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, Zhan Huang, China, Still P
Global overview
development and sustainable agriculture. In the
discussions of deforestation, biological diversity and
The land area of the Earth covers a total of more than
freshwater resources (Chapters 11, 15 and 18),
140 million km2 — somewhat less than one-third of
significant emphasis is placed on land as a productive
the Earth’s surface. Land resources are finite, fragile
resource, the importance of sustainable land use, and
and non-renewable. They include soil, which is mainly
environmental pollution and conservation. Agenda 21
important for agriculture; land cover, which is
has remained a primary basis for land resources policy
important for the environment; and landscapes which
although a further landmark of awareness of land at the
are an important component of human habitat and
highest policy level is found in the review prepared for
welfare. Besides forming a basis for plant and animal
the UN Millennium Summit (UN 2000). This review
life support systems and agricultural production, land
identifies the threats to future global food security
aids in the preservation of terrestrial biodiversity,
arising from problems of land resources.
regulation of the hydrological cycle, carbon storage
and recycling, and other ecosystem services. It acts as
Agriculture and food production
a store of raw materials, a waste dump and landfill for
Since 1972, the main driving force leading to pressure
both solid and liquid waste, and a basis for human
on land resources has been increasing food production.
settlement and transport activities (FAO 1995a, Wood,
In 2002, food is needed for some 2 220 million more
Sebastian and Scherr 2000).
people than in 1972 (United Nations Population
The 1992 Earth Summit took a step forward in
Division 2001). The trend during the decade 1985–95
bringing problems associated with land resources to
showed population growth racing ahead of food
wider attention. In Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992),
production in many parts of the world, particularly
Chapters 10, 12, 13 and 14 relate to land, covering the
Africa: in 64 of 105 developing countries studied in
integrated approach to management of land resources,
this period, food production lagged behind population
desertification and drought, mountain region
growth (UNFPA 2001).

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Agricultural land (defined as land under arable use
Area under arable and permanent crops (million ha)
plus permanent crops) has increased steadily in
developing regions but not in developed ones (see
graph). The decrease in developed regions seems to
have been driven less by availability of land resources
than by economic forces, including overproduction of
major commodities and decreasing prices for farm
Policy failure and poor agricultural practices
contribute to increased land pressure. For example,
the excessive use of fertilizers and other chemicals
contributes to soil degradation and water pollution.
Between 1972 and 1988, global fertilizer use grew at
an annual average of 3.5 per cent or by more than
Latin America and the Caribbean
Asia and the Pacific
North America
West Asia
4 million tonnes a year (FAO 2001). Up to the 1980s,
maintenance and improvement of fertility was thought
Area under irrigation (million ha)
of chiefly in terms of addition of mineral fertilizers,
and agricultural subsidies increased the use of
fertilizers further. Government policies supported
farmers by subsidizing agricultural inputs such as
irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. A study by FAO of
38 developing countries showed that 26 of them
subsidized fertilizer use (FAO/IFA 1999).
Pesticides continue to be used indiscriminately
(sometimes illegally) in places, and disposed of casually.
A survey published by FAO of countries in Africa and
the Near East reported stocks of unwanted or banned
pesticides amounting to more than 16 500 tonnes at
some 1 000 sites in 49 countries (FAO 1995a).
Latin America and the Caribbean
Asia and the Pacific
North America
West Asia
Irrigation has also made, and continues to make,
an important contribution to agricultural production
Fertilizer consumption (kg per capita/year)
but the potential for future growth has changed. The
efficiency of many irrigation schemes is low and land
degradation problems are widespread. Poorly designed
and implemented irrigation schemes can cause
waterlogging, salinization and alkalization of soils.
Some 25–30 million ha of the world’s 255 million ha of
irrigated land were severely degraded due to the
accumulation of salts, according to 1995 FAO
estimates. An additional 80 million ha were reported
to be affected by salinization and waterlogging (FAO
1995b). In the 1980s it was estimated that about 10
million ha of irrigated land were being abandoned
annually (WCED 1987) although the total irrigated
Latin America and the Caribbean
Asia and the Pacific
North America
West Asia
area has continued to rise (see graph).
Graphs above show 30-year trends in three major agricultural variables: agricultural area, irrigated area
Land degradation
and per capita fertilizer consumption. Fertilizer consumption has fallen in Europe and North America
but continues to climb — albeit slowly — elsewhere

