Land Degradation and Poverty

Two of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to “end poverty” (Goal 1) and to “strive to achieve a land-degradation neutral world” (Goal 15.3), which requires that any land degradation is fully offset by restoration of degraded land. A fundamental question is whether these two SDGs are compatible. Ending global poverty while at the same time balancing land degradation with restoration suggests that there may be potential tradeoffs in attaining these two SDGs. Accurately assessing these tradeoffs will require, in turn, a clear understanding of the relationship between land degradation and poverty. Despite decades of research, it is not obvious that such a consensus view exists in the literature.

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Nov 13, 2018

One of the first tasks that I undertook as a natural resource economist in the mid-1980s was to review the lessons learned from years of investments by international donors in soil conservation projects aimed at smallholders in the uplands of Java, Indonesia. What I learned very quickly was that the relationship between land degradation and poverty is exceedingly complicated, and often poorly understood.  

Thirty years later, Nature Sustainability invited me, along with my co-author Jake Hochard, to write a Review of current thinking on this topic.  What we discovered is that, despite the vast growth of literature and case studies, plus ça change: the overall consensus is that the “land degradation-poverty nexus” is exceedingly complex, as it involves consideration of many additional economic, social and environmental factors that vary by location and scale.

Nevertheless, our Review does identify some important lessons learned from recent studies.

First, global assessments of land degradation indicate that that the problem is worsening in some regions and increasingly linked to food insecurity.  If degrading land is widespread, especially in developing regions, it raises concerns over attaining the SDG for global poverty reduction.  For example, any impacts of land degradation on food security will affect mainly the poor, as well as leave them more vulnerable to climate change.  In addition, projections indicate that agricultural land degradation in developing countries is likely to continue over the next several decades.  As the world’s poor are increasingly rural and young, this suggests that poverty and land degradation will be interlinking obstacles to sustainable development in low and middle-income economies for some time to come.

Second, although such trends suggest a potential linkage between land degradation and poverty, it is difficult to establish this link conclusively from global assessments.  Using high infant mortality rates as a proxy for poverty, we conducted our own spatial analysis of rural populations on degrading and improving agricultural land for this Review. Our comparisons across income groups and regions suggest little differences in the extent and incidence of poverty among rural populations on degrading, as opposed to improving, agricultural land in developing countries. Nevertheless, two trends concerning high infant mortality for populations on degrading land are worrisome. Over 2000-2010 the rural poor on degrading agricultural land increased in low-income countries, and in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  Case study evidence on continent-wide land degradation, land use and poverty also suggests that degradation continues to be a serious problem confronting many poor farmers across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Third, to appreciate fully the possible linkages between poverty and land degradation requires understanding how the livelihoods of the poor are adversely affected by degradation, and equally, how the constraints that these households face may impact their land use decisions, thus leading to excessive degradation.  An important starting point are the assets available to poor rural households, which in most instances are agricultural land, low-skilled household labor, and available resources from the surrounding environment, and how these various assets are used by the poor.  For instance, many poor rural households attempt to diversify their income sources among three principle activities: agriculture, local off-farm work, and exploitation of natural resources from the surrounding environment.  How successful households are in such strategies, and the constraints they face, ultimately determine whether or not they enter into a “downward spiral” into further poverty through land degradation.

Finally, whether poor rural households will descend into such a spiral will also depend on a number of important external “conditioning” factors – economic, environmental and social – that are largely beyond the households’ control.  These include tenure security, civil and political unrest, market access for credit and inputs, economic policies, and local infrastructure, to name just a few.

One of the most popular policy prescriptions for reducing poverty globally is to promote economic growth. However, we find that growth may reduce overall poverty, but still leave many rural regions of developing countries facing the interlinking problems posed by land degradation and poverty. In particular, our Review suggests that the most critical and vulnerable rural population group is those people located on less favored agricultural lands that are also remote from markets. Agricultural research, rural roads and education appear to be the most effective investments in improving land productivity and reducing poverty in less favored agricultural regions. In addition, developing countries will need international assistance in developing the integrated land-use planning tools and capacities necessary to implement a strategy of halting degradation and improving the livelihoods of the poor in key regions.

Overall, land degradation should be given a global priority that requires policy solutions tailored to the specific needs and affected regions of developing countries, and be viewed just as fundamental to alleviating poverty worldwide as to the goal of attaining zero net degraded land.  Only by examining the potential links between poverty and land degradation can we avoid unnecessary tradeoffs between these two critical SDGs.

Our Review is published as Edward B. Barbier and Jacob P. Hochard. "Land degradation and poverty." Nature Sustainability 1, 623–631 (2018). and doi: 10.1038/s41893-018-0155-4.

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Edward Barbier

Professor, Colorado State University

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