Smallholders as Landscape Architects

The resilience of smallholders makes them key to local environmental solutions

Landscape patches: greening the drylands
Because the smallholders’ agricultural holdings are small and fragmented, the outcome of interaction between nature and users is a mosaic of patches. The topography, colour, moisture and other properties of the soil, the natural growth of biomass, seed production and growth characteristics of crops and other useful plants, mingle with the management of fields, pastures and woodland to create unique resource landscapes that are well known to the farmer, pastoralist or woodsman. The smallholder may be seen either as a creative landscape architect or as a soulless destructor (or perhaps both) of nature’s legacy, his (or her) decisions and outcomes being responsive to an encircling range of natural or human agents. The array - which is illustrative rather than comprehensive - contains both slow changing variables (e.g. rainfall trends, soil formation, population growth, or knowledge) and fast (e.g. drought, soil erosion, seasonal ‘exodus’ of labour, or violence). These variables are linked directly or indirectly with the management of land-use patches. Sahelian landscapes and most probably those of other drylands managed by smallholders, resolve a dispute between human and natural systems at the level of the smallholding. An apparently homogeneous topographical surface breaks down into an almost limitless diversity, confirmed in other Sahelian studies. Each patch is situated on a continuum - a logical ‘ladder’ to sustainability - as managed ecosystems evolve, reflecting increasing investments of labour, skills and finance (oval and pictures a-h). Reaching a goal of sustainability, of course, is not inevitable. Movement down as well as up this ‘ladder’ is possible, and forms of degradation can ensue at any point. Nevertheless, conservation of an intensified and sustainable system through micro-management is the desired and logical outcome. At a micro-scale, each landscape patch is an arena for contesting degrading and sustaining processes. From a ‘greening’ standpoint, management of development pathways at the household level is crucial. Decisions at this level aggregate at higher orders of scale. Thus the recent greening trend observed across the African Sahel, though primarily a product of recovering rainfall events, must be supported by policies and incentives that operate at this level. Studies of these patches at a micro-scale show the remarkable extent of resilience in Sahelian vegetation over several decades, including drought cycles. Management under pastoral and farming regimes is not inconsistent with climatic uncertainty. At representative sites in the region, farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) is claimed to have benefited 4.5 million peoples’ livelihoods in the Maradi and Zinder Regions of Niger. Preceded by several decades of environmental policy (top-down and widely unsuccessful), a major shift in governance, restoring local autonomy in the management of forest reserves and farm trees, has brought about a significant change in land use. Improving on a traditional Sahelian practice of allowing economically valued species to reseed or regrow along field boundaries, simple improvement in the technique and awareness of an economic opportunity, based on the valuable species Faidherbia albida, has led to increased tree densities with income, soil fertility, crop yields and livestock feeding benefits.

Dryland smallholders: a provisional conclusion
The efficiency and dynamism found in the smallholder sector has been criticised as an inadequate engine of economic growth and poverty reduction and a policy focus on smallholders as not fully justified by the data. But the precondition for growth is large-scale outmigration enabling an increase in agricultural productivity. It may be speculated that the relocation of rural people to towns and cities (and diversified incomes in situ) will leave ‘remainers’ condemned to low incomes, weak markets, input scarcities, technical obsolescence and diminishing land and labour resources. Contrary to the expectations of some, smallholders in many dryland countries have evolved complex market systems linked to interregional trade, experimented with new crops and technologies, sustained skills in animal breeding and struggled to optimise organic and inorganic nutrient inputs and to adapt to rainfall variability. The priority of winning a livelihood from the soil - the sole asset enjoyed by many dryland people - against the risks of an unpredictable environment, deprived of equal opportunity in a grossly unequal world, marginalised by an enfeebled global rhetoric (substituting Sustainable Development Goals for the only partially successful Millennium Development Goals) and the largely unregulated forces of globalisation, ensure that exiting the smallholder sector will continue to be difficult, especially for the poorest. Because smallholders are likely to be an enduring feature of semi-arid landscapes in most of Africa, much of Asia and large parts of South America, the interaction of co-evolving and ecological systems defines the challenge facing development interventions. It calls for holistic analysis. Advancing intensification technologies, in the hope that they offer another green revolution, must also contend with the long-term consequences of divisible inheritance, soil degradation and possible negative outcomes of climate change. Nowhere are these risks greater than in the drylands. Conventional metrics of economic growth may have to be jettisoned in favour of sustainability indicators. It seems paradoxical to claim that the smallholder holds a key to the solution, rather than being the essence of the ‘problem’ of dryland degradation, in those extensive areas where smallholder systems operate. But such a conclusion follows from the argument made in this section. The proviso is that the ‘investment desert’ of the drylands can be reclaimed. In the past, neglect of this variable led to an analytical underestimation of small-scale investments in drylands, where urban investment may be more profitable than agriculture. Rural people utilise alternative income sources to reduce the risk and insecurity engendered by low agricultural productivity and high variability. This income can be recycled, and such recapitalisation should build on existing local knowledge as well as adapting appropriate science from external sources.