Land degradation leads to a significant reduction of the
productive capacity of land. Human activities
Source: compiled from FAOSTAT 2001 and United Nations Population Division 2001

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beyond restoration (Oldeman, Hakkeling and
Extent and causes of land degradation
Sombroek 1990).
Degradation extent
Despite these compelling statistics on land
degradation, some studies are beginning to question
580 million ha
Deforestation — vast reserves of forests have been degraded
the data, arguing that degradation estimates are
by large-scale logging and clearance for farm and urban use.
overstated. A major reason suggested for the
More than 220 million ha of tropical forests were destroyed
overestimation of land degradation has been
during 1975–90, mainly for food production.
underestimation of the abilities of local farmers
680 million ha
Overgrazing — about 20 per cent of the world's pasture and
(Mazzucato and Niemeijer 2001). These authors argue
rangelands have been damaged. Recent losses have been
that ‘ … experts need to discriminate more carefully
most severe in Africa and Asia.
between a naturally bad state, a temporary bad state
137 million ha
Fuelwood consumption — about 1 730 million m3 of
and a degraded state of land’.
fuelwood are harvested annually from forests and plantations.
Woodfuel is the primary source of energy in many developing
Soil erosion is a major factor in land degradation
and has severe effects on soil functions — such as the
550 million ha
Agricultural mismanagement — water erosion causes soil
soil’s ability to act as a buffer and filter for pollutants,
losses estimated at 25 000 million tonnes annually. Soil
its role in the hydrological and nitrogen cycle, and its
salinization and waterlogging affect about 40 million ha of
ability to provide habitat and support biodiversity.
land globally.
About 2 000 million ha of soil, equivalent to 15 per
19.5 million ha
Industry and urbanization — urban growth, road
cent of the Earth’s land area (an area larger than the
construction, mining and industry are major factors in land
United States and Mexico combined), have been
degradation in different regions. Valuable agricultural land is
often lost.
degraded through human activities. The main types of
Source: FAO 1996
soil degradation are water erosion (56 per cent), wind
erosion (28 per cent), chemical degradation (12 per
cent) and physical degradation (4 per cent). Causes of
soil degradation include overgrazing (35 per cent),
contributing to land degradation include unsuitable
deforestation (30 per cent), agricultural activities (27
agricultural land use, poor soil and water management
per cent), overexploitation of vegetation (7 per cent)
practices, deforestation, removal of natural vegetation,
and industrial activities (1 per cent) (GACGC 1994).
frequent use of heavy machinery, overgrazing,
Approaches to soil conservation have been greatly
improper crop rotation and poor irrigation practices.
modified since the 1970s. Work used to concentrate on
Natural disasters, including droughts, floods and
mechanical protection, such as bunds and terraces,
landslides, also contribute. A Global Assessment of
largely to control surface run-off. This has been
Soil Degradation (GLASOD) was undertaken in the
supplemented by a new approach (Shaxson and others
early 1990s (Oldeman, Hakkeling and Sombroek 1990,
1989, Sanders and others 1999) which calls for greater
UNEP 1992) and a land degradation assessment of
attention to biological methods of conservation, and
drylands (LADA) was initiated by GEF and UNEP in
the integration of water conservation with soil
2000 and is now being developed with FAO.
protection, through improved management of soil-
It has been estimated that 23 per cent of all usable
plant-water relationships, including reduced
land (excluding mountains and deserts, for example)
disturbance by tillage (University of Bern and others
has been affected by degradation to a degree sufficient
2000). Within the international agricultural research
to reduce its productivity (UNEP 1992, Oldeman,
system, the Consultative Group on International
Hakkeling and Sombroek 1990). In the early 1990s,
Agricultural Research, there is now a commitment to
about 910 million ha of land were classified as
natural resource management, and explicit recognition
‘moderately degraded’, with greatly reduced
of degraded land and desertification as environmental
agricultural productivity (see illustrations opposite). A
problems (Shah and Strong 1999).
total of 305 million ha of soils ranged between
Despite these developments, there is no clear
‘strongly degraded’ (296 million ha) and ‘extremely
indication that the rate of land degradation has
degraded’ (9 million ha, of which more than 5 million
decreased. As yet, there are no continuously
ha were in Africa). ‘Extremely degraded’ soils are
monitored indicators of soil condition that would

