Beating Malthus on the Cape Verde Islands

of the
Cape Verde

Islander Magazine Issue 3 Jan 1997

by Annababette Wils, Centre for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cape Verde provides an example of a country with scarce natural resources and a growing population. Until the end of the 1980s, it was classified in the “poorest countries” group by the World Bank. Remittances and foreign aid are equal to almost half of the GNP. Its population, presently around 400,000, is considerably larger than the country can feed by its own agricultural production. However, the populace is largely literate and in good health. The country has a fairly decent road network and set of ports as well as increasing forest cover, thanks mainly to the concerted efforts of the government and the people since independence from Portugal in 1973. Thus, it is a country with some signs of development but presently still in a very precarious situation.

There are two classic theories on the reaction of society to population pressure on natural resources: the Malthusian - which claims that population pressure leads to an increasing scarcity of the natural resources and a decline in general quality of health; and the Condorcet/Boserupian - which holds that these pressures conduce societies to adapt by reducing fertility and by advancing technologies and organizational structures to deal with these pressures. These two views are caricatures, and neither truly represents the authors themselves (Malthus in later writings was more optimistic, while Boserup ends her classic book with a note of pessimism concerning today’s developing nations). Still, they are very useful as simple end-points in the discussion on the effects of population on development and vice versa.

Cape Verde offers an interesting case of a third response of dealing with population pressures, which is to expand the country’s base via emigration, remittances, and foreign aid. This case is relevant because to a greater or lesser extent a number of the world’s poor developing countries are taking precisely this route to avert (or postpone) a Malthusian catastrophe, while not embarking, or not able to embark, on the endogenous social adaptations proposed by Boserup.


Cape Verde is a volcanic archipelago of nine inhabited islands and some islets located 600km west off the coast of Senegal in the Atlantic ocean. The islands range in maximum altitude from 2800m to only 300m. Between the islands is up to 100km of a rough, but fertile ocean. The archipelago is located at the northern edge of the Monsoon path, which means that in some years, the Monsoon reaches (all or some of) the islands briefly and lets down a torrential rain which is the main annual supply of water for most of the people in Cape Verde. This rainwater is mostly lost in evapotranspiration and runoff, but 13 percent collects in aquifers underneath the moist mountain valleys. An estimated 5 percent can be recaptured for human use - equal to 300 litres per person per day at 400,000 people, a very low value. In the intermittent years when the Monsoon does not travel north enough to reach Cape Verde, severe droughts ensue which have marked the history of the country. Eighty percent of the year, a moist north-west Trade wind blows over the islands. When this wind reaches the higher altitude islands, it is pushed upwards, and in areas over 1,000m, condenses into fog, dew or rain. Thus, the high areas of the islands facing the Trade wind are relatively green. The lower areas, and those areas in the shadow of the peaks are semi-arid to desert-like.


In 1460 a group of Portuguese sailors were the first (recorded) Europeans to find the archipelago, and they found it uninhabited. Although Colonialism had not yet manifested itself, it was obvious that the islands belonged to the Portuguese Crown and should be exploited to the benefit of that Crown. The Portuguese settled on a number of the islands. As the archipelago was located on the great sailing triangle - Europe, West Africa, America - which soon after developed, and the colony had exclusive trading rights for Portugal with West Africa, the small economy flourished doing slave trade until the eighteenth century. In these years, the population of Cape Verde emerged as one of mixed European and African blood.

From the early centuries, an agricultural economy developed alongside the trading, which was based largely on maize, beans and livestock for local consumption. Agriculture was based on a particular system of land-ownership and tenancy which virtually stripped any farmer of the motivation to make investments with a pay-off period of longer than one year. Irrigated agriculture - which appears to be relatively insensitive to droughts - was located in the moist valley-floors and could be relatively sure of regular crops but was and is hampered by scarce land space. Rain-fed agriculture spread to the rest of the islands, and has been regularly subject to crop failure in years when the Monsoon remained absent. The irrigated/rain-fed agriculture dichotomy remains unchanged today. In drought years, famines ensued - the first famine is recorded as early as 1582-5 - which until recently wiped out up to 30 percent of the population in a few years.

The slave trade gradually diminished to zero in the course of the eighteenth century, and after that, the islands were left with virtually nothing to trade with the outside world in exchange for the necessary goods - tools, but also, food in times of famine - and digressed into a state of poverty until the middle of the nineteenth century. At that time, Cape Verde’s fortune changed under the influence of two factors: American whaling and the British harbour set up in one of the northern islands.


