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Ch06

5. Government's responsibility for conservation

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Responsibility for conservation rests with governments
Base policy on resource assessment
Single agency preferred
Drafting nationwide laws difficult
Punitive laws are ineffective
Improvement "packages" must attract farmers
Conservation teams include many disciplines
Local officials ensure success
Landusers form associations
Incentives are necessary
Direct payments have drawbacks
Attitude to short-term conservation costs

Responsibility for conservation rests with governments

A clear responsibility for conserving a country's basic resources rests with governments. Whether it is the national government that provides the principal leadership, as in the USA, or provincial governments, as in Australia, government at some level must take the initiative for establishing a conservation programme .

While the plan of action for each country will be different, a typical programme will include provisions for a conservation agency, research, an extension service and technical training. It should also provide for incentives and new institutions to encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices. Governments will have to assume that portion of the costs of soil conservation that benefit society as a whole, rather than individual farmers.

Securing popular support for a soil conservation programme is no easy matter. Soil conservation tends to be given low priority, even in programmes to improve agriculture, because immediate economic returns are not apparent. It will be necessary to convince rural and urban leaders that soil erosion leads to lower crop yields and higher food prices, while steadily eroding a country's self-sufficiency.

Advocates of resource management will have to make it clear that the cost to the country of soil degradation may be very great and measurable in terms of more food imports, malnutrition, and even starvation. The arguments must be persuasive, because government spending for conservation will have to be substantial during the next two decades if soil degradation is going to be arrested. FAO studies estimate that needed investments in soil and water conservation in 90 developing countries should total $1.5 billion in the year 2000. While the figure may seem high, it is only a tenth of the investment proposed that year for irrigation and one-twentieth of that proposed for mechanization. Further, much soil conservation work is not necessarily capital-intensive and much of the labour can be done by farmers themselves.

 

Base policy on resource assessment

A country's soil conservation programme should be based on a thorough assessment of its natural resources, including their current condition and the cost of repairing any damage already done to them. Ways to obtain such information will be discussed in Chapter 6. When the resource assessment is complete, a government should establish a national land use or resource policy to guide the development of a conservation programme, as well as other activities for the improvement of agriculture.

Policies will vary widely between countries, depending on their needs and goals. In one country, it might emphasize watershed development, forest management, and the need for local forest product industries. In another, it might call for an improvement in grazing lands - for more cattle and fewer goats - and possibly for relocation of some people in overcrowded areas. In still another country, the chief policy goals might be to improve crop yields 50 percent and to bring additional land into production. In all countries, it might well be a goal to increase farm income and bring about a general improvement in living standards of rural people.

 

Single agency preferred

After a country adopts a land use policy, it will be ready to develop and fund an agency to carry out its conservation activities. There are cogent arguments for establishing a single soil conservation agency in the government, rather than distributing the functions among several ministries or departments. A single agency can do a more effective job of promoting soil conservation because that is its central, rather than peripheral, task. There is the obvious reason of avoiding confusion and duplication of effort. Also, the head of a conservation agency can represent the conservation interest in the process of budgeting of money and manpower. Without such a single-minded advocate, it is unlikely that conservation will receive the continuing support from government that it requires.

One reason why so few countries have single resource agencies and comprehensive conservation laws is because, over the years, separate pieces of resource legislation have been passed one at a time, as each need was recognized. More single-purpose resource laws are concerned with forestry than with any other subject. In countries that have forests, the existence of laws for their protection and management is nearly universal. A smaller number of countries also have soil conservation laws, while countries of the Near East and North Africa have given more attention to grazing laws.

Only a few countries have comprehensive laws covering management of all natural resources. New Zealand, for example, has separate laws covering mining, forests, all phases of animal production, and various other types of agriculture, but it also has a single watershed and soil conservation law broad enough to cover all land use. In Zambia, a comprehensive resources law applies to the conservation of all natural resources, and the minister of land and natural resources has broad authority to define what comes under the law.

But these countries are exceptions.

 

Drafting nationwide laws difficult

Variations in climate and topography and in local needs and conditions have made it difficult for many governments to draft resource management laws that are equally fair or effective in all parts of their countries. In some places, a minister or a local authority is delegated the power to frame compulsory land use rules as the need arises. This delegation permits more flexible regulation that meets local requirements.

Resource legislation that is too coercive or that is poorly understood may, for one reason or another, go unenforced. Sometimes the emphasis on programmes changes when political leadership is changed. For example, before independence Kenya had a limited soil conservation programme. Under land use rules made under the Agricultural Act, charges were brought against people who failed to build and maintain terraces on steep land. Enforcement of the law was relaxed after Kenya became independent. As a result, most terraces were neglected or ploughed and erosion increased. Today the government recognizes the seriousness of land degradation and has adopted new programmes of corrective action.