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Extent and severity of land degradation
North America
South America
permit quantitatively based assessments of changes
over time, comparable to the monitoring of
It has been suggested that soil monitoring should
become a basic task of national soil survey
organizations (Young 1991) but this proposal has yet to
be widely adopted. An international programme was
set up to develop a set of land quality indicators (Pieri
and others 1995), comparable to those used to monitor
economic and social conditions. The programme
continues on a modest scale under the Global
Terrestrial Observation System.
The UN Convention to Combat Desertification
(UNCCD) defines desertification as ‘land degradation
Very degraded soil
Degraded soil
Stable soil
Without vegetation
in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas’ brought
about by factors such as climatic variations and human
2001) argues that the convention model was ill-
Pie charts and
map above show

activities. Around 3 600 million ha, or 70 per cent, of
advised as ‘it has tied people into a series of COP
the extent of
the world’s drylands (excluding hyper-arid deserts)
[Conference of the Parties] performances which
areas of
degraded land in

are degraded (UNCCD 2000a). Many parties to the
demonstrate no linkage with real problems on the
the world and the
convention have now prepared national action
ground’. The desertification problem remains poorly
location of
degraded soils

programmes to strengthen activities to combat
understood as the available data show: estimates of
Note: regions do
desertification and drought (UNCCD 2000b, 2001).
areas affected range from one-third of the world’s
not correspond
However, there is no indication that governments are
surface area to about 50 per cent, and people affected
exactly with GEO

developing structures through which bottom-up action
from 1 in 6 to 1 in 3 (Toulmin 2001).
Source: UNEP
programmes could be implemented at the local level
1992 and GRID
(CSE 1999). In addition, inadequate resource
Climate change
Arendal 2001
mobilization is hampering the affected developing
The consequences of global climate change on
countries’ efforts to fulfil their commitments under
agriculture and ecosystems are highly uncertain.
the convention. A recent analysis of the CCD (Toulmin
Based on simulation models, the most likely impacts

