“Economics of Land Degradation and Improvement”

Over the last three decades, 33 per cent of grasslands, 25 per cent of croplands and 23 per cent of forests experienced degradation. The results of a study on the cost and drivers of land degradation and strategies for sustainable land management are summarised in a new publication.

Despite the crucial role land plays in human welfare and development, investments in sustainable land management are low, especially in developing countries. The costs of doing nothing about land degradation are several times higher than the costs of taking action to reverse it, as the book “Economics of Land Degradation and Improvement – A Global Assessment for Sustainable Development” reveals. It is published by the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, Germany, and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

The book is based on case studies from twelve countries: Argentina, Bhutan, China, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Niger, Russia, Senegal, Malawi, Tanzania and Uzbekistan. It focuses on two kinds of land degradation: long-term loss of value of land ecosystem services due to land use and cover change (LUCC) and the use of land-degrading management practices on cropland and grazing lands that do not undergo LUCC. Six major biomes that accounted for about 86 per cent of global land area in 2001 are covered, including forest, shrublands, grasslands, cropland, barren land, and woodlands.

Some of the main findings:

  • The annual cost of land degradation is about 300 billion US dollars, or about 0.4 per cent of the 2007 global gross domestic product. Yet the returns generated from taking action against land degradation are high. Every dollar invested in restoration of degraded land generates about five dollars in benefits.

  • About 30 per cent of global land area, which is home to around 3.2 billion people, has experienced significant degradation. Land degradation is serious in both low- and high-income countries and in temperate as well as tropical regions. The poor are especially affected by land degradation, because their livelihoods heavily depend on natural resources. Africa south of the Sahara accounts for the largest share (26 %) of the total global cost of land degradation.

  • While land degradation-induced processes, such as soil fertility decline and biodiversity loss, act on local scales, they have regional and global implications. Only about 46 per cent of the cost of land degradation due to LUCC is borne by immediate land users. The remaining share (54 %) affects consumers of ecosystem services off the farm. 

  • The loss of maize, rice and wheat grain production through depletion of soil nutrients is about 15 billion US dollars per year, or 1.4 per cent of the global crop output value. The land degrading management practices also result in a loss of carbon sequestration equivalent to 43 billion or 75 per cent of the 57 billion US dollar total cost of maize, rice and wheat cropland degradation in 2007.

  • The annual additional cost of livestock meat and milk production arising from grazing land degradation is about 6.8 billion US dollars, or roughly one 1 per cent of the value of global production of livestock. North America accounts for more than half of the cost of grazing land degradation. However, the impact is not strongly felt because farmers use more inputs and technologies to mask its negative effects. The impact has more severe consequences for the population in developing countries, where livestock provide food and income to most of the 1.2 billion people living below the poverty line of one US dollar per day. Efforts to address grassland degradation are especially urgent in sub-Sahara Africa because of the key role that livestock play as a source of wealth, food and nutrition, draft power and sociocultural services such as payment for dowry.

The country case studies demonstrate that even poor countries can achieve sustainable development through policy and institutional changes that incentivise land users to invest in restoring degraded lands and preventing land degradation. One success story is Niger. This country shows that improved government effectiveness and rule of law make it easier for people to adopt sustainable land management practices. Environmentally friendly policies and cultural values have given Bhutan the most stable forests and the largest share of land area under forest of any country in the world – around 70 per cent. And about 25 per cent of its population live in protected areas. There is virtually no deforestation in Bhutan. This achievement reflects the key role that country policies and customary institutions play in protecting ecosystem services. 

(ZEF/sri)

The book is available for download (free of charge) 

Download summary of the book