Penny Wise and Pound Foolish?

photo of men walking on sand dune

A sand dune stablization project in Niger.

The world’s farm land is under siege.  Desertification, deforestation, overgrazing, salinization, and soil erosion—from both natural and human causes—are eating away at the quality of the land on which humans depend for food, according to a new IFPRI brief called Economics of Land Degradation: The Costs of Action versus Inaction, and a book of the same name. Forty-two percent of the world’s poor now depend on degraded lands for food and income, yet little serious effort has been made to reverse land degradation.

Why isn’t more being done? It’s tempting to assume that solutions cost too much. But IFPRI Senior Research Fellow Ephraim Nkonya and his coauthors point out that if all the costs of action (taking steps to prevent or reverse land degradation) and inaction (letting degradation continue) are accounted for, it is nearly always cheaper to take action.

In Niger, for example, doing nothing is already imposing a heavy cost. Overgrazing, soil salinity in rice fields, and lack of soil nutrients in sorghum and millet fields reduce gross domestic product (GDP) by about 8 percent. Prevention would be cheaper. The authors calculated the cost of preventing salinization at only about 10 percent of the cost of not preventing it and the cost of preventing overgrazing at only 20 percent of the cost of allowing it to continue.

The challenge is getting land users to change the behaviors that lead to land degradation. When land users themselves receive the benefits from mitigating or preventing land degradation and when those benefits outweigh the value of current practices, they are more likely to do the right thing. A bottom-up approach helps because it gives land users a mandate to determine land improvement. Evidence shows that linking national institutions with local ones, such as local councils, improves farmers’ and pastoralists’ compliance with regulations designed to improve land quality.

Improving infrastructure and access to services reduces farmers’ transaction costs and gives them better prices for the items they produce from the land, in turn giving them incentives to invest in land management. Serviceable rural roads, reliable communications, and access to markets have led communities to invest more in, for example, preventing soil erosion.

Finally, Nkonya and his coauthors noticed that the more effective a government was, the more land improvement took place. “Surprisingly,” Nkonya said, “this relationship was consistent across all regions of the world, including areas with high population densities like China and India.” In other words, even in areas with heavy pressure on land, good governance can create the conditions for sound land management.

– Heidi Fritschel