Climate Change and Investments in Sustainable Land Management

Land degradation and climate change perspectives provide a case for action to address the threat to food security in the eastern Africa region. The research work done in Vihiga, western Kenya underscores the complexity of undertaking conservation in smallholder farming systems. In smallholder farming landscapes, land degradation is more complex, and is associated with changes in socio-ecological conditions and increased vulnerability of agro-ecosystems to shocks and uncertainties (Nyssen, Poesen and Deckers 2009).  We note also that there is a need for a holistic approach for addressing land degradation. An examination of smallholder farming systems is required to better understand the factors that explain the low technology adoption rate, as well as to seize opportunities to facilitate wide scale investments in sustainable land management (SLM) (Dercon and Christiaensen 2010,). It is also crucial to take into account the significant expected reduction in productivity due to climate change, as it will have a direct effect on the vulnerability of smallholder farmers (Nelson et al. 2009, Rarieya 2009).We also consider other challenges facing the smallholder farmers: Barret and Swallow (2006) assert that increasing population numbers, diminishing soil productivity resulting from land degradation and poor marketing access limit productive investments. As poverty is endemic in the smallholder farming systems of East Africa, low-income levels reduce the capacity of farmers to invest in land quality improvements.

We seek to understand investments in conservation by smallholder farmers from highly erodible areas of the East African highlands in the context of climate change.  We pay specific attention to the role of rural household income sources on investments in sustainable land management.  Though often viewed as stable, smallholder farming systems are undergoing rapid change (Giller et al. 2011). We define non-farm income as coming from non-agricultural enterprises undertaken either on-farm or away from the farm. Natural resource management (NRM) income streams refer to natural resource-based enterprises that are undertaken off the farm and mostly in communal lands or even in public and trust lands. These definitions allow for differences in policy action targeting smallholder farms, communal lands, and other common property regimes.

The article has derived insights from the Lewis model of the role of dualism in the process of economic transformation (Lewis 1954), on structural change in the smallholder farming systems to amplify the significance of the non-farm sector (Bigsten and Tengstam 2011). Expansion of the hired labor market may cause changes in self-employment and wage employment in the rural areas occupied by smallholder farming systems.  What do these changes portend in light of the reduced land sizes, high population growth and increased significance of the cash economy in the rural areas?  Specifically, what influence does this scenario have on sustainable land management in the fragile but agriculturally important smallholder farming systems of the East African highlands?


We surveyed of a random sample of 320 households and 494 farm plots in the Vihiga District of Western Kenya.

The high population densities in the study area provide a primary focus for tensions on land use that threaten the sustainability of smallholder farming systems. Climate change perspectives further accentuate uncertainties in scaling up sustainable land management, and more specifically adaptation and conservation at a landscape level.

Interviews with experts and knowledge of the local environment enabled us to derive the empirical relationships and formulate hypothesis. In the analysis, specific land management practices are dependent on household income streams while controlling for land quality, household and community level factors. To understand the effects of land degradation and climate change perspectives, this study tests the following hypothesis: Firstly, non-farm and natural resource-based income strategies elicit negative effects on investment in sustainable land management technologies and practices due to the competition for labor.  Secondly, Natural Resource Management (NRM) income activities are primarily undertaken by smallholder farmers to enable them to maintain necessary household liquidity levels; and thirdly, the community’s cultural attachment to land may sway farmer households from the pure profit maximization motive. The study focused on erosion control measures as part of SLM and particularly on terracing, manure application and agroforestry.


Although much has been learned from diverse experiences in sustainable resource management, there is still inadequate understanding of the market, policy and institutional failures that shape and structure smallholder farmer incentives and investments decisions. Climate change has also negatively impacted soil and water conservation efforts in the region, thus complicating efforts towards landscape level conservation. Direct effects of climate change have included unpredictable rainfall, which hurt many of the smallholders who undertake soil and water conservation. Although there are various types of sustainable land management practices and technologies that have been adopted in various parts of the region, creating a wide-scale landscape-level conservation process has remained elusive.

Our survey of  sustainable land management practices suggest that erosion prevention was significantly greater in farms with only a single plot of land, lower food stock, higher education level of household head, and higher non-farm and crop income. Worryingly, we found no connection between the need for erosion control an investment in this area.  Due to the irregularity of remittance payments, households that had a unit more income through remittances exhibited less investment in erosion prevention. Evidently, households finance levels are becoming crucial in decision-making. This lends credence to our guess that NRM income could be acting as a safety valve.

Agroforestry was also positively influenced by NRM income activities, while manure application had no significant effect on investments in SLM.

These results were counter-intuitive as they rejected our expectation of competition for labor between farming and non-farm activities. Evidently non-farm and NRM-income activities improved household level liquidity, providing necessary investment capital.  The nature of NRM income activities, which is mostly undertaken in common property areas, provides insight into its effect on investments in agroforestry. There is, however, need to carry out further studies on NRM income activities and, more specifically, on its relationship with household energy requirements.

Most smallholder farmers valued crop production primarily for food security, not for income generation. Unstable market prices accentuated constraints in marketing basic food products such as maize and beans. As land becomes fragmented, plot sizes and the scale of crop production are reduced. This notwithstanding, all the farmers interviewed engaged in crop production and demonstrated a strong attachment to their land and to smallholder farming in particular. Farm level financial liquidity was addressed in different ways. A majority of smallholder farmers without non-farm income sources engaged in natural resource management to meet their immediate financial needs. Increased NRM activities were environmentally degrading and tended to corrupt public and community landscapes.

Investment in land quality improvement is also linked to community level institutional factors. Rural economies in developing countries are less competitive due to pervasive impediments and week environmental regulations. Due to the lack of regulation of common-property natural resources, off-farm natural resource-based income is often detrimental to conservation at the landscape level.

This paper provides the context for addressing the challenges faced by diverse stakeholders and smallholder farmers in surmounting land degradation problems through sustainable management of agro-ecosystems.  The three sustainable land management practices addressed in this study showed varied factors affecting their adoption and investment therein.  Primarily, policy support for SLM need to address specific measures separately as these measures demonstrate varying responses amongst smallholder farmers. Based on these results, we propose that sustainable land management programs should focus on the broad landscape level to capture and understand interactions between plots, farm levels and common property areas. There is also a need for more analysis on the socio-economic importance of the natural resource based income strategies, poverty status and associated ecological costs borne out of decisions made by farmers facing increasing challenges wrought from increasing population and decreasing farm sizes.

The rural space is urbanizing rapidly, and policy support needs to be leveled towards initiatives with multiple benefits, including various forms of non-farm activities that are conservation friendly and provide support to smallholder farmers.

Joseph Tanui,, Rolf  A. Groeneveld,  Jeroen Klomp, Jeremia  Gasper  Mowo, and Ekko C. van Ierland co-authored this article.   Tanui, Goeneveld, Klomp, and van Ierland are members of Environmental Economics & Natural Resources Group, Wagenigen University, The Netherlands. Tanui and Mowo are at the World Agroforestry Center.