation of ongoing geo-anthropological processes and the search for solutions to the ecological crisis. Unless accompanied by politics promoting social and ecological justice, “adaptation” to climate change increases inequalities in a desperate race to secure resources, to the detriment of the most fragile.

More socioenvironmental studies should address the Global South—not only because this part of the globe has been understudied, but especially because it comprises areas that are exposed to brutal forms of extractivism. The Global South has become the target of massive programs of financialization of natural resources, a “Great Expropriation of the global commons…justified on the grounds of saving nature by turning it into a market, thereby replacing the laws of nature with the laws of commodity value.”1 Moreover, politically disadvantaged areas bear the highest costs of unbalanced exchanges. Therefore, their perspective from below helps us to achieve greater objectivity about this critical juncture.

A brilliant example of critical environmental studies that embrace such a standpoint is Maura Benegiamo’s recent book in Italian, La terra dentro il capitale. Conflitti, crisi ecologica e sviluppo nel delta del Senegal (The Earth inside Capital: Conflicts, Ecological Crisis, and Development in the Senegal Delta). Her case study deals with capitalist investment strategies in Africa, their capacity to move money, water, and land, and to displace people. It offers an informed and critical analysis of the entanglements of hydroengineering, agriculture, globalization, land grabs, and political conflicts in the Ndiaël Faunal Reserve of the Senegal River Delta.

The first chapter of La terra dentro il capitale is an outline of the local, historical, and global contexts of Benegiamo’s case study: the investment made by an Italo-Senegalese enterprise, Senhuile-Senethanol, a company specializing in the production of plant oil and agroenergy, in the Senegal delta. This area around the delta was already a hub of intense agricultural, social, and botanical experimentation when it was a French colony, but, after the country’s independence in 1960, it became the focus of large-scale rice production projects. Over the years, hydroengineering projects and expanding agricultural use of land (which began in the 1960s but increased from the ’80s) deprived the pastoral communities and their animals of 70 percent of their pastures. A few figures may help clarify the dimensions of the problem. In 1964 alone, a eighty-two-kilometer dam alienated vast numbers of hectares of land; moreover, from 1980 to 2000 the amount of irrigated agricultural land grew from less than 10,400 hectares to 44,000 hectares (51). At once, governments began promoting the settling of sedentary farmers in the delta. Under these conditions, common land, such as the Ndiaël Reserve, has become increasingly valuable as a refuge for herdsmen, whose cattle require large expanses and access to water.

The arrival of Senhuile-Senethanol has introduced an additional concern on both the environmental and social sides. Its acquisition (as a fifty-year concession) of twenty kilohectares has de facto privatized a large stretch of a protected area (the full extension of which is forty-six kilohectares) with no concern for the fact that this constitutes a vital resource for wildlife species and livestock. In order to make this operation possible, the area had to be downgraded from its protected status. This step, endorsed by President Abdoulaye Wade, is particularly unfortunate because the Ndiaël Reserve—a hunting area in the French colonial and early postcolonial eras—was included in the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which Senegal signed in 1977, making it the first country in Western Africa to do so. Ndiaël was also added to the Montreux Record of ecologically degraded wetlands in 1995. The construction of dams beginning in the 1950s and the steady use of waters for agricultural purposes has made the area more arid.

This Senegalese version of the tragedy of the commons threatens herders’ lives and livelihoods. Although the sustainability of pastoral semi-nomadism has been acknowledged as an ecodynamic practice that is capable of adaptation to irregular rain and meteorological patterns, the tendency to marginalize these herders has remained. Indeed, the movement of cattle in the Sahel is of great ecosystemic value in terms of the fertilization of the soil, the spread of seeds, and the eradication of flammable dry vegetation that could cause fires. Specifically, the importance of pastoral life has been acknowledged by recent legislation in West African countries such as Niger and Guinea (since the 1990s), Mauritania (2000), Mali (2001), and Burkina Faso (2002).

The second chapter, “Africa, Granary of the World?,” addresses the broader geopolitical context of the investments in the Senegal delta as part of new global patterns of neoliberal governance, which can be traced back to the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 and reached a peak during the food crises of 2007–08, with the intertwining of the agrofood question with new green-growth objectives. After that date, the acquisition of land and the control of primary production by large multinational corporations became imperative for these agents in order to navigate the fluctuating financial markets. As Benegiamo argues, the globalization turn of the 1990s brought about a shift in Africa from “developmental” politics, aimed at self-sufficiency, to “food security” strategies, directed toward securing access to commodity markets. The new logic was one of national differentiation and specialization in terms of production within a global free trade space. This shift from production to circulation, encouraged by global governance institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), implied the “re-primarization” of African economies. These institutions regarded Africa as a specialized agrarian space. Accordingly, water use was redirected toward the maximization of monocrop production. However, this policy, alongside the mechanization of agriculture, made Africa dependent on import markets and vulnerable to financial vagaries, especially in relation to the prices of oil and chemical products.

