Land is one of the few productive assets owned by the rural poor, and almost all such households engage in some form of agriculture. Over 2000–2010 the rural poor on degrading agricultural land increased in low-income countries and in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Although degradation threatens the livelihoods of the poor, this interaction is complex and conditioned by key economic, social and environmental factors. These factors also limit the poverty-reducing impacts of economic growth and economy-wide reforms. A comprehensive development strategy requires investments that improve the livelihoods of affected populations and regions, and facilitates outmigration in severely impacted areas.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.67 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN, 2015).
World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future (Oxford Univ. Press, 1987).
Scherr., S. J. A downward spiral? Research evidence on the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation. Food Policy 25, 479–498 (2000). A path-breaking study on the multiple factors underlying the potential ‘downward spiral’ between poverty and environmental degradation.
Grainger, A. The Threatening Desert: Controlling Desertification (Earthscan Publications, 1990).
Reardon, T. & Vosti, S. A. Links between rural poverty and the environment in developing countries: asset categories and investment poverty. World Dev. 23, 1495–1506 (1995). One of the first studies to emphasize the importance of understanding how household assets and conditioning factors interact to influence poverty–environmental degradation relationships.
Barbier, E. B. The economic determinants of land degradation in developing countries. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 352, 891–899 (1997).
Duraiappah, A. K. Poverty and environmental degradation: a review and analysis of the nexus. World Dev. 26, 2169–2179 (1998).
Crosson, P. in Encyclopaedia of Soil Science Vol. 2 (ed. Lal, R.) 399–402 (Taylor and Francis, London, 2006).
Gerber, N., Nkonya, E. & von Braun, J. in Marginality: Addressing The Nexus Of Poverty, Exclusion and Ecology (eds von Braun J. & Gatzweiler, F. W.) 181–202 (Springer, Dordrecht, 2014). A thorough and comprehensive review of the issues and challenges in assessing the links between land degradation and poverty globally.
Barrett, C. B. & Bevis, L. E. M. The self-reinforcing feedback between low soil fertility and chronic poverty. Nat. Geosci. 8, 907–912 (2015).
Sklenicka, P. Classification of farmland ownership fragmentation as a cause of land degradation: a review on typology, consequences, and remedies. Land Use Policy 57, 694–701 (2016).
Vogt, J. V. et al. Monitoring and assessment of land degradation and desertification: towards new conceptual and integrated approaches. Land Degrad. Dev. 22, 150–165 (2011).
Adeel, Z. et al. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis. A Report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (World Resources Institute, 2005).
Stavi, H. & Lal, R. Achieving zero net land degradation: challenges and opportunities. J. Arid Environ. 112, 44–51 (2015).
Grainger, A. Is land degradation neutrality feasible in dry areas? J. Arid Environ. 112, 14–24 (2015).
Elaboration of an International Convention to Combat Desertification in Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and Desertification Particularly in Africa: Final text of the Convention (UN, 1994).
Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report Ch. 3 (Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, 2014).
Lal, R. Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304, 1623–1627 (2004).
West, P. C. et al. Leverage points of improving global food security and the environment. Science 345, 325–328 (2014).
Stocking, M. A. Tropical soils and food security – the next 50 years. Science 302, 1356–1359 (2003).
Reynolds, J. F. et al. Building a science for dryland development. Science 316, 847–851 (2007).
Lambin, E. F. & Meyfroidt, P. Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 3465–3472 (2011).
Foley, J. A. et al. Global consequences of land use. Science 309, 570–574 (2005).
Gisladottir, G. & Stocking, M. A. Land degradation control and its global environmental benefits. Land Degrad. Dev. 16, 99–112 (2005).
Mirzabaev, A., Nkonya, E. & von Braun, J. Economics of sustainable land management. Curr. Opin. Env. Sustain. 15, 9–19 (2015).
Barbier, E. B. & Hochard, J. P. Does land degradation increase poverty in developing countries? PLoS ONE 11, e0152973 (2016).
Bai, Z. G., Dent, D. L., Olsson, L. & Schaepman, M. E. Proxy global assessment of land degradation. Soil Use Manage. 24, 223–234 (2008).
de Jong, R., de Bruin, S., Schaepman, M. & Dent, D. Quantitative mapping of global land degradation using Earth observations. Int. J. Remote Sens. 32, 6823–6853 (2011).
Nachtergaele, F., Petri, M., Biancalani, R., Van Lynden, G. & Van Velthuizen, H. Global Land Degradation Information System (GLADIS). Beta Version. An Information Database for Land Degradation Assessment at Global Level Land Degradation Assessment in Drylands Technical Report No. 17 (FAO, 2010).
Castañeda, A. et al. A new profile of the global poor. World Dev. 101, 250–267 (2018).