Smallholders’ strategies (systems) may incorporate not only ecological ‘givens’ but also a range of management variables, resulting in an almost infinite number of landscape patches.
Source: Mortimore, M

Steppe: Almost treeless grasslands, rainfall too low and variable for rainfed farming, managed for mobile selective grazing, enabled by customary common access, supporting pastoral families.
Location: Yobe State, Nigeria.

Dry forest: ‘Unoccupied’ woodland with more rainfall but not yet colonised by farmers, exploited by mobile graziers, hunters and harvesters of non-timber forest products
Location: Location: Borno State,Nigeria.

Farming frontier: Low- to medium-density woodland under pioneering farming families with livestock, enabled by the ‘land rights to the user’ doctrine recognised in custom and increasingly in legislation; family labour responding to social and economic drivers with women as well as men in fields, organized communities extending into drier regions between existing villages.
Location: Jigawa State, Nigeria.

Rotational mosaic: The farming frontier stabilises as the supply of land diminishes, rights become fixed and to maintain soil nutrients under repeated cultivation cycles, rotational systems (such as ‘bush fallowing’ and livestock grazing), with complementary practices, become generalised, as field boundaries and other investments begin to reflect social inequality.
Location: Kano State, Nigeria.

Arable land saturation: Disappearing supply of unclaimed land, together with increasing trends in labour inputs, multiple cropping, increased weeding frequency, high yields, commodification of both inputs and outputs; scarcities of financial capital inhibiting non-labour investments; migratory labour
Location: Kano State, Nigeria.

Conservation: Following saturation, sustainable land management (SLM) practices, the protection of threatened species - notably in West Africa the leguminous tree, Faidherbia albida - and other forms of investment in permanent fields with fixed ownership boundaries, increased fertilization (organic and inorganic, both through the markets), cut-and-carried fodder with stall feeding of livestock during the cropping season and intensified nutrient cycling. A market in arable land gathers momentum.
Location: Diourbel Region, Senegal; Yobe State, Nigeria.

Wetland intensification: Flood plains, permanent or seasonal depressions), shallow water tables, dams and irrigation canals, water-lifting gear, reflecting private and public investment; restricted livestock access to high-quality grazing and water, often contested between farmers and graziers, local and distant (urban) owners; outputs of fruit and vegetables, out-of-season grain or cotton and other crops are sent almost entirely to urban and niche markets. Public-sector investments are extensive along major rivers.
Location: Jigawa State, Nigeria

Degradation: Water and aeolian erosion leading to bare ground following removal of soil and sub-soil from lateritic bedrock, especially on slopes and where Quaternary dunefields have been reactivated under low rainfall. Neither is necessarily irreversible, as interventions in the micro-management of lateritic surface materials (e.g. ‘half moons’) and changes in dune formation (with rain, prevailing wind and self-seeding) show. Of greater importance is slow soil degradation over very extensive areas. Degradation may set in at any of the stages proposed here with or without human agency.
Location: Yobe State, Nigeria.)

Source: Model and photos M. Mortimore, WAD3-JRC, 2018.