"Agenda 21", the programme adopted by the 1992 Earth Summit, called for a new approach to land resource use and managment, one that ensures sustainable development by involving all "stakeholders" in land use decision making, and by bridging the gap between land users' production objectives and the long-term need to preserve natural resources.
In collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme, AG's Land and Water Development Division (AGL) has been developing just such an approach. "The starting point is the people who determine how land is used," a recent AGL report says. "At one extreme, the aim of the individual farmer and other types of land user is to produce income by exploiting natural resources. As the population increases, there is a corresponding increase in the amount and intensity of exploitation, leading to modification - and frequently degradation - of the environment. At the other extreme, the community as a whole seeks to conserve natural resources and the environment, including the range of natural species, for a wide variety of reasons."
Each individual or group has particular needs, objectives and points of view, AGL says. The resulting use of land is controlled by an interplay of many social and economic factors, and is ultimately driven by the objectives of innumerable 'stakeholders' - people or groups who either directly exploit or in some way control the use of land resources.
In 1950, some 115 million sq km of the Earth's surface was undegraded, vegetated land. Just 40 years later, more than 12 million sq km - an area bigger than China - was classified as "moderately to severely degraded". Land degradation takes many forms.
Overgrazing by livestock has damaged an estimated 6.8 million sq km, with recent losses have been most severe in Africa and Asia.
Deforestation degraded a further 5.8 million sq km. Between 1975 and 1990, more than 2.2 million sq km of tropical forest were destroyed.
Agricultural mismanagement accounts for degradation of another 5.5 million sq km. Water erosion causes annual soil losses estimated at 25 000 million tonnes.
To this mounting toll must to be added some 1.4 million sq km degraded for fuel wood and 195 000 sq km damaged by urban growth and industry.
AGL cites examples of stakeholders in conflict. In rural Mali, for example, 200 women in one village "declared war" on their menfolk over ownership of a community market garden. The women provided all the labour needed to establish the garden. But the local village development association - made up entirely of men - took control, claiming the garden belonged to the "entire community".
Often conflict occurs between community and state: over centuries, nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Near East developed a system of mutually agreed laws, regulations and customs - known as hema - to control grazing on their rangelands; in the mid-20th century, the decision of some governments to abolish the hema regime led to the breakdown of winter/summer grazing rotation and to widespread land degradation.
Conflicting interests also affect nations. Since 13 of the world's major rivers and lakes are shared by a total of 96 countries, the water supplies of millions of people living in these areas depend on continuing cooperation among their governments. At global level, there is conflict between North and South over who should take responsibility for changes in the world's climate. The immediate cause is believed to be the build-up of atmospheric "greenhouse gases", produced mainly by the North's heavy industries and motor vehicles. But a significant proportion may also come from tropical deforestation and land use practices such as rangeland burning.
Conflict resolution. For AGL, "the root cause of conflict over land - and of land degradation itself - is people's inability to develop effective institutional frameworks for conflict resolution and for efficient and sustainable land use." Conflict resolution means negotiated agreement using mechanisms and institutions that facilitate the participation of all stakeholders, especially the poorest. This requires coordinated action on a number of fronts.
The first need is to identify those concerned in the use of a resource - such as a spring or a well, land suitable for grazing or cultivation, a fishing or hunting area, or natural vegetation. Stakeholders include immediate users (those who have a right to exploit the resource) and those who are directly affected by such exploitation. Stakeholders also include all those who have any kind of interest in how the resource is used, including conservationists or special interest groups. All these people have a natural right to participate in negotiation.
To ensure that stakeholders or their representatives take part equally in negotiations, they need to be fully informed about all aspects of the resource and its sustainable use, and on relevant economic, organizational and legal factors. Negotiation cannot take place without adequate arrangements for discussion and exchange of views. At local level, this may consist of a physical meeting place, but in many cases it will be necessary to establish links with stakeholders who are not physically present. Modern communications technology will have an important role to play.