The corporate investments in the Ndiaël wetlands must be seen as an instance of “agrarian extractivism,” that is, “the intensive exploitation of the territory…for goals that are alien to the territory itself, the uses of the local population and the preservation of environmental balances” (69). Extractivism upends earlier development programs. Indeed, it is deployed “in contrast with the dirigiste policies adopted by postcolonial and socialist governments centered on the modernization of local agricultural systems to achieve national self-sufficiency” (158). Instead of securing states’ autonomy, it makes their economies more dependent on external factors, with devastating ecosocial consequences. As witnessed by the case of Senegal, current investments concern the land but neglect labor and people’s welfare.

The third chapter of La terra dentro il capitale deals with the relation between dominant narratives of development and phases of land grabbing in Senegal’s history. According to Benegiamo, the three most effective ideas behind these changes are: modernization, energetic transition, and the myth of the beneficial impact of private investments. These have become major ideological factors for social legitimation and transformation, replacing earlier national politics based on the centrality of the state—actually, the centrality of small farms subject to the state for their development. The turning point can be traced back to the agreements signed with the IMF and World Bank in 1980. They introduced neoliberal agricultural politics into Senegal, according to which the state was forced to step back from production. In 1995, the WTO imposed the suppression of customs duties and the cessation of price controls. This plunged Senegal’s economy into a deregulated global market, impoverished small producers, and sparked a migration of farmers that continues to this day. New agrofuel investments, triggered by EU directives on renewable energy, worsened these tendencies around 2000. The global food crisis, mainly affecting the Global South, eventually allowed corporations from the metropolitan centers of the world capitalist economy to buy much more land. This new investment policy particularly affected Africa. For instance, Madagascar conceded 1,300,000 hectares of agrarian soil to the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics in 2008, sparking a widespread revolt and leading to a rapid change in government and the suspension of the project.

Italian investors in Senegal also have met with opposition and clashes. The final part of Terra dentro il capitale deals with these struggles and their roots. Unrest in Senegal affected political decisions about the land concessions. The concession of the Ndiaël Reserve on the Senegal delta reveals the fragility of the commons as a target for privatization in times of neoliberal hegemony, with disastrous environmental consequences. As Benegiamo reports, Senhuile was never accountable for its actions, which include spraying poisonous pesticides from airplanes, the negative effects of its irrigation systems, desertification resulting from the deforestation of six thousand hectares of savanna for monoculture, and dangers to people’s health and well-being. Among other things, new channels cut for irrigation have severely limited pastoral mobility and irreversibly altered grazing paths. Access to wells from villages became difficult. Moreover, the lack of protection caused the drowning of animals and children (123).

The marginalization of pastoral life and herders is among the most dramatic effects of these policies. This produced a cultural crisis that can only be understood by stepping outside technocentric fantasies and looking closer at local habits, practices, and beliefs. For this reason, Benegiamo describes in some detail the special relation of the Fula people of the Sahel with their cattle. For them this relationship is not one of ownership, but rather of mutual belonging, because humans and animals share a parallel ancestry: their ancestors already lived together (136). At the same time, the pastoral grazing system in the Ndiaël implies a vision of labor, environment, and land as mutually connected elements, a vision that the current neoliberal trends aim to separate. However, private enterprises that are entrusted with the task to “develop” and “modernize” the country (in place of the state) silence the herders and dismiss their culture as backward and superstitious. In this sense, they continue colonial violence under new conditions because, as Amílcar Cabral lucidly remarked, “whatever may be the material aspects of this domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent, organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned.”2

In order to mask the situation, the image of “responsible” enterprise is propagated in many ways, including through philanthropic projects. By contrast, dissent and protests are criminalized. Local communities are not treated as legitimate stakeholders in economic transactions that concern them. Furthermore, there is much pressure on herders to become sedentary, but this cannot happen without investments, adequate structures, and the production of sufficient livestock fodder. Sedentary farming is also less resilient to the warming climate, as herders and their animals cannot adapt to the weather conditions by following the rain. This is a very relevant issue because the threat of drought and famine has been looming large over the Sahel throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In light of these contradictions, claims about entrepreneurial ethics merely conceal the lack of regulations.

In sum, the recent history of Senegal shows that environmental politics cannot be separated from political decision-making and economic interests. Africa must be made a central focus in the study of these global processes, where resource access becomes increasingly conflictual. As Benegiamo remarks, extractivism does not only concern mining, but also agriculture. Investments, such as those made by Senhuile in the Senegal delta, are part of large programs of landscape and social re-engineering in the context of a juncture between “green capitalism” and food security paradigms. The inscription of land into capital—as the title of the book suggests—is, in a sense, a technological inscription that transforms hydrological settings, agriculture, labor, and social relations. The current transformation of Senegal falls under the compass of a neocolonial land-grabbing phenomenon, which alienates the soil and inserts it into global economic circuits of production and commodification. Benegiamo’s research reminds us that the Anthropocene predicament of a region like the Senegal delta and the ecological and social future of a commons like the wetlands of Ndiaël will depend on our capacity to critically assess and resist a new wave of “so-called primitive accumulation,” in Africa and elsewhere.


  1. John Bellamy Foster, “The Defense of Nature: Resisting the Financialization of the Earth,” Monthly Review 73, no. 11 (April 2022): 5.
  2. Amílcar Cabral, Return to the Source (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2022), 78.
2024, Volume 75, Number 09 (February 2024)
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