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Poverty and desertification

Does poverty cause land degradation and desertification, or vice-versa? Or are they parts of a feedback loop? This issue is controversial. Whether the poor are major agents of desertification or not, it is clear that they suffer especially from its consequences because they are highly dependent on the land's productivity for their livelihoods (Hazell et al. 2002).

Cleaver and Schreiber (1994) hypothesized that poverty, overpopulation and land degradation create a self-reinforcing downward spiral leading to ever-greater misery and land degradation. Farmers may be 'mining' their soils of nutrients and vegetative cover without replacing them, triggering soil erosion and productivity decline - although the extent and importance of soil mining is still an issue of debate.

But the opposite dynamic has also been proposed. In the 'induced innovation' concept of Boserup (1965), increasing populations stimulate increasing demand for agricultural products. As land becomes more costly compared to labor, incentives emerge for more intensive, yet sustainable land management in order to reap the benefits of the enlarged market opportunity year after year.

Both downward-spiral and induced-innovation scenarios have been reported under different situations (Pender 1998). Cases of the downward spiral were described by Durning (1989), Leonard (1989), Lopez (1998), Kates and Haarmann (1992), Mink (1993), Ram et al. (1999) and White and Jickling (1995). Induced innovation has been reported by Leach and Mearns (1996), Mortimore and Adams (1999), Templeton and Scherr (1999), Tiffen (2002), Tiffen et al. (1994), Tiffen and Mortimore (2002), and Wiggins (1995).

Comparing the downward-spiral vs. induced-innovation evidence, it appears that outcomes largely depend on how well societies adapt to rapid population growth, globalization, market development, technological change, climate change, and agro-ecological conditions (Heath and Binswanger 1996; Jodha 1998; Lele and Stone 1989; Kuyvenhoven and Ruben 2002; Lopez 1998; Mazzucato and Niemeijer 2002; Mortimore and Harris 2004; Niemeijer and Mazzucato 2002a; Pender et al. 2001a; Prakash 1997; Scherr 2000).

Both of these models may be true at different times for the same area of land. Tiffen and Bunch (2002) suggest a general pattern of development in Africa which begins from extensive, low-intensity animal herding; gradually degrading the land as populations of humans and animals increase; but ultimately recovering as dense human populations create markets for agricultural produce that must be met by rehabilitating the limited remaining land area available for farming.

Intensification of land use, even if it is sustainable does not necessarily imply that poverty will be reduced. If more labor-productive systems are not employed, then wages cannot increase or may decrease due to the increased availability of labor.

This is why the cases of successful poverty escape exhibit productivity-increasing dynamics such as:

  • The exploitation of local comparative advantages (soil, climate, biodiversity, labor, etc.)

  • The use of technologies that increase land and labor productivity faster than population growth; and

  • Improved access to growing markets (Hazell and Haddad 2001; Pender, 1998; Pender et al. 2001b).

Return to "What causes desertification?

References Boserup, E. 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change Under Population Pressure. Aldine, Chicago.

Cleaver, K. M. and Schreiber, G. A. 1994. Reversing the Spiral: The Population, Agriculture and Environment Nexus in Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Durning, A. 1989. Poverty and the environment: reversing the downward spiral. Worldwatch Paper 92. Worldwatch Institute, Washington, D.C.

Hazell, P. and Haddad, L. 2001. Agricultural Research and Poverty Reduction. Food, Agriculture, and the Environment Discussion Paper 34. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Hazell, P., Jansen, H., Ruben, R. and Kuyvenhoven, A. 2002. Investing in poor people in poor lands. Paper prepared for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Heath, J. and Binswanger, H. P. 1996. Natural resource degradation effects of poverty are largely policy-induced: The case of Colombia. Environment and Development Economics 1: 65-84.

Jodha, N.S. 1998. Poverty and environmental resource degradation: An alternative explanation and possible solutions. Economic and Political Weekly, Sept. 5-12, pp. 2384-90.

Kates, R. and Haarmann, V. 1992. Where the poor live: Are the assumptions correct? Environment 34:4-28.