The result of negotiation should be an agreement on resource use that maximises benefits enjoyed by all interested parties. Solutions reached through negotiation need to be embodied in an agreed resource utilization plan. This may be a set of rules or by-laws, a treaty or a similar instrument to which all parties agree. Finally, In most countries, land development and conservation are seen as a government responsibility. Individuals and communities often have no power to intervene, contribute or make their opinions known. In order to tap the knowledge, enthusiasm and energy of local communities, they must be empowered to make and implement decisions.
Production and conservation incentives. People's aspirations are seen as the driving force for both production and land conservation. "The primary objective of most land users," AGL says, "is to meet their immediate needs for food, fuel and income. To do so, they apply their energy, skills and technologies to exploit available resources in the most efficient and cost-effective way. In other words, land users act according to what they think is best for them. Under the right conditions, the best strategy for achieving their objectives is to increase production and conserve the productive potential of their land. All they need are the right incentives."
A key production incentive is the right to land. Land users have little incentive to build up the productive capacity of their land without a guarantee that they will enjoy the benefits. Squatters and tenants exploit - owners conserve. Legal demarcation of boundaries, efficient mechanisms for settling disputes, registration of ownership and an active land market all have positive effects on production.
Equally important are economic incentives: low prices set by marketing boards and other monopolies depress prices creating, in turn, demand pressures that stimulate food imports and disincentives to local production. In Tanzania, for example, the cost of maintaining parastatal marketing boards was so high that prices they paid for maize were less than a third of what farmers could obtain in illegal parallel markets. Relaxation of state controls opened the way for large-scale private trading and sharp increases in maize production.
External production inputs and services - such as fertilizer, credit and extension advice - also stimulate production. In some countries, the problem of providing inputs and extension to scattered, small-scale producers has been overcome by giving farmers responsibility for this task, through their own organizations. This happened in Nicaragua, where cooperatives worked with agricultural research stations to develop fertilizer recommendations and soil management techniques suited to local crops and conditions.
Lack of infrastructure discourages production. Infrastructure improvements include expansion of transport networks, storage facilities, agro-processing industries and markets. Construction of a modern wholesale market at Nokwane in Swaziland, provided a profitable new outlet for the country's small farmers. Since it opened in the late 1980's, the market has doubled its total annual sale of fresh fruit and vegetables and helped local growers triple their tomato exports.
Security of land tenure is seen as the first among the incentives to conserve land. For most land users, investing in land conservation is worthwhile only if they are able reap the returns on the time and labour they invest. This implies forms of land tenure that permit undisturbed use, and the right to manage the land over a long period. China, for example, has given long-term leases on hillside land to farmers who agree to plant trees. Result: for the first time in a millennium, more trees are being planted than cut down.
Productive land conservation techniques can lead to dramatic improvements in both land productivity and land conservation. Tests indicate that ground kept covered after the main harvest (for example, with a grass crop) loses 100 times less soil than soil plots left bare. Cultivators adopting zero or minimum tillage have maintained yields, cut tractor fuel costs and helped restore soil damaged by overuse of heavy farm machinery.
But without the active participation of land users, even the best-laid land conservation plans go awry. Users need to be involved from the start in analysing problems and developing practices that reduce land degradation. In partnership, land users are best represented by their own local organizations - farmer groups in Sri Lanka's dry zone have formed autonomous village cooperatives that work with government services in organizing extension visits, conducting variety trials and implementing soil and water conservation programmes.
Finally, when positive incentives fail to halt land mismanagement, government sanctions and charges are called for. A practical option is use of market-based mechanisms and fiscal measures, such as taxes, and removal of subsidies on inputs that harm the land. A classic example comes from Indonesia, where generous pesticide subsidies created artificially low prices and encouraged their widespread misuse. Faced with increasing pollution and rising pesticide resistance among ravenous brown plant hoppers, the Government eliminated subsidies and introduced integrated pest management to farmers. Within three seasons, pesticide use fell 90% - and yields increased.
Published October 1998