Putting a Price Tag on Land Degradation

IFPRI Senior Research Fellow, Ephraim Nkonya

Ephraim Nkonya

The costs and benefits of reversing land degradation, says IFPRI’s Ephraim Nkonya, must be expressed in terms that resonate with policymakers and government officials.

Nearly one-fourth of all land mass in the world is degraded. Once fertile land is now less productive. Water sources have dried up. And overgrazing, deforestation, and soil erosion have left lands depleted and starved for nutrients.

The problem of land degradation is especially severe in Africa south of the equator, a region that’s home to 13 percent of the degraded land worldwide. Although worn-out land can slow agricultural productivity, threaten food security, and pose challenges to economic development in countries with economies that rely heavily on agriculture, little has been done to address the problem.

What should be done? Ephraim Nkonya, a senior research fellow at IFPRI, says the solution will involve speaking in a different language—one that prods policymakers and government officials to act.

Smallholder Roots

For Nkonya, the subject of protecting land and improving productivity hits close to home. He grew up on a small farm in rural Tanzania. The farm didn’t produce much, despite many long hours of work. “I watched my parents struggle to feed a family of 16 using simple production technologies, weeding with hand hoes, and breaking up soil with an ox plow,” he recalls.

Nkonya decided to devote his life’s work to sustainable land management. His parents’ experience inspired him, he says, “to help find a solution for smallholder farmers to get higher returns and be able to invest their earnings in a way that could greatly improve their livelihoods.”

Comparing Costs

Ephraim Nkonya (IFPRI) and colleague examining land affected by salinity (Senegal).

Ephraim Nkonya (IFPRI) and colleague examining land affected by salinity (Senegal). Source: Milo Mitchell/IFPRI

At IFPRI, Nkonya heads up a research project that measures the costs and benefits of having farmers adopt land management practices to prevent or mitigate land degradation. In the recent book The Economics of Land Degradation: Toward an Integrated Global Assessment, he and his coauthors propose a new framework that “puts a price tag on land degradation.” They compare the economic benefits of taking action to prevent or mitigate degradation to the costs of not acting and allowing land to degrade.

The upshot? It’s more cost-effective to prevent the loss of productive land now, says Nkonya, than to attempt to fix severely degraded land later.

Nkonya’s research tries to fill gaps in the literature on costs. Many past studies have looked at how land degradation or land rehabilitation affects the productivity of a parcel of land, says Nkonya, but they have paid little attention to measuring degradation’s cost and ripple effects. Yet land degradation is a serious problem not only for farmers, but also for the local community that depends on related ecological benefits such as biodiversity and good water quality. When soil erodes, the sediment can silt up reservoirs and dams, reducing water storage and electricity production. What starts as a local problem can have a wider economic impact when a country’s infrastructure is affected.

Downstream Benefits

Given the shared benefits of sustainable land management practices, it makes sense (and cents) for other actors to play more active roles. For example, if downstream communities depend on clean water for drinking, local leaders and government bodies can pool their resources to pay upstream communities to protect against deforestation or adopt other land management practices that prevent soil erosion within the watershed zone.

Governments, meanwhile, can develop policies that offer smallholder farmers greater incentives to protect their lands. One such policy change involves ensuring more secure property rights for farmers. Without secure rights to the land they cultivate, farmers are unlikely to invest in long-term management practices that protect against erosion and other forms of land degradation. Similarly, research shows that investing in rural roads helps increase farmer incomes by giving them better access to markets. Not surprisingly, it also leads them to invest more in protecting their land. And, says Nkonya, “Local institutions like village councils are more effective in managing natural resources than central governments. So giving local groups a mandate through decentralization can help achieve sustainable land management.”

In recent years, people have grown more aware of land degradation. But awareness hasn’t made a significant difference yet. What does it take to get governments and policymakers to commit to fight the problem and follow through?

Language That Resonates

Nkonya wants to tell the world, If you take action against land degradation, these are the benefits in terms of dollars.

Reframing the conversation could help, says Nkonya. Until recently, the language of land degradation has focused on the biophysical impacts—which falls on deaf ears—rather than on societal or economic costs and benefits of preventing degradation.

Nkonya is optimistic that his research into costs will help prod governments into action. Here’s one factoid from his arsenal that could send shivers down policymakers’ spines: researchers have estimated that the costs of land degradation in some countries in Africa south of the Sahara are as high as 10 percent of GDP.

Nkonya says he wants his research to tell the world, If you take action against land degradation, these are the benefits in terms of dollars. And if you don’t take action, here is the cost in terms of economic and social development. “That’s the language they understand,” says Nkonya, “and that’s the language that can make them take action against land degradation.”

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