Wood, S., Sebastian, K. & Scherr, S. Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE), Agroecosystems dataset. Harvard Dataverse https://hdl.handle.net/1902.1/17463 (2005).
Gridded Population of the World Version 4 (GPWv4) (Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center, Columbia University, 2017); http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/gpw
Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project Version 1 (GRUMPv1): Urban Extents Grid (Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center, Columbia University, 2011); http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/data/set/grump-v1-urban-extents
Prince, S. D. & Goward, S. N. Global primary production: a remote sensing approach. J. Biogeogr. 22, 815–835 (1995).
Global Subnational Infant Mortality Rates Version 1(2000) (Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center, Columbia University, 2015); http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/data/set/povmap-global-subnational-infant-mortality-rates
de Sherbinin, A. Is poverty more acute near parks? An assessment of infant mortality rates around protected areas in developing countries. Oryx 42, 26–35 (2008).
Sartorius, B. K. D. & Sartorius, K. Global infant mortality trends and attributable determinants – an ecological study using data from 192 countries for the period 1990–2011. Pop. Health Metrics 12, 29 (2014).
Fritzell, J., Rehnberg, J., Bacchus Hertzman, J. & Blomgren, J. Absolute or relative? A comparative analysis between poverty and mortality. Int. J. Publ. Health 60, 101–110 (2015).
New country classifications by income level: 2017–2018 World Bank https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/new-country-classifications-income-level-2017-2018 (1 July 2017).
Higginbottom, T. P. & Symeonakis, E. Assessing land degradation and desertification using vegetation index data: current frameworks and future directions. Remote Sens. 6, 9552–9575 (2014).
Barbier, E. B. Climate change impacts on rural poverty in low-elevation coastal zones. Estuarine Coastal Shelf Sci. 165, A1–A13 (2015).
Barbier, E. B. & Hochard, J. P. The impacts of climate change on the poor in disadvantaged regions. Rev. Environ. Econ. Policy 12, 26–47 (2018).
Pender, J. Agricultural Technology Choices for Poor Farmers in Less-Favoured Areas Of South And East Asia (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2008).
Lufumpa, C. L. The poverty-environment nexus in Africa. Afr. Dev. Rev. 17, 366–381 (2005).
Jayne, T. S., Chamberlin, J. & Headey, D. D. Land pressures, the evolution of farming systems, and development strategies in Africa: a synthesis. Food Policy 48, 1–17 (2014).
Binswanger-Mkhize, H. & Savastano, S. Agricultural intensification: the status of six African countries. Food Policy 67, 26–40 (2017).
Hazell, P. & Wood, S. Drivers of change in global agriculture. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 495–515 (2008). A comprehensive review of the current challenges and options for improving global agricultural policy, including overcoming problems of land degradation.
Barrett, C. B. Smallholder market participation: concepts and evidence from eastern and southern Africa. Food Policy 33, 299–317 (2008).
Gollin, D. & Rogerson, R. Productivity, transport costs and subsistence agriculture. J. Dev. Econ. 107, 38–48 (2014).
Barbier, E. B. Poverty, development and environment. Environ. Dev. Econ. 15, 635–660 (2010). Highlights the causes and consequences of a potential poverty–environment ‘downward spiral’; consistently one of the most read articles in Environment and Development Economics.
Ahmed, A. U., Vargas Hill, R. & Naeem, F. in Marginality: Addressing the Nexus of Poverty, Exclusion and Ecology (eds von Braun, J. & Gatzweiler, F. W.) 85–99 (Springer, Berlin, 2014).
Banerjee, A. V. & Duflo., E. The economic lives of the poor. J. Econ. Persp. 21, 141–168 (2007).
Lee, D. R. Agricultural sustainability and technology adoption: issues and policies for developing countries. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 87, 1325–1334 (2005).
de Graaf, J. et al. Factors influencing adoption and continued use of long-term soil and water conservation measures in five developing countries. Appl. Geogr. 28, 271–280 (2008).
Shiferaw, B. A., Okello, J. & Reddy, R. V. Adoption and adaptation of natural resource management innovations in smallholder agriculture: Reflections on key lessons and best practices. Environ. Dev. Sustain. 11, 601–619 (2009).
Kassie, M., Teklewold, H., Jaleta, M., Marenya, P. & Erenstein, O. Understanding the adoption of a portfolio of sustainable intensification practices in eastern and southern Africa. Land Use Policy 42, 400–411 (2015).
Debela, B., Shively, G., Angelsen, A. & Wik, M. Economic shocks, diversification, and forest use in Uganda. Land Econ. 88, 139–154 (2012).
López-Feldman, A. Shocks, income and wealth: do they affect the extraction of natural resources by households? World Dev. 64, S91–S100 (2014).
