Overstory #103 - Land Management Caring for Resources
The older approach to land management, based on the transfer of Western technologies, has been replaced by a new set of ideas. For management of the croplands, new approaches include the land husbandry basis for soil conservation, low-input sustainable agriculture, and small-scale irrigation. On open rangelands, reconciling the extreme complexity of land management needs with communal tenure raises problems which are almost insuperable. Multiple-purpose forest management has replaced the earlier focus on wood production. Agroforestry has helped to diversify farm production, and offered new means of soil management.
These new approaches have a number of ideas in common: understanding the processes in the soil, water, and plant ecosystem, as a basis for their modification; adapting management methods to the infinite variety of local conditions; and increasing production not by taking in more land nor with higher inputs, but by using soils, water, fertilizers, and plant resources with greater efficiency. Finally, it has invariably been found that best results come from a participatory approach, implementing changes through the joint efforts of resource scientists and the knowledge and skills of the local people.
The fundamental principle of land management is sustainability, the combination of production with conservation. Given the extent of poverty, the urgency of the food situation in the developing world, and the present low level of productivity of many farming systems, the priority must be to increase production. This has to be achieved in ways that do not degrade, and where possible improve, the land resource base on which production depends. The primary objective is, of course, the welfare of the people. Taking land resources as an alternative focus, however, provides a powerful means to integrate production with conservation, and so to lead towards sustainability.
A set of new ideas on land management has taken the place of the older approach, which was based on high levels of inputs and transfer of Western technologies to the developing world. The new approach has two common themes or principles. The first is to make use of external inputs, but at moderate levels and with higher efficiency. To achieve this objective means working in conjunction with processes of the natural ecosystems. The second principle is to implement changes through collaboration with the people, the approach of participatory development.
Underlying these is a fundamental three-stage approach:
- to understand the functioning of the natural ecosystem, soils, water, plants, animals;
- taking this understanding as a basis, to construct a sustainable managed ecosystem, a land use system that will both be productive and conserve or improve the resource base;
- to reconcile the management needs for sustainable production with economic and social requirements and constraints.
Because the environmental conditions vary widely, standard recommendations, or extension ‘packages', are not enough. Management methods have to be constantly adapted to the site conditions of climate, water, soil, and vegetation, not only to their variation in space but also their changes over time. Farmers have always made such adaptations, and extension staff should do so.
Much has been learnt about land management based on these principles. It is impossible to review the whole range of land management methods, so the focus will be on selected ideas which hold promise for the future. A framework is provided by the three major production systems -- croplands, rangelands, and forests -- together with the new science of agroforestry which overlaps these.
Land husbandry: the new approach to soil and water conservation
In the older, or conventional, approach to soil conservation, the objective was to reduce soil loss, measured as tonnes per hectare. This was achieved by means of earth structures: either terraces, or combinations of contour-aligned banks (often called bunds) with ditches. Water runoff was reduced either by causing it to sink in, as with terrace systems, or by diverting it into controlled waterways. Conservation of this type became a branch of civil engineering; manuals were published on how to build such structures for local conditions of rainfall, slope, and soil. Under the former system of land capability classification, only gentle slopes were classed as suitable for arable use; all steeper land was allocated to grazing, forestry, or conservation.' Agricultural extension work was based on the view that soil conservation should come first, as a prerequisite for agricultural improvements. It was commonly conducted on the basis of a prohibitive policy, either by forbidding cultivation of steeply sloping land or by legally enforced requirements for the construction of conservation works.
Devised initially for farming conditions in the USA, the conventional approach to conservation is technically successful in reducing runoff and erosion. As regards adoption it had some notable successes, in Zimbabwe for example, where some landscapes of bunds, waterways, etc. looked from the air like a conservation textbook. In Asia, some extensive terracing systems were constructed, for example in Taiwan.
