The dominant narrative of soil degradation in sub-Saharan Africa, as expressed in global surveys and policy documents, is compared with long-term data on the productive performance of smallholder farming systems under climatic and demographic stress. Cases at national, district and village/farm scale are considered (Nigeria; Diourbel Region, Senegal; Maradi Department, Niger; the Kano Close-Settled Zone, Nigeria). The dominant narrative is found to fail as a predictor of agricultural performance over the longer term. Instead there is evidence of farmers' achievements in terms of sustained production, and investments in soil fertility maintenance. However at micro-scale, the constraints affecting farmers' investments are apparent. The dominant narrative is deficient as a guide to policy, which needs to go beyond the fertiliser debate to take a broader view of soil fertility in relation to rural livelihoods and a need to facilitate private investment in natural resources. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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