An image of the country's flag.

At the time of its independence in 1960, Senegal‘s economy was riding high, buoyed by successful exploitation of its rainfed agricultural resources as well as the wealth of its ocean fisheries. Senegalese farmers produced nearly a quarter of global peanut exports as well as a wide diversity of crop and livestock products for domestic consumption. The country‘s fisheries enabled domestic commercial and artisanal fishing fleets as well as foreign vessels to capture high-value tuna and other species. Mining and export of phosphates also contributed to national productivity. Industrial processing capacity for both peanuts and fish was strengthened in the 1960s and 1970s to add value to local production. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Government of Senegal, with significant donor support, invested heavily in irrigation development in an effort to counter the negative effects of increasingly frequent droughts on agricultural production. The development of the Senegal River Basin, a resource shared with neighboring Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania, was intended to boost production of rice, fast becoming the staple food of choice in the country‘s rapidly growing urban areas, and to generate energy through hydropower to support urban and industrial growth. In spite of these initiatives, the economy weakened steadily throughout the 1990s, and by 2000 Senegal was ranked as a ―least developed country‖ with a per capita income of less than US $500.

Analysts provide varied insights into this state of affairs. The world market for peanuts had evolved in directions not taken by the Senegalese industry, leading to a loss of competitiveness: the production sector was poorly organized; it was not well supported by research and development efforts; and production was buffeted by bad weather, pests, and infection with aflatoxin. The irrigation developments in the Senegal River Basin resulted in unanticipated challenges: disruption of longstanding crop-livestock relationships that had supported amicable cross-border production patterns for decades; inadequate understanding of the region‘s hydrology and agronomy led to ineffective design choices; and misreading and mismanagement of land tenure/land access issues contributed to a short but destructive conflict with Mauritania as well as unrealized production increases. The potential for irrigation development in the Casamance River Basin was not pursued as vigorously, further fueling a low-level civil conflict in that region. Deforestation and soil degradation resulted from shifting policies with regard to land and forest management and lack of policies targeting grazing land. This diminished the prospects for a turnaround in trends in rainfed agriculture and livestock more generally.

The country‘s economic recovery since 2000 is attributed variously to new political leadership, resolution of the Casamance rebellion, better weather, and increased emphasis on the role of the private sector in driving investment and growth. The newest strategy for boosting economic growth involves greater exploitation of Senegal‘s mineral reserves, with foreign investors expected to provide much of the capital and expertise. Currently, gold is extracted by small-scale artisanal miners, and phosphates are extracted only in regions near the coast. More significant investments in resource extraction in inland regions of the country (gold, phosphates, iron ore, marble, zircon, and a variety of other minerals) will require greater investments in transportation infrastructure as well as governance mechanisms to ensure that benefits are widely shared among the populace.

Senegal appears poised to continue refining its development strategies over the next decade or two in order to increase income levels. Issues with regard to property rights and resource governance will come to the fore as minerals exploitation is prioritized. Given the critical importance of agriculture to employment, however, attention to governance of these resources will also be needed to ensure that productivity is increased enough to allow those working on farms to earn incomes adequate to escape from poverty. As the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact with Senegal indicates, attention to individuals‘ land tenure and property rights will be important for agricultural production. Good governance will also take into account the way that benefits generated in one sector are shared more broadly across the population.