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Climate change impacts on land and biodiversity by region
Population controversy
‘Many people identify growing population pressures of the
Adaptive capacity, vulnerability and key concerns
poor and the resultant overgrazing, deforestation and
unsustainable agricultural practices as major causes of
Grain yields are projected to decrease for many scenarios,
desertification. This theory, however, is based on the
diminishing food security, particularly in small food-importing
assumption that only the poor and their growing populations
cause environmental degradation. It misses the impact of a
Desertification would be exacerbated by reductions in average
chain of international trade and economic practices which
annual rainfall, run-off and soil moisture, especially in
result in low prices for agricultural and livestock
Southern, Northern and Western Africa.
commodities for the South; and political compulsions such
Significant extinctions of plant and animal species are
as debt, which force a country to promote adverse land use
projected and would affect rural livelihoods, tourism and
practices in order to earn foreign exchange. In its simplistic
genetic resources.
reaction, the West chooses to provide food, first through aid
Asia and the Pacific
Decreases in agricultural productivity and aquaculture due to
and then by promoting increased agricultural production.
thermal and water stress, sea-level rise, floods and droughts,
The problem still persists, showing that the solution is far
and tropical cyclones would diminish food security in many
more complex.’
countries of arid, tropical and temperate Asia; agriculture would
Source: CSE 1999
expand and productivity would increase in northern areas.
Climate change would exacerbate threats to biodiversity due
to land-use and land-cover change and population pressure
in Asia.
In Australia and New Zealand, the net impact on some
temperate crops of climate and CO changes may initially be
are net favourable effects for the cooler margins of the
beneficial but this balance is expected to become negative for
temperate zone, and adverse consequences for the
some areas and crops with further climate change.
sub-tropical semi-arid zone (see box). Regional
Some species with restricted climatic niches and which are
changes in climate have already affected diverse
unable to migrate due to fragmentation of the landscape, soil
physical and biological systems in many parts of the
differences or topography could become endangered or
world. Mid- to high-latitude growing seasons have
There will be some positive effects on agriculture in northern
lengthened. Poleward and altitudinal shifts of plant and
Europe; productivity will decrease in southern and eastern
animal ranges have been observed (IPCC 2001).
Natural systems at risk of climate change include
Latin America
Yields of important crops are projected to decrease in many
glaciers, atolls, polar and alpine ecosystems, prairie
locations in Latin America, even when the effects of CO are
taken into account; subsistence farming in some regions of
wetlands and remnant native grasslands. Human
Latin America could be threatened.
systems that are vulnerable include agriculture,
The rate of biodiversity loss would increase.
particularly food security, and forestry.
North America
Some crops would benefit from modest warming
From the 1990s, the climate change issue directed
accompanied by increasing CO but effects would vary
attention to the role of land as a terrestrial store of
among crops and regions, including declines due to drought
carbon. Land degradation almost always involves a
in some areas of Canada's Prairies and the US Great Plains,
potential increased food production in areas of Canada north
loss of soil organic matter. If this trend can be checked
of current production areas and increased warm-temperate
or reversed, a considerable potential exists for carbon
mixed forest production.
sequestration through building up the levels of carbon
Natural systems in the polar regions are highly vulnerable to
stored in soils and the vegetation cover (IFAD/FAO
climate change and current ecosystems have low adaptive
capacity; technologically developed communities are likely to
adapt readily to climate change but some indigenous
communities, in which traditional lifestyles are followed,
Human settlements and infrastructure
have little capacity and few options for adaptation.
Urban areas occupy only 1 per cent of the Earth’s land
Small Island States The projected sea-level rise of 5 mm/year for 100 years
area (UNEP 2000). However, urban expansion,
would cause enhanced coastal erosion, loss of land and
property, dislocation of people.
including land requirements for industry, transport and
Limited arable land and soil salinization makes agriculture of
for leisure activities in all regions, increases pressures
small island states, both for domestic food production and
on land resources. In the United States, for example,
cash crop exports highly vulnerable to climate change.
about 400 000 ha of farmland are lost to urbanization
Source: IPCC 2001
annually and China lost about 5 million ha of farmland

6 7
to towns and cities during 1987–92 (UNFPA 2001).
Land degradation, river siltation and soil pollution,
from acid rain and industrial wastes, are some of the
environmental issues associated with urbanization and
The waste generated by cities is a major source of
degradation. It is estimated that about 1.95 million ha
of land have been degraded by industry and
urbanization (FAO 1996). One cause has been the
export by some developed countries of hazardous and
toxic wastes to developing regions.
The international response to this was the 1989
Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary
Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.
The Basel Convention, which entered into force in
1992 (see Chapter 1), aims to reduce transboundary
movements of hazardous wastes, minimize the
creation of such wastes, and prohibit their shipment to
countries lacking the capacity to dispose of hazardous
wastes in an environmentally sound manner.
Urbanization has also spawned urban agriculture
(see ‘Urban areas’), which was hardly recognized
internationally in the 1970s but has been expanding
globally over the past 15-20 years, ‘more rapidly than
urban populations, and in many countries more rapidly
Much good agricultural land is threatened by chemical pollution, particularly — as here in China —
than their economies’ (Smit 1996). Urban agriculture
by waste products from urban centres. Chemical degradation is responsible for 12 per cent of global
soil degradation

