Climate shocks, cash crops and resilience: Evidence from colonial tropical Africa

Number: 
76
Author: 
Papaioannou, K.J. and de Haas, M.

A rapidly growing body of research examines how weather variability, anomaliesand shocks influence economic and societal outcomes. This study investigates the effects ofweather shocks on African smallholder farmers in British colonial Africa and intervenes inthe debate on the mediating effect of cash crops on resilience to shocks. We employ a dualresearch strategy, involving both qualitative and econometric analysis. We analyse originalprimary evidence retrieved from annual administrative records and construct a panel datasetof 151 districts across West, South-central and East Africa in the Interwar Era (1920-1939).Our findings are twofold. First, we qualitatively expose a range of mechanisms leading fromdrought and excessive rainfall to harvest failure and social upheaval. We then test the linkeconometrically and find a robust U-shaped relation between rainfall deviation and socialupheaval, proxied by annual imprisonment. Second, we review a long-standing and unsettleddebate on the impact of cash crop cultivation on farmers’ resilience to environmental shocksand find that cash crop districts experienced lower levels of social tension and distress inyears of extreme rainfall variability.