What is a smallholder?
Smallholders are key players in everyday decisions which - over time - determine the evolution of the landscape, including its degradation or sustainability. In theoretical terms, smallholders epitomise ‘coupled’ human and environmental systems3. Consequently, smallholders’ livelihood systems in the drylands are varied and complex, and need to adapt continuously to climate change and variability, economic change and political volatility.
In most countries, protected areas are reserved for wildlife and conservation. However, extensive areas still support small scale rural livelihoods. They are adapted to the local ecology and to market drivers, as well as retaining a priority - wherever possible - of supporting food security at the family level. Market value chains and transport infrastructure - usually inadequate in the more remote drylands - originally reflected capital inflow in response to historical export markets (e.g. cotton, groundnuts, maize). Increasingly, domestic food and commodity markets are now taking over this role, driven by urbanisation - for example, in Nigeria. More and more drylands are being swept into the new and expanding market hinterlands in the West African Sahel. Given these mixed goals, adaptive pathways may be configured in various ways.
The defining characteristic of smallholders is their restricted access to capital - in finance, exchange or assets - as they struggle to secure livelihoods at the base of a global ‘investment pyramid’, while large-scale and/or capital-intensive systems of natural resource management (though sometimes themselves short of credit) race ahead in ‘modernising’ countries. Meanwhile, inappropriate interventions have sometimes led to unwanted maladaptation.
Smallholders’ access to resources
The linkages between smallholders, degradation and sustainability are profoundly influenced by rights of access to and benefits from the use of natural resources, especially land, fodder, trees and water. These rights were held historically by local custom, but under new laws or edicts, they are vulnerable to appropriation by governments, corporations and powerful individuals, for commercial or other purposes. Customary claims of individuals, families, clans or cooperatives still affect the greater part of most dryland countries. Formal or legislated (‘statutory’) rights, while extensive and increasing (new allocations under new legislation), may threaten title security. They may not be recognised, still less implemented, by ancestral users. Furthermore, in many countries, divisible inheritance diminishes the rights enjoyed by succeeding generations. New legal tools as well as informal adaptations of custom are needed, both within and beyond the drylands, as fundamental changes are taking place in the availability of natural resources, driven by population growth.
Thus the necessary condition of sustainable private investments in natural resources - security of tenure - is frequently absent. Grazing systems are not an exception. Growing livestock herds have to be subdivided or grazing areas extended, while appropriations of rangeland and sometimes of water access reduce the available resources of common or open access for livestock. Hence, although they are responding to a host of external pressures, culpability for rangeland ‘degradation‘ has been assigned to overgrazing by users.
Underpriced arable land, weak institutional safeguards and governmental complicity are currently driving an agricultural ‘land grab’ in many countries, especially in Africa, in which smallholders are critically disadvantaged. Wealthy citizens (including foreigners) not only have better access to investment capital, but can buy allocations and override local land rights through political connections. However, neither the pace nor the redistributive impact of the ‘land grab’ are fully understood.
Smallholders’ role in degradation
Low Investment Systems (LIS) can be taken as synonymous with smallholders where underinvestment is the key to understanding poverty and environmental degradation. Smallholder farmers, pastoralists or others manipulate their land, labour and capital opportunistically within a general condition of scarcity. The system generates its own dynamics, economically and environmentally. Micro-systems (‘backyard” or garden agriculture, greenhouses) may attract high pro-rata investment especially in or near urban areas. In general, drylands are ‘investment deserts’ when compared with industrial, urbanised or humid regions. This constrains food production, whether crops or livestock product.
Dryland degradation is therefore much broader than technology alone and the example landscapes shown in the following pages, containing a mix of technical and non-technical constraints and opportunities, form either barriers or pathways to sustainable landscapes, through co-evolving, ‘coupled‘ human and biological systems. In China, barriers to increased productivity and greater environmental performance have been removed by integrating adapted scientific evidence in extension work, making smallholders farm more efficiently, and resulting in yield increases of more than 10 %.
Manure production by bovines in the year 2000.
Source:Source: M. Herrero, 2016.