Americans came to the rich waters of Cape Verde to whale, and would go ashore to wash, cut and cook their bounty and to acquire fresh supplies. Many Cape Verdean men, experienced with boats and fishing, hired onto the whaling boats, which carried them to the United States. This movement was largest in the nineteenth century and peaked just before it stopped in the early twentieth. Once in the United States, many disembarked and proceeded to settle temporarily and make a living. They sent the proceeds of their labour back home as remittances, or took their fortune with them in full upon their return. Thus started a tradition which characterizes the country to today: (mostly temporary) emigration to send home remittances; dominated by men; and women at home raising the children alone. Emigration reached a first peak at the beginning of this century, then dwindled to almost zero as the United States issued stricter immigration laws. One of these, issued in 1917, restricted immigration to literate persons. This law started the first drive for a larger proportion of the men to receive some schooling.

The British harbour set up as a coal depot for ships in Mindelo afforded a brief period of relative prosperity at the end of the last century, which ended as the harbour lost its clients to harbours in the Canaries and Dakar, Senegal. The harbour and the town however, remain to this day the centre of industrial activity on Cape Verde, and are predestined to be the centre for export industrialization should such an activity develop.

After the demise of emigration and the Mindelo harbour, the archipelago entered half a century of poverty and stagnation. In the years from 1897-1948 the population suffered severe attrition during multiple famines - the latest as recent as 1948. From that year the history of the islands changed, as food came to the archipelago, and emigration (followed by remittances) picked up again. Buoyed by the remittances and aid, the population started to grow rapidly without equal increases in production.

In 1973, Cape Verde became independent of Portugal with a practically non-existent economy and a per capita GNP of about 440 US dollars. The new, one-party government was a Cape Verdean version of grassroots socialism which emphasized education, basic health, and labour intensive production for domestic uses. The 1980s were a decade of investments in education, water, the road network, harbour expansion, and a successful program of reafforestation (forest cover increased from 3,000 hectares in 1975 to 44,000 in 1990). The domestic economy of Cape Verde has been growing continually from 1973 to the present to provide for basic products such as drinks, furniture and tobacco. However, the base and possibilities for expansion are small. There is growth potential in both tourism and export industry. Presently, the bottleneck in these sectors is labour and entrepreneurial skills, but perhaps the increasing education of the population will change that in the near future. Fishing is repeatedly mentioned as a promising export sector for Cape Verde and much has been invested, with no commensurate increase in catch. Per capita GNP was about 800 US dollars in 1990.

As the government has appeared earnest in its endeavors to help the country, foreign aid soared in the first decade of independence to cover 25 percent of GNP in 1985. The per capita consumption levels of Cape Verde doubled in real value from 1973 -1985. Since 1985, the real value of aid decreased, and in 1989 was only 14 percent of GNP - a very large loss of income in a mere four years! - and the economic growth slowed down. The World Bank and other economic analyses, identified inefficiency of public enterprises as the cause of this stagnation. According to my analysis however, the domestic economy of the country was growing at a healthy pace during the second half of the 1980s, but this growth was over-shadowed by the decrease in foreign transfers.

In 1988, partly due to the slow economic growth, the government announced a change in policy to a more outward looking economy. The ingredients thereof were: to privatise public enterprises; to liberalise the economy; and to promote exports. In 1991, the country had its first democratic elections and the new government pursues the same goals of moving toward a market economy.


The Malthusian trap is one where the given land area is so crowded relative to the crops that are produced that only a meagre subsistence level of production is ensured. At this subsistence level, mortality rates are high, so high that they cancel out the tendency of high fertility to increase the population size.

In two periods, Cape Verde experienced an altered, cyclical version of this equilibrium - namely, during the first halves of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. In good years, say at the beginning of a cycle, the land offered slightly more than subsistence to the population which had a high fertility rate. Births exceeded deaths and the population grew. The land became more crowded. Intermittently, a drought occurred, famine ensued and the population was reduced - to a level that could survive a drought. Then, the population was smaller than the hypothetical “Malthusian crowded subsistence” size population, and the cycle started again.

During the two periods of the Malthusian trap, population was characterized by a cycle which consisted of rapid population growth, decimation by famine, and a renewed period of population growth, resulting in a constant average population size. In the first period, from (at least) 1807 - 1866, the population averaged around 60,000 persons. In this period, Cape Verde lived almost completely on its own resources. In that interim, there were relatively long famine-free periods of what were relatively fast population growth. However, due to the regular famines, the population would suffer such great losses that the long-term population size was stable (see table and figure). 1866 to 1897 was a period of constant population growth, with an average rate of 2.4 percent annually (as much as in high growth developing countries today!) which brought the population up to a new, stable level. These high figures of population growth indicate that in these non-hunger years, the living conditions on the islands were comparatively healthy, that deaths were infrequent and fecundity was high. This was also the period when emigration to the United States increased, and the Mindelo harbour was developed. The income from abroad enlarged the colony’s resource base for subsistence. The higher income base was translated into a larger population.