  • Support participatory measures to formulate a new integrated land policy and legislation. Senegal‘s policy of decentralization with regard to land administration, implemented over the past 45 years, has not, in general, resulted in greater local control, more productive and/or sustainable land use, or greater security of family or individual tenure. Customary law continues to prevail in most rural areas, but a great variety of approaches is being applied. The rights of women and youth to land and incentives to use it sustainably are not always in place. In urban areas, there are high levels of informal transactions. Where land rights were complex, as in the Senegal River Valley, state-led investments have replaced customary tenure with new systems, but security of rights remains an issue. According to a 2006 USAID report,―The current land tenure system is an impediment to long-term investments in land enhancement and improved land stewardship.‖ Repeated use by the state of measures that permit land to be reclassified as subject to allocation by the state rather than the local government councils (declaration of zones pionnieres) and expropriation of land for development have further undermined the decentralized approach. As the government now seeks to expand investments in transport infrastructure and to attract foreign investors into the mineral sector, these issues will continue to pose problems. New legislation that protects the rights of small landholders and pastoralists in rural areas – as well as the appropriate implementation and enforcement framework – at the same time as these important new initiatives are undertaken will be important to building food security and encouraging investment by small farmers in support of the government‘s goal of revitalizing rainfed agriculture. Donors can help to foster the consultations with local rural councils, administrations, traditional leaders, and extended households that are needed to develop a new, integrated land policy approach that provides an adequate land-allocation process for development purposes while safeguarding the rights and incentives of customary stakeholders (USAID 2006, 7).
  • Strengthen the capacity of rural councils to better allocate resources and protect citizens’ rights. The government‘s land and forest management policies have delegated authority to rural councils to administer and allocate land and natural resources. However, the capacity of these councils is weak and they are not always capable of responding to rapidly-changing conditions such as demographic pressures, urbanization, economic activities, and patterns and performance of agricultural production. In addition, rural councils have not recognized or promoted women‘s access to and rights in land, a step that could, in some areas, increase both productivity and household incomes as well as sustainable land management practices. Donors could support the technical and analytical capacity of rural councils to better define and understand the challenges in their areas. Donors could also help the government to build council capacity by offering training on key issues, including encouraging inclusivity and in particular addressing the land/forest resource needs of rural women. With the aim of aligning Senegal’s statutory laws and customary practices with its constitutional precepts regarding equal rights of men and women to land, donors could fund further research into the effects of laws on women, families, and communities. Donors could organize forums to discuss changes that would strengthen recognition of women’s property rights. USAID could also build on its successful community- based natural resource experience to create education programs aimed at empowering women to participate in the work of, and to assume roles on, the rural councils.
  • Promote the development of a new approach to forest conservation and management. In principle, rural councils and communities were granted forest-resource control rights and responsibilities in the 1998 Forest Code. Community-based forest management has been shown in donor-supported programs to be a viable option in Senegal. However, in communities not supported by donors, rural councils have often found that national decision-making predominates. Given the strong threats to the sustainability of Senegal’s forest resources, donors should promote the idea of a new approach to forest conservation and management as part of a larger reform of land law and administration.


Senegal became independent of France in 1960, starting its national life as a relatively prosperous country with an economy based on the exploitation of its rainfed agricultural resources. Senegal now faces the challenge of recovering from economic reversals experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. Most observers conclude that the agricultural sector‘s competitiveness has been eroded and needs to be rebuilt if poverty-reducing economic growth is to be realized. While the potential for intensification of agriculture is high, farmers and livestock owners are facing serious challenges: increasing demographic pressure, insecure land tenure, soil and pasture degradation, increasingly variable rainfall and inadequate irrigation management, and a changing policy environment.

Urban areas have experienced rapid growth in recent decades. Over 20% of the country‘s 12 million people now lives in the capital city of Dakar, drawn by the promise of greater employment and education opportunities. Sixty percent of Senegal‘s population is expected to reside in cities by 2015. In rural areas, by contrast, two out of every three people live in poverty, reflecting the lagging growth in the agricultural sector.

The legal framework of Senegal‘s land regime consists of multiple civil laws, religious law, and a long history of evolving principles of customary law. In the 50 years since independence, Senegal has pursued a decentralized model of governance, granting additional powers to local democratically elected bodies, including rural councils and water user associations. In many communities, rural hierarchies based on family lineage, religion, and political party membership dominate these bodies and control access to natural resources and retention of rights. Veto powers retained by the central government create further challenges to representative local governance of rural land. In urban areas, Senegal‘s progressive legislation allowing for the systematic regularization of land rights in informal settlements has lacked the financial and human resources support necessary for implementation.

Senegal‘s forest laws recognize the critical role that communities can play in managing the country‘s forests, and donor-supported community forest management programs have successfully worked with communities to develop sustainable forest management programs. Beyond these programs, however, there is little evidence of any significant devolution of authority over forest resources to local communities.

The privatization of Senegal‘s system for water supply and distribution has been an African success story, resulting in more than US $400 million in benefits, realized primarily by consumers. Urban areas are close to receiving complete water coverage; rural access has risen significantly and is a government priority and the subject of ongoing programs. The country is expanding irrigation in the Senegal River Valley to take full advantage of the quota allotted by the multi-country Organization for the Development of the Senegal River (OMVS). The Senegal River, which has decreased in volume over the last decades, has not supplied the amount of hydroelectric energy anticipated when OMVS constructed two large dams and a power plant.

Phosphates have dominated Senegal‘s mineral sector, with phosphate exports following fish products as the second most important source of revenue. New phosphate reserves have been identified and are being brought into production. Reforms to the legal and regulatory framework governing the mineral sector, a program designed to map mineral deposits and create a cadastre, and development of some much-needed infrastructure are combining to attract more foreign investment: a gold mine began production in 2009, and construction of a large operation to extract iron ore is underway.

Published / Updated: November 2010