takes place on both public and private land, both
legally and illegally. More than 800 million urban
Source: UNEP, Zehng Zhong Su, China, Still Pictures
dwellers were involved in urban agriculture in 1993
(Smit 1996). For example, in the Brazilian city of São
chemicals. Advocates of urban agriculture argue that,
Paulo, agriculture is a major planned land use in the
in addition to providing food, the activity can
city’s metropolitan master plan, which was adopted in
contribute to improving the environment through
the 1990s.
recycling organic matter. Solid wastes can be
In virtually all regions, urban agriculture has
composted and used to fertilize soils.
become one of the major food-producing activities. For
example, most households in the Southeast Asia and
Chemicals and land use
Pacific Island sub-regions practise urban agriculture
Important recent developments include:
(Sommers and Smit 1994). About 30 per cent of the
Russian Federation’s food is produced on 3 per cent of
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) was
the land in suburban dachas (Sommers and Smit 1994).
adopted in May 2001 (see Chapter 1).
In Moscow, families engaged in agriculture grew from
UNEP, together with FAO and WHO, is promoting more sustainable practices in
20 per cent of the city's population in 1970 to 65 per
replacing POP pesticides with integrated pest management. The Global Crop
Protection Federation is playing a proactive role in promoting the judicious use
cent in 1990 (Smit 1996). During 1980–90, urban
of pesticides and the prevention of toxic exposures and misuse of pesticides.
agriculture in the United States grew by 17 per cent
(Smit 1996). In some African urban areas, the response
Other actions include pilot projects to demonstrate the technical and economic
by municipal authorities has been to cut down the
feasibility of new technologies to destroy obsolete chemicals and pesticides; and the
crops to enforce land-use by-laws.
encouragement of donors and industry to increase funding for management and
The impacts of urban agriculture include air, water
disposal of these substances.
and soil pollution, mainly from improper use of