By 1897, the population was 147,000. Then, another period of what looks like a Malthusian cycle equilibrium ensued, this time with a larger population. It lasted until 1948 when the population was 140,000. In this period, there must have been a constant flow of remittances, as there is no evidence of an improved agricultural or other production system, to support the larger population, although new emigration to the United States was low.

After 1948, the population grew continually as the graph shows. This happened, first because food aid came to the archipelago and second, because emigration and remittances increased again from the 1950s, peaking in the 1970s. This allowed the country to escape the Malthusian cycle a second time, again, by “enlarging” its resource base to include foreign territory.

An important question for the future of the country is whether it will be caught for a third time in the Malthusian trap or whether it will be able to solve the tension between population needs and demands, and environmental and economic resources, i.e. whether it will be able to get out of the dynamics that lead to a Malthusian trap namely: a stagnating economy combined with a population that has a tendency to grow unless constrained by high mortality levels or peaks.

There are three viable options to avoid this trap:

  1. to increase further the outside resource base by engaging in economic exchange as was done in the past (exchange of labour, aid, or exports, or, lateral pressure - that is, territorial expansion)
  2. to stabilize or decrease population demands; or
  3. to increase the domestic production of subsistence.

The food aid and the remittances from the 1950s, particularly after independence in 1973, gave the country a window of time to implement these options. So far, fertility has decreased only slowly; the literacy rate has increased from 25 percent of the adult population in 1973 to 75 percent in 1990 but the percentage of adults with secondary education was still below 5 percent; and the (export) industry base is still embryonic. Agriculture and fishing output have been fluctuating around a stable mean for the decades since independence. Nonetheless, an extensive study of Cape Verde by the author shows that there are many positive trends.

Fertility among women with secondary education is low. In the next decade, the proportion of young women with secondary education will increase greatly, therefore a rapid fertility decline would not be unexpected. The better educated labour force (men and women) which will enter the market in the next decade will coincide with the maturation of the export industry legislation. Hopefully, the recent increases in high-value vegetable and meat production will continue. These are all endogenous changes, of precisely the kind that Condorcet and Boserup proposed. They are ultimately the only sustainable ones. However, the third adaptation to population pressure, emigration and foreign income, have given the country a chance to achieve these things with a little more time.

For the world as a whole, the story of Cape Verde shows that between Malthus and Condorcet/Boserup there is a range of adaptations possible, some of them temporary, just to buy time, but that even such solutions can be beneficial in the long run.


Many arid and semi-arid developing countries suffer from serious environmental degradation. Climatic changes and human activities have resulted in severe overgrazing, soil erosion, loss of fertility and predisposition to drought and famine. A key factor in developing such areas is widely considered to be appropriate sustainable forestry and agroforestry, aimed at environmental stabilisation and soil improvement, and the provision of fuelwood, fodder and other locally important products. Legume trees and shrubs play a potentially vital role in such developments, but further information is required on their selection and management.

The Republic of Cape Verde have suffered much from the above problems and, since 1975, attempted to remedy them through the widespread planting of the legume tree, Prosopis juliflora. Unfortunately the trees planted all originate from a small introduction and are subsequently, genetically very similar. This lays the tree population open to the spread of disease and pests.


The Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), an International organisation, researching and promtoing organic horticulture and agriculture, have carried out 6 years of intensive research with the government of Cape Verde, with a field trials officer in place during that time. Achievements include:

  • Several species not previously cultivated on the islands have proven successful in the reafforestation of inland areas suffering from extreme drought and have thus facilitated species diversification.
  • Species including those from the genera Acacia and Atriplex have been selected for their ability to survive the combined wind, salt and drought stresses prevailing on exposed coastal sites.
  • Species suitable for interplanting with field crops have been identified.
  • Advances have been made in the vegetive propagation of trees using in vitro micropropagation techniques and also using simple low cost methods of conventional propagation.
  • Trees with high potential for more widespread use in arid and semi-arid areas have been planted in nurseries for seed production. The seed has been used on Cape Verde and has been distributed to other countries by the HDRA's Tree Selection and Advisory Service.
  • Field trails have been carried out to introduce the highly drought tolerant vetiver grass as a means to control serious soil erosion on the islands.