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Is it mainly the poor who degrade the drylands?

The widespread alarm caused by the theory that poverty and overpopulation cause widespread soil mining draws attention away from other important causes of land degradation associated with non-poor forces. Tractor tillage, for example is available only to wealthier farmers across the developing world. It removes soil cover on a much larger scale than is possible with hand or animal tillage, and pulverizes the soil so it is much more susceptible to wind and water erosion. And government policies and incentives frequently trigger the expansion of wealthy landholdings in destructive ways, for example through requirements and incentives to clear lands in order to establish ownership along the frontiers of settlements.

Here are a few well-known cases:

  • Government drought aid in the West Asia/North Africa region, dished out based on numbers of head of livestock owned, favors wealthier livestock operators and inadvertently encourages larger herds that overgraze and damage the fragile drylands (Hazell et al. 2001).

  • Mechanized state farms causing soil degradation and loss of indigenous knowledge for sustainable dryland management in the Central Asian republics of the ex-Soviet Union (Durikov and Winckler 2001; Holzel et al. 2002).

  • Large-scale dryland irrigation projects ending in salinization and land abandonment, as in the spectacular Aral Sea environmental disaster caused by development policies of the ex-Soviet Union (Saiko and Zonn 2000).

  • Deforestation in Haiti causes great suffering for smallholders, but its origins trace to a ravenous export lumber industry run by colonial slave masters in the 18th century (Weiner 2004).

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Durikov, M. and Winckler, H. 2001. Combating desertification in Turkmenistan: participation at village level in a country undergoing transformation. Entwicklung + Landlicher Raum 35: 23-26.

Hazell, P., Oram, P. and Chaherli, N. 2001. Managing droughts in the low-rainfall areas of the Middle East and North Africa. EPTD Discussion Paper no. 78. Washington D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Holzel, N., Haub, C., Ingelfinger, M. P., Otte, A., and Pilipenko, V. N. 2002. The return of the steppe - large-scale restoration of degraded land in southern Russia during the post-Soviet era. Journal for Nature Conservation 10:75-85.

Saiko, T. A. and Zonn, I. S. 2000. Irrigation expansion and dynamics of desertification in the Circum-Aral region of central Asia. Applied Geography 20:349-367.

Weiner, T. 2004. Life is hard and short in Haiti's bleak villages. New York Times, March 14, 2004



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