6 8
processing of products so as to reduce post-production
Urban agriculture in Zimbabwe
losses. However, current projections also assume an
In Harare, Zimbabwe, sanctions on urban agriculture were lifted temporarily in
expansion of the arable area in developing countries,
1992. Within two years, the area cultivated had doubled and the number of
although at half the rate of the previous 30 years (FAO
farmers more than doubled. Municipal costs for landscape maintenance and waste
management were down, food prices were down, and hundreds of jobs had been
2001). By 2030, FAO estimates suggest that an
created. Several benefits were gained from just a change in policy. Similar policy-
additional 57 million ha will be brought into cultivation
related benefits were documented in Lusaka and Accra in the 1970s (Smit 1996).
in Africa, and 41 million ha in Latin America, increases
of 25 per cent and 20 per cent respectively (FAO
2001). This expansion must necessarily come either
from further conversion of forest and woodland, or by
bringing into cultivation fragile areas of the semi-arid
The increase in world population means that
zone, both of which raise serious environmental
pressures on land will continue to be acute,
particularly in Africa and Asia. The increased needs
Meeting these challenges will stretch the limited
for food and other agricultural products must be met
resources currently allocated to agricultural research
mainly by raising and sustaining crop and livestock
and development, and may call for reallocation of the
yields and by more intensive land use. This has to be
scarce funding available. It will, in addition, require
accompanied by more efficient harvesting and
good governance, land and soil policies, and continued
Land and the International Year of Mountains: importance of the mountain commons
Satellite imagery shows significant loss of
the same way that water-user associations are
mountain forests and other vegetative cover over
necessary in downstream water and irrigation
the past 20 years. The causes are often
management, there is a need for mountain-
inappropriate agriculture and livestock
stakeholder associations. Region-by-region, these
developments in fragile areas. Downstream, poor
would need to equip themselves with supporting
watershed management causes siltation of rivers
institutional, legal, economic and monitoring
and reservoirs, and allows natural disasters to
take an unprecedented toll as roads, bridges and
The International Year of Mountains 2002
sometimes entire communities are washed away.
(IYM) could inspire such processes: it can draw
Whenever mountain ecosystems are degraded
attention to issues and opportunities; it can help
by overexploitation, costs to businesses and
network stakeholders across sectoral and
communities are high. As vegetation is removed,
company boundaries, it can promote conducive
aquifers and wells run drier. Siltation reduces the
policy and incentive instruments. The business
Litter on a mountainside in China
sustainability of hydropower and irrigation
community could now build on recent work under
Source: UNEP, Zhe Hao, Still Pictures
reservoirs. Agricultural run-off spoils the purity of
the global water partnership agenda. The Water
renewable sources of freshwater. Fisheries suffer
and Mountain Commons agenda, developed
and urban water supplies dwindle in the dry
jointly by the Earth3000 NGO and UNEP’s
Mountains can provide crucial resources for social
season. In deforested mountain ranges, floods
Mountain Programme, could become a tangible
and economic development. Mountain commons
may become uncontrollable after heavy rain. They
contribution to IYM. During the Bishkek Global
provide essential local and downstream
cause global damage of tens of billions of dollars
Mountain Summit, the main concluding event of
environmental products and services such as
every year.
IYM, a special Mountain Marketplace facility will
freshwater supplies, irrigation, hydropower, flood
Businesses stand to benefit from joining hands,
be established to promote private-public
control, biodiversity conservation and tourism.
and from shaping common action programmes to
partnerships and mountain stakeholders’
However, with few exceptions, mountain
safeguard mountain ecosystems. This is a long-
associations, involving upstream and downstream
commons are ecologically under-managed and
term challenge, and will require a measure of
suffer from the classic ‘commons syndrome’:
social responsibility and commitment beyond
while all seek to benefit, stakeholders lack
customary business horizons. Local, long-term,
coordination, incentives and instruments for joint
strategic private-public partnerships could begin to
address and reverse patterns of degradation. In

6 9
efforts to achieve sustainable use of land resources. A
resources to meet the needs of present and future
prerequisite is the adequate support by governments
populations, while at the same time sustaining the vital
for national land resource institutions, and for building
ecosystem functions and other multiple uses of land, is
up the capacities of land resource planners, farmers
a fundamental requirement for sustainability.
and managers at local and national levels. Maintenance
or improvement of the productive potential of land
References: Chapter 2, land, global overview
CSE (1999). Green Politics: Global Environmental
Issues Paper. London, International Institute for
UNCCD (2000a). Fact Sheet 2: The Causes of
Negotiations 1. New Delhi, Centre for Science and
Environment and Development
Desertification. United Nations Secretariat of the
Environment [Geo-2-
Convention to Combat Desertification
FAO (1995a). Prevention and disposal of obsolete
and unwanted pesticide stocks in Africa and the
Oldeman, L. R., Hakkeling, R. T. A. and Sombroek,
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Near East. Rome, Food and Agriculture
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UNCCD (2000b). Fact Sheet 4: Action
Human-Induced Soil Degradation. Wageningen,
Programmes for Combating Desertification. United
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Pieri, C., Dumanski, J., Hamblin, A. and Young, A.
FAO (1995b). Planning for Sustainable Use of
(1995). Land quality indicators. World Bank
Land Resources: Towards a New Approach. FAO
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Land and Water Bulletin 2. Rome, Food and
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(NAP), Sub-Regional (SRAP) and Regional Level
FAO (1996). Our Land Our Future. Rome and
Enters, T. (eds) (1999). Incentives in Soil
(RAP). United Nations Secretariat of the
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Convention to Combat Desertification
United Nations Environment Programme
New Hampshire, Science Publishers for World
Association of Soil and Water Conservation
FAO (2000). Fertilizer Requirements in 2015 and
Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization
Shah, M. and Strong, M. (1999). Food in the 21st
UNCED (1992). Agenda 21: Programme of Action [Geo-2-
Century: From Science to Sustainable Agriculture.
for Sustainable Development. Rio de Janeiro,
Washington DC, CGIAR System Review Secretariat,
United Nations
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FAO (2001). Agriculture: Towards
UNEP (1992). World Atlas of Desertification.
2015/30.Technical Interim Report April 2000.
Shaxson, T.F., Hudson, N.W., Sanders, D.W.,
London, Arnold
Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization
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Husbandry: A Framework for Soil and Water
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Conservation. Ankeny, Iowa, Soil and Water
Conservation Society
UNFPA (2001). Footprints and Milestones:
FAO/IFA (1999). Fertilizer Strategies. Rome and
Population and Environmental Change - The State
Paris, Food and Agriculture Organization and
Smit, J. (1996). Cities Feeding People: Report 18
of World Population 2001. New York, United
International Fertilizer Industry Association
- Urban Agriculture, Progress and Prospect:
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1975-2005. Ottawa, International Development
Research Centre
United Nations Population Division (2001). World
FAOSTAT (2001). FAOSTAT Statistical Database.
Population Prospects 1950-2050 (The 2000
Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization
Sommers, P. and Smit, J. (1996). Cities Feeding
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People: Report 9 - Promoting Urban Agriculture: A
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GACGC (1994). World in Transition: The Threat to
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Overestimating Land Degradation,
Underestimating Farmers in the Sahel, Drylands