One Kenya law, for instance, makes it an offence to clear or cultivate land if its slope is above a certain gradient. A chance to enforce this regulation came when farmers sought to register their land holdings with the new government. No registration was granted for steep land unless terraces were first installed to prevent soil loss.

Legislative solutions are also possible for problems created by tenancy. A law can be passed that allocates the cost and profit from soil and water conservation measures between tenant and landlord. In Uruguay, conservation works constructed by a tenant must be paid for by the landlord at their value when the tenancy is ended. On the other hand, a tenant who refuses to follow official conservation practices may be evicted.

 

Punitive laws are ineffective

In the USA, one of the 50 States has passed a law imposing penalties on farmers who allow too much soil to erode from their land. In a recent survey of American farmers, however, a large majority opposed any coercive measures on a national level, preferring the present voluntary programme to a mandatory one.

Generally speaking, regulatory approaches to soil conservation are as ineffective as they are unpopular. It is the local farmer who must apply the conservation measures called for, and he must have the knowledge, equipment, capital, and desire to apply them. Incentives and technical assistance are far more successful approaches to getting conservation on the land than punitive action.

Innovations in farming that are too radical may also run into resistance. Most people want to improve what they already have, not change to another system. Any proposal that tears down an existing culture defeats the purpose of a conservation assistance programme. Successful technical assistance requires a broad understanding of the rural people being served their values, their fears, and their goals. Even so, it often takes a long time to persuade land users to adopt improved systems of agriculture.

But it can be done. Japan is an example of a country that has successfully altered its institutions to permit a more productive agriculture. After the Second World War, Japan strengthened its farm-supply and marketing industries, established farm organizations and more agricultural colleges, and developed an extension system. An already existing tradition of conservation was encouraged and supported. These changes, combined with improved crop varieties and more fertilizer and other inputs, helped push rice production in Japan from a prewar average of four tons per hectare to about eight tons per hectare some four decades later. And resources are being managed for sustained use.

 

Improvement "packages" must attract farmers

An important key to this kind of success is for the government to have a good "package" of improvements to present to the farmer. The package should offer, not only improved resource protection, but also the promise of greater crop yields for about the same expenditure of labour. If possible, it should mean higher farm income.

In many parts of the world, it is common for a farmer to agree with an extension worker that a certain conservation practice is needed and useful. He will even resolve to adopt it the following season, and then do nothing about it, year after year. The reason for his failure to act is because of economic factors; he is not convinced that adopting the practice will pay.

On the other hand, for example, a drastically different system of wheat farming, promoted by soil conservationists in Western Australia, became an accepted practice among farmers within a relatively short time. It did so because it made economic sense from the start and picked up the enthusiastic support, not only of farmers, but of economists, bankers, and farmer organizations. This experience suggests that researchers who have not yet developed improved systems of farming that also result in more farm income had better keep searching. What is needed is not the best technical solution to resource problems, but the best solution that is acceptable to farmers.

Assuming the country has a system worth promoting, it is essential to train and equip a competent extension service to carry the concept into rural areas. In the USA, the number of technical people in the field to assist farmers solely with soil and water conservation totals about 10 000. If a conservation agency lacks its own extension people to work directly with farmers or villagers, it will have to train and use general agricultural extension workers. If it does, it will have to keep reminding extension people that their job is not only to increase production, but also to make sure than the soil is maintained to grow the crops of the next generation.

Unfortunately, only a handful of developing countries have a cadre of dedicated agricultural extension workers today, much less a service that is adequately staffed and trained. Problems of recruiting are numerous. Some of the more serious constraints to improving extension services in developing countries include:

These constraints reflect the generally low esteem in which agriculture is held by many government officials and national leaders. These attitudes must be turned around through conscious national policies before a competent extension service can be enlisted and trained.

 

Conservation teams include many disciplines

The most useful technical assistance to rural people is provided by multidisciplinary teams. Conservation teams should include professionals trained in several disciplines - agronomy, civil and mechanical engineering, soil science, hydrology, economics, and rural sociology. Each professional should also receive rudimentary training in disciplines other than his own to gain appreciation of contributions of others to the overall task.

An engineer should know enough economics to realize that the structures he plans and builds must return enough benefits to the community to pay for their cost. An agronomist should know enough sociology to understand that a farmer may reject a perfectly good farming system for reasons which have nothing to do with its agricultural merits. Mutual understanding among team members is requisite to a successful multidisciplinary approach.

A well trained extension worker can also make sure that each new practice accepted by farmers forms part of a larger plan for the general improvement of agriculture. Most farmers adopt new practices in a piecemeal fashion; they usually try out those recommendations that hold promise of increased income. But an extension worker with multidisciplinary training keeps the ultimate objective in mind - to achieve higher farm production on a sustainable basis. He understands how resource management fits in the total farming system, just as he understands the importance of other inputs, like good seed, fertilizers, and control of plant diseases and pests.

