Sustainable land management depends heavily on a farmer's overall income

Terracing controls soil erosion on sloping land. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Terracing controls soil erosion on sloping land. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Faced with the unreliable weather patterns in a changing climate, high population, and shrinking farm sizes, subsistence farmers in Africa are turning to various coping mechanisms in order to ensure a crop and some income.

A survey in Western Kenya found that sustainable land management methods, such as terracing to control soil erosion, agroforestry, and using manure to improve soil fertility, were being financed with income from off-farm activities. Farmers often raised the money by exploiting communal land to obtain products for sale (so-called ‘Natural Resource Management-based income-generation’), or by working on others’ farms as paid labour.

Joseph Tanui and Jeremias Mowo, researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), worked alongside researchers from Wageningen University to find out what influences the decisions of smallholder farmers to practice sustainable land management. For instance,

  1. Do households working off-farm and exploiting communal land have less labour to invest in sustainable land management on their own farms?
  2. Do smallholder farmers undertake off-farm Natural Resource Management (NRM) income activities primarily for cash?
  3. What is the influence of the community’s cultural attachment to land on sustainable land use?

The researchers surveyed 320 households and 494 farm plots in Vihiga District of Western Kenya. High population densities and strong cultural attachment to land in this area characterize smallholder farming. According to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), farm sizes in the region are getting more fragmented with each generation and average farm size is now around 0.66 ha. Land degradation threatens crop productivity and climate change further complicates efforts to scale up climate-smart farming at the landscape level.

The highlight results of the survey are reported in an article in the Harvard College Review of Environment and Society, a new inter-disciplinary online forum.

From the responses, the researchers were able to tease out several trends. They found that households with a single plot of land were more likely to be applying soil-erosion prevention measures (some households farmed more than one plot of land). Higher education level of the household head and higher non-farm and crop incomes also improved the likelihood of households investing in terracing to control erosion. Households with more off-farm income from exploiting communal land resources were, in addition, more likely to practice agroforestry.

This indicates that farmers’ wherewithal was the key determinant for investing in better land management.

“Households’ finance levels are crucial in decision-making,” says the article. “Non-farm and NRM-income activities improved household level liquidity, providing capital to invest in more sustainable management of their farms.”

Should farmers, therefore, be encouraged to exploit off-farm natural resources in order to invest in sustainable land use back on their farms?

The researchers note that because of lack of regulation, off-farm income from exploiting common-property resources can be detrimental to environmental conservation at the landscape level. “Increased NRM activities were environmentally degrading and tended to corrupt public and community landscapes,” they state.

Based on these results, they propose that sustainable land management programs focus on the “broad landscape level.” And researchers, they say, should do more to analyse the importance of off-farm natural-resource based income generation versus poverty, and the associated ecological costs arising from decisions by farmers.

In a rapidly urbanizing rural landscape, “policy support needs to be leveled towards initiatives with multiple benefits, including non-farm activities that are conservation-friendly and provide support to smallholder farmers,” they add.

Download the article:

Climate Change and Investments in Sustainable Land Management  by Joseph Tanui, Rolf A. Groeneveld, Jeroen Klomp, Jeremias Gasper Mowo, and Ekko C. van Ierland'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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