But, in many cases, the older approach to conservation simply did not work. A clear example of failure is the case of Jamaica. Repeated attempts were made to introduce terrace systems to the hill lands, through a series of externally funded projects. These have not been maintained, and are largely abandoned. In many countries, land shortage has enforced widespread cultivation of sloping lands, and to prohibit this is both economically and socially unrealistic. In the Ethiopian highlands, whole communities have their land on steep hillsides. In Malawi in 1960, cultivation stopped at the foot of the hills; by the mid-1970s, cultivation had extended up the hills and onto the steeply dissected rift valley scarp areas. It is difficult to enforce legislative penalties. Farmers' co-operation could not be obtained unless they could see an immediate benefit in terms of higher crop yields, and, when conservation is carried out in isolation from other improvements, no such benefits occur.
Out of the failures of the former system a new approach to conservation arose, commonly called land husbandry. Features of this approach are:
- The focus of attention is not upon soil loss as such, but on its effects on production; these arise principally through loss, in eroded soil, of organic matter and nutrients.
- More attention is given to biological methods of conservation, especially maintenance of a soil cover, including through agroforestry. Earth structures, whilst by no means excluded, receive less emphasis.
- In dry lands, there is greater integration between soil and water conservation. Farmers are able to see more immediate benefits from conserving water.
- It is recognized as politically and socially unacceptable to forbid the cultivation of sloping land. Ways have to be found to make such cultivation environmentally acceptable.
- In extension, it is recognized that conservation can only be achieved through the willing participation of farmers. For this to occur, they must be able to see benefits. It follows that conservation should not be a separate element, but an integral part of improved farming systems.
Thus there are two basic elements to land husbandry, technical and social. There is no doctrinaire reason to favour biological methods over earth structures if the latter are agreed to be the best solution, but the cost and labour involved in their construction, and more importantly maintenance, mitigate against their use. Taken to its extreme, their should be no soil conservation projects -- only projects to improve sustainable production, in which conservation forms an element. In a project for the central hill lands of Jamaica, the primary, and explicit, objective is to improve production of perennial crops, coffee and cacao. More productive crop varieties, better managed, produce more leaf litter, and the only specific conservation-directed element of management is to ensure that this litter remains on the soil.
The current need is human and institutional. Existing staff of conservation departments will require retraining. Education in conservation has to be considerably broadened from its former, engineering, basis, to include skills in the use of biological methods, greater awareness of the wider problems of farming, and practical training in participatory extension. There is a need to consider how far soil conservation departments should remain separate. One solution is to abolish them, and incorporate technical conservation specialists within the general agricultural extension service. The improved opportunities which are offered by land husbandry can only achieve their potential through well-educated staff and effective institutions.
Land husbandry, integrated plant nutrition, small-scale irrigation, communal management of rangelands, multiple-use forest management, agroforestry -- these are only a selection from the many new approaches to land resource management. There is the need to understand the functioning of natural ecosystems -- soils, water, and plants -- as a basis for their sustainable management. This management must be jointly for production at the present and conservation to meet the needs of the future; and, as the natural environment is infinitely variable, the best methods of management will differ from place to place. Another need is to meet requirements for increased production not by taking in new land, nor by adding higher levels of inputs, but by using resources with greater efficiency. A further theme is the active involvement of local people in land management. The participatory approach has a social value, helping to direct attention to the needs of the rural poor; it can equally well be justified on pragmatic grounds, in that no other approach to land resource management works so effectively.
This edition of The Overstory was excerpted with the kind permission of the author and publisher from the original:
Young, A. 2000. Land Resources: Now and for the Future. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
About the author
Anthony Young has over 40 years of experience in all aspects of land resources, including survey, evaluation, planning, conservation and management. His work has been divided between university-based research into natural resources, and practical contributions to rural development in Africa, Asia and tropical America. He was formerly Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, and Principal Scientist at the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya. He has worked in over 40 developing countries, and carried out consultancies for FAO, the World Bank, and commercial organizations. He has written 15 books (and over 130 scientific articles) including Agroforestry For Soil Management (2nd Edition, 1998), Land Resources: Now and for the Future (2000), and Soil Survey and Land Evaluation (1981). He is currently writing a history of Early Soil and Land Resources Survey in British Overseas Territories, and would be pleased to hear from any reader who can offer information. He can be contacted at: email@example.com or visit his web site at land-resources.com for further information.
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