Kuyvenhoven, A. and Ruben, R. 2002. Economic conditions for sustainable agricultural intensification. Pp. 58-70 in Uphoff, N. (ed.), Agroecological Innovations. London: Earthscan.

Leach, M. and Mearns, R. (eds.) 1996. The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment. African Issues, The International African Institute in association with James Currey, Oxford, and Heinemann, Portsmouth (NH).

Lele, U. and Stone, S.1989. Population pressure, the environment, and agricultural intensification in sub-Saharan Africa: variations on the Boserup hypothesis. MADIA Discussion Paper No. 4, World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Leonard, H. J. (ed.) 1989. Environment and the Poor: Development Strategies for a Common Agenda. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Lopez, R. E. 1998. Where development can or cannot go: the role of poverty-environment linkages. Pp. 285-306 in Pleskovic, B. and Stiglitz, J. E. (eds.) 1997 Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

Mink, S. D. 1993. Poverty, population and the environment. World Bank Discussion Paper No. 189. The World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Mazzucato, V. and Niemeijer, D. 2002. Population growth and the environment in Africa: Local informal institutions, the missing link. Economic Geography 78:171-193.

Mortimore, M. and Adams, W. M. 1999. Working the Sahel: environment and society in northern Nigeria. London: Routledge.

Mortimore, M. and Harris, F. 2004. Do small farmers' achievements contradict the nutrient depletion scenarios for Africa? Land Use Policy (in press).

Niemeijer, D. and Mazzucato, V. 2002a. Soil degradation in the West African Sahel: how serious is it? Environment 44:20-31.

Pender, J. 1998. Population growth, agricultural intensification, induced innovation and natural resource sustainability: an application of neoclassical growth theory. Agricultural Economics 19:99-112.

Pender, J., Jagger, P., Nkonya, E. and Sserunkuuma, D. 2001a. Dvelopment pathways and land management in Uganda: causes and implications. EPTD Discussion Paper no. 85. Washington D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Pender, J., Scherr, S. J. and Durón, G. 2001b. Pathways of development in the hillsides of Honduras: causes and implications for agricultural production, poverty, and sustainable resource use. In Lee, D.R. and Barrett, C. B. (eds.) Tradeoffs or Synergies? Agricultural Intensification, Economic Development and the Environment, Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Prakash, S. 1997. Poverty and environment linkages in mountains and uplands: reflections on the "poverty trap" thesis. CREED Working Paper Series No. 12. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

Ram, K. A., Tsunekawa, A., Sahad, D. K. and Miyazaki, T. 1999. Subdivision and fragmentation of land holdings and their implication in desertification in the Thar Desert, India. Journal of Arid Environments 41:463-477.

Scherr, S. J. 2000. A downward spiral? Research evidence on the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation. Food Policy 25:479-498.

Templeton, S. and Scherr, S. J. 1999. Effects of demographic and related microeconomic change on land quality in hills and mountains of developing countries. World Development 27:903-918.

Tiffen, M. 2002. The evolution of agroecological methods and the influence of markets: case studies from Kenya and Nigeria. Pp. 95-108 in Uphoff, N. (ed.) Agroecological Innovations. London: Earthscan.

Tiffen, M. and Bunch, R. 2002. Can a more agroecological agriculture feed a growing world population? Pp. 71-91 in Uphoff, N. (ed.) Agroecological Innovations. London: Earthscan.

Tiffen, M. and Mortimore, M. 2002. Questioning desertification in dryland sub-Saharan Africa. Natural Resources Forum 26:218-233.

Tiffen, M., Mortimore, M., and Gichuki, F. 1994. More People, Less Erosion: Environmental Recovery in Kenya. London: John Wiley and Sons.

White, T. A. and Jickling, J. L. 1995. Peasants, experts, and land use in Haiti: lessons from indigenous and project technology. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 50:7-14.

Wiggins, S. 1995. Change in African farming systems between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. Journal of International Development 7:807-848.



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