This places a heavy responsibility for the success of any programme on the extension worker, but is a responsibility that cannot be fulfilled at any other level. At the national or provincial level, the soil conservation agency should concentrate on applied research, on training extension people, and on supporting their efforts with guidebooks, posters, and other training aids. National leaders cannot generally work face-to-face with the farmer but the field worker can do that.

 

Local officials ensure success

Local government officials also have a role in carrying out a successful conservation programme. Officials of local governments are better informed on local needs and conditions than central government officials. If possible, local officials should be a link between national policy and farmer action.

In the USA, which has had a Soil Conservation Service (SCS) since 1935, this essential link is provided by 2700 local soil conservation districts. The affairs of each district are directed by a board of from five to seven local people, typically farmers and ranchers, who are elected to office by other farmers or by the general public. Usually they serve without pay.

These local officials are responsible for setting soil conservation priorities in their districts and for carrying out information campaigns. Occasionally, they rent machinery to farmers, sell trees at cost for windbreaks, or testify on conservation needs before county or state committees. Technical assistance to individual farmers from SCS field workers is provided only with the approval of these local boards.

Many believe that the existence of conservation districts is the chief reason why the US Soil Conservation Service has survived for so long. Certainly the arrangement has been popular with land users, who are much more likely to accept guidance from friends and neighbours than from government employees from outside the community. They also feel free to describe experience and express opinions to district board members, who in turn can relay this information to the national conservation agency, where policies may be changed or modified.

 

Landusers form associations

In many countries, successful group action in conservation is achieved through cooperative associations of landowners, tenants, and farmers. An extension of this idea to countries without organized associations should help bridge the gap of understanding between government policy makers and farmers and lead ultimately to better conservation and land use.

Wherever barriers exist to the adoption of conservation measures, it is the responsibility of government - at all levels - to identify those barriers and to attempt to surmount them. Improved institutions may be the answer. Liberal agricultural credit, better seed and fertilizer, and equipment hire and purchase assistance can either improve soil directly or make it possible for farmers to adopt needed conservation measures. Lack of proper machinery, for example, can be an absolute bar to certain soil conservation activities. On the other hand, the development of a new tool or a disease-resistant variety of crop can make a new system of conservation farming profitable for the first time. In agriculture, a single factor in a farming system can have impact on many other factors.

 

Incentives are necessary

Most developed countries have found some form of incentive useful or even essential in encouraging farmers to practice soil conservation. Financial help may come in the form of direct payments to farmers, preferential credit, or low-cost or free use of equipment.

Direct payments seem to produce results, but they require supervision to make sure they are used for the purposes intended. In the USA, a limited amount of government cost-sharing is available to farmers to finance the cost of conservation measures, like terraces and drains. The amount of the cost-sharing and the specific practices covered are determined at the local level. Recently, several states have adopted their own cost-share programmes.

In New Zealand, the Soil Conservation and River Control Council has broad powers to make grants or loans under a variety of conditions. In Nigeria, costs of building terraces by hand were shared on a project between farmers and the government. Each farmer contributed one day of labour each week as his share, while he was paid wages by the government for the other five days. Acceptance of this approach was reportedly much better than on projects where the government carried out the work without involving the farmers.

Another approach to getting more conservation on the land is through tax incentives that allow a farmer tax credit for investments made in conservation practices .

 

Direct payments have drawbacks

A common problem with direct incentive payments is that the recipients often regard them as a deserved reward for good soil management and stop using conservation practices if the payments are interrupted. This dependent attitude on the part of farmers is largely avoided with preferential loans, which can be made for conservation purposes with low interest and generous terms for repayment. One means of ensuring a conservation loan would be to allow liability for repayment to depend on yields. This would remove the risk of impossible debt, which haunts many small farmers. Loan officials can also encourage more conservation. Many private bankers in the USA will make loans on farms only if the land is under a conservation plan.

 

Attitude to short-term conservation costs

If conservation systems always put money into a farmer's pocket, it would be unnecessary for governments to offer so many incentives or to assume so much of the total investment. For the farmer, however, short-term conservation costs often exceed anticipated benefits. Three agricultural scientists in the US Corn Belt tried to find out if building terraces on sloping lands could be economically justified from the farmer's standpoint. They concluded that, except in a few cases, the farmer will sacrifice income to control erosion. Other studies have produced similar results.

But the same conservation measures that are not perceived as economic to farmers may be highly economic to the country as a whole. Ensuring the continuity of the resources necessary for agriculture should be the deciding factor for investments in soil conservation.


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