7 0
Land: Africa
(compiled from FAOSTAT 2001). The percentage of
agricultural land (cultivated and pasture) varies
Africa’s total land area covers 29.6 million km2, of
considerably across Africa, from 54.7 per cent in
which two-thirds is arid or semi-arid (UNEP 1999a).
Southern Africa and 46.6 per cent in the Western
Land is central to development in Africa since the
Indian Ocean islands to 20 per cent in Northern Africa
livelihoods of about 60 per cent of the population are
and 19.3 per cent in Central Africa (see bar chart). The
dependent on agriculture (Moyo 2000).
extent to which African economies are dependent on
The main issues related to land in Africa include
agriculture is reflected in the contribution to GNP
increasing degradation and desertification, together
(approximately 17 per cent during the 1990s), and to
with inappropriate and inequitable land tenure
employment — more than 60 per cent of the total
systems, which have played a major role in
labour force in 1996, although this had declined from
exacerbating degradation. Other widespread problems
70 per cent in 1980 (ADB 2001).
include a decline in soil fertility, soil contamination,
Production has increased considerably over the
land management and conservation, gender
past 30 years, mostly due to expansion of the area
imbalances in land tenure, and conversion of natural
under cultivation, although improvements in
habitat to agricultural or urban uses.
cultivation methods and increased use of agro-
chemicals have also played a role. Cereal production in
Africa was 58 million tonnes in 1975, and this had
As well as providing subsistence crops for a large
almost doubled to 106 million tonnes by 1999
proportion of Africa’s population, there are increasing
(FAOSTAT 2001). Despite this, nutritional intake is
demands on the land to produce cash crops for export,
still low in many parts of Africa and the number of
facilitating economic growth. These demands are often
undernourished people has doubled since 1970 (FAO
in conflict, and make coherent policy development and
2000). The region is a net importer of cereal crops,
implementation a complex and difficult task. Over the
and the ratio of imports to exports is escalating. In
2000 alone, millions of people in at least 16 African
countries experienced food shortages, either due to
Land utilization (percentage of total land area): Africa
crop failures or distribution breakdowns associated
with civil conflict (FAO 2000). The lack of agricultural
Central Africa
technologies suitable for African conditions has also
contributed to under-realization of production potential
(FAO 2000). Dependence on rain-fed agriculture, now
Eastern Africa
that the potential for the expansion of irrigated
agriculture has become limited due to water scarcity,
Northern Africa
increases the risk of food and economic insecurity,
especially in areas of high climate variability.
Southern Africa
Restricted access to foreign markets, heavy
agricultural subsidies in OECD countries, and limited
Western Africa
processing before export add to Africa’s vulnerability
to international price fluctuations, and therefore failure
to realize the full potential of its land resources.
Indian Ocean
Land is
Land degradation
intensively used
in most African

