The soils of Central Asia yield far less meat, dairy and produce today than they did a few decades ago. While that is an undisputed driver of poverty, new research examining the relationship between poverty and soil management challenges the idea that the rural poor are shabby stewards of the land, and could foster novel approaches to soil restoration.
In a paper published this month, Alisher Mirzabaev of the University of Bonn and two Russian colleagues use household survey data from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to examine the "vicious cycles between poverty and environmental degradation."
Mirzabaev has previously calculated that reduced crop yields, lower livestock productivity, and increasing needs for costly inputs such as fertilizer and labor – all signs of land degradation – cost the Central Asian economies $6 billion a year; the land was 4.8 times more productive in the early 1980s. Degraded land often needs more water, as well, to wash salts out of the topsoil.
But does poverty worsen soil degradation?
The poorest farming households, Mirzabaev and his coauthors found, are more likely to use their land sustainably, for example by reducing tillage (to cut down on fuel costs), diversifying and rotating crops. It stands to reason that farmers who are cash-poor have less money to spend on fuel and fertilizer and other environmentally unfriendly inputs: “Our results show that the poor households have adopted more SLM [sustainable land management] practices than their richer counterparts.”
SLM can be labor-intensive. But for the poorest farmers, who frequently live in rural areas with high unemployment, labor is often one thing they have in surplus.
This lack of alternative local work opportunities “reduces the opportunity cost of family labor, especially for women due to labor market inequalities, leading to increased allocation of family labor to farm production. From the view of land management, lack of non-farm employment opportunities may, thus, allow for the adoption of more labor-intensive SLM.”
In other words, the poorest farmers are putting more hours into tending the land by hand, doing less of the mechanized work that can deplete soils most rapidly.
The authors acknowledge their work could suffer a "survivorship bias," meaning that the farmers surveyed do not include those who have quit trying to farm depleted fields: "We are looking into the areas where land degradation has not trespassed the irreversibility points and thresholds beyond which no agricultural production is possible."
*Clarified description of productivity in third paragraph
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.