July 28, 2014

What Influences Farmers’ Land Management Practices to Combat Land Degradation?


By Taryn M. Kong, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona

Livestock farmers’ land management practices affect the health and integrity of the landscape, and poor management—such as overgrazing—is often attributed as a cause of land degradation. However, to combat land degradation, policy-makers and scientists need to dig deeper to understand what factors influence farmers’ management practices. This is because their management practices can be influenced and constrained by various factors besides knowledge and attitude, factors that are often linked to institutional and socio-economic contexts.

Colonial and apartheid land legislation in South Africa, for example, created distinct institutional and socio-economic conditions that affected land tenure and wealth distribution among the population. Land reform has been implemented over the past two decades to negate the legacy of this historical legislation. These historical and contemporary situations make South Africa an interesting case to examine the interplay of institutional factors and land management practices in response to land degradation.

To explore this more, we conducted semi-structured interviews and photo elicitations to capture the knowledge, attitude and practices of rotational grazing, woody plant control with herbicide and revegetation among 53 livestock farmers in Mier (Northern Cape province) and Molopo-Taung (Northwest province). We also used land tenure type and a livestock production scale to create a classification matrix to organize the participants and to explore the relationship between their knowledge, attitudes and practices of the three management practices.

The results showed that high level of knowledge and positive attitude alone did not always result in complete adoption of best practices. There were large gaps between the percentage of participants with high level of knowledge and the percentage of farmers practicing the actions on a full-scale; the gap was the biggest for woody plant control. The gaps between positive attitude and practice were even larger; they ranged from 38% for woody plant control to 25% for revegetation and rotational grazing.

Participants who did not practice rotational grazing on a full-scale attributed the constraining causes for their management mainly to insufficient farm infrastructure (100%), limited financial resources (100%), land tenure (40%) and inadequate farmland (35%). Most of the mismatches between knowledge, attitude and practice of rotational grazing were found among small-scale farmers on tribal communal lands and semi-commercial farmers with private tenure. Many of the smallholders on tribal communal lands and on Land Restitution for Agricultural Development farms attributed their inability to apply herbicide to financial constraints (64%) and to the constraint of collective management (50%). The participants who practiced revegetation on a full-scale were almost exclusively commercial farmers, and those on a trial-scale were mostly semi-commercial farmers. There were more variations in the reasons given by the 43 small-scale and semi-commercial farmers for why they did not practice revegetation on their farms.

Situational factors such as financial resources, farm infrastructure, farm size and land tenure also challenged or constrained farmers’ land management practices. Socio-economic disparities created by past institutional systems still affect contemporary land management. For example, limited financial resources was by far the most common constraint to practicing rotational grazing and woody plant control on a full-scale among the small-scale and semi-commercial farmers, whereas this factor was hardly mentioned by the commercial farmers as a constraint. A history of socio-economic disadvantage and former land policies shed light on this. All but three of the younger of the small-scale and semi-commercial farmers in this study come from a family background of communal farming. Their families farmed on a small-scale in the past because historical land policies made commercial farming rare among black South African farmers. Furthermore, the legacy of disparity in land distribution from historical policies is still visible because the former homelands (14 million hectares) support a large portion of the 2.6 million small-scale farming households, while 39,966 commercial farming units occupy 86 million hectares as of 2012.

Efforts by the government to combat land degradation solely through knowledge dissemination will not be sufficient, because knowledge and attitudes alone do not always translate into actual practice. Policy-makers and providers of public support services for farmers need to dig deeper into the root causes for poor land management and understand factors affecting or constraining farmers’ management practices. To address this knowledge gap, there is a need for more interdisciplinary research and integration of local knowledge and perspectives.

Photo: Taryn M. Kong

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