The expansion of agriculture over the past three
sub-regions, with
past 30 years, more and more land has been converted
decades involved the cultivation of marginal areas, or
more than 50 per
cent of all land in

to agriculture, most noticeably during the 1980s in
clearance of important natural habitats such as forests
use in two sub-

response to rising commodity prices. By 1999, about
and wetlands. Such conversion is a major driving force
202 million ha of land in Africa were under cultivation
behind land degradation. In the Western Indian Ocean
Source: compiled

(32 per cent of the potentially cultivable area), and 906
islands, for example, competition for land is so intense
million ha were being used as permanent pasture
that coastal wetlands have deliberately been destroyed,

7 1
and inland swamps have been drained and used as
Desertification vulnerability: Africa
construction sites (UNEP 1999b). Many African rural
communities survive by moving their cattle and crops
as subsiding floodwaters expose enriched bottomlands
and floodplains. More than 1.5 million people in Mali,
Mauritania, Senegal and Sudan depend on this
resource, as do vast numbers of wild herbivores
(Maltby 1986). Draining wetlands for agriculture
therefore threatens not only habitats and biodiversity
but also the livelihoods of pastoralists and wildlife.
Loss of natural habitats has reduced vegetation
cover and exposed soils to wind and water erosion.
Wind and water erosion is extensive in many parts of
Africa with about 25 per cent of the land prone to
water erosion and about 22 per cent to wind erosion
(Reich and others 2001).
Soil erosion also causes increased rates of siltation
of dams and rivers, and increased risk of flooding in
rivers and estuaries. In Sudan, for example, the total
capacity of the Roseires reservoir — which generates
80 per cent of the country’s electricity — has fallen by
40 per cent in 30 years due to siltation of the Blue
Nile (Conway 2001).
Soil erosion reduces the productivity of land,
requiring farmers to apply more and more fertilizers
and other chemicals that help check falling
productivity. However, many small-scale farmers
points out that land degradation is intricately linked to
cannot afford to buy these inputs and so get low
poverty and that addressing this problem requires the
vulnerability map
of Africa locates

participation of the resource users and, where
the 46 per cent
of the area at

As a result of the increasing recognition of soil
appropriate, providing them with alternative livelihood
risk, of which 55
nutrient depletion, a soil fertility initiative for sub-
options. Many African nations have signed and ratified
per cent is at
high or very high

Saharan Africa (where the problem is particularly
the convention, and 15 countries submitted national
widespread) was established in 1996 (New
action programmes in 2000. The Maghreb Arab Union,
Source: Reich and
Agriculturalist 2001). The objective is to strengthen
Southern African Development Community, the
others 2001
action by the participating agencies to improve
Economic Community of West African States and the
productivity and increase farm incomes through a
Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control
combination of policy reform and technology
in the Sahel also submitted sub-regional plans. This
adaptation. National soil fertility action plans are
has served to raise public awareness about issues of
currently being prepared in 23 sub-Saharan countries.
environment and resource sustainability, but the
Organic farming systems offer considerable scope for
resources required to enforce these plans have
addressing soil fertility problems as well as raising
frequently been inadequate (UNCCD 2001). A recent
farm incomes.
study estimated that desertification processes affect
Policies on land management have generally failed
46 per cent of Africa, and 55 per cent of that area is at
to address the root causes of land degradation which
high or very high risk. The worst affected areas are
stem from colonial imbalances in land distribution,
along desert margins (see map), and in total about 485
lack of incentives for conservation, insecure tenure
million people are affected (Reich and others 2001).
and the failure to provide for diversified rural
The success of land conservation programmes
production systems (Moyo 1998). The United Nations
depends on several factors, and is closely linked with
Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
socio-economic conditions. Improving the distribution