Narain, U., Gupta, S. & van‘t Veld, K. Poverty and resource dependence in rural India. Ecol. Econ. 66, 161–176 (2008).
Robinson, E. J. Z. Resource-dependent livelihoods and the natural resource base. Annu. Rev. Resour. Econ. 8, 281–301 (2016). A comprehensive review of the empirical evidence of how poor rural households depend on the surrounding natural environment.
Wunder, S., Börner, J., Shively, G. & Wyman, M. Safety nets, gap filling and forests: a global-comparative perspective. World Dev. 64, S29–S42 (2014). A landmark and unique comparative study of uses of the surrounding natural environment by rural households and communities worldwide.
Pingali, P., Schneider, K. & Zurek, M. in Marginality: Addressing the Nexus of Poverty, Exclusion and Ecology (eds von Braun, J. & Gatzweiler, F. W.) 151–168 (Springer, Berlin, 2014).
Barrett, C. B., Garg, T. & McBride, L. Well-being dynamics and poverty traps. Annu. Rev. Resour. Econ. 8, 303–327 (2016).
Carter, M. R. & Barrett, C. B. The economics of poverty traps and persistent poverty: an asset-based approach. J. Dev. Stud. 42, 178–199 (2006). A novel and much-cited analysis of the critical role of rural household assets for poverty traps.
Shively, G. E. & Fisher, M. Smallholder labor and deforestation: a systems approach. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 86, 1361–1366 (2004).
Pascual, U. & Barbier, E. B. On price liberalization, poverty, and shifting cultivation: an example from Mexico. Land Econ. 83, 192–216 (2007).
Jansen, H. G. P. et al. Determinants of income-earning strategies and adoption of conservation practices in hillside communities in rural Honduras. Agric. Syst. 88, 92–110 (2006).
Holden, S., Shiferaw, B. & Pender, J. Non-farm income, household welfare, and sustainable land management in a less-favoured area in the Ethiopian highlands. Food Policy 29, 369–392 (2004).
Takasaki, Y., Barham, B. L. & Coomes, O. T. Risk coping strategies in tropical forests: floods, illness, and resource extraction. Env. Dev. Econ. 9, 203–224 (2004).
Angelsen, A. et al. Environmental income and rural livelihoods: a global-comparative analysis. World Dev. 64, S12–S26 (2014).
Carter, M. R., Little, P. D., Mogues, T. & Negatu, W. Poverty traps and natural disasters in Ethiopia and Honduras. World Dev. 35, 835–856 (2007).
Hallegatte, S. et al. Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty (World Bank, 2015). A comprehensive and path-breaking global analysis of the impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of the poor.
McSweeney, K. Natural insurance, forest access, and compound misfortune: forest resources in smallholder coping strategies before and after Hurricane Mitch in northeastern Honduras. World Dev. 33, 1453–1471 (2005).
Vedeld, P., Angelsen, A., Bojö, J., Sjaastad, E. & Kobugabe Berg, G. Forest environmental incomes and the rural poor. Forest Policy Econ. 9, 869–879 (2007).
Battacharya, H. & Innes, R. Income and the environment in rural India: Is there a poverty trap? Am. J. Agric. Econ. 95, 42–69 (2013).
Coxhead, I., Shively, G. E. & Shuai, X. Development policies, resource constraints, and agricultural expansion on the Philippine land frontier. Environ. Dev. Econ. 7, 341–364 (2002).
Gonazález-Vega, C., Rodríguez-Meza, J., Southgate, D. & Maldonado, J. H. Poverty, structural transformation, and land use in El Salvador: learning from household panel data. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 86, 1367–1374 (2004).
Deininger, K. & Jin, S. Tenure security and land-related investment: evidence from Ethiopia. Eur. Econ. Rev. 50, 1245–1277 (2006).
Deininger, K., Jin, S. & Yadav, V. Does sharecropping affect long-term investment? Evidence from West Bengal’s tenancy reforms. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 95, 772–790 (2013).
Gebremedhin, B. & Swinton, S. M. Investment in soil conservation in northern Ethiopia: the role of land tenure security and public programs. Agric. Econ. 29, 69–84 (2003).
Besley, T. Property rights and investment incentives: theory and evidence from Ghana. J. Polit. Econ. 103, 903–937 (1995).
Kabubo-Mariara, J. Land conservation and tenure security in Kenya: Boserup’s hypothesis revisited. Ecol. Econ. 64, 25–35 (2007).
Eskander, S. M. S. U. & Barbier, E. B. Tenure security, human capital and soil conservation in an overlapping generation rural economy. Ecol. Econ. 135, 176–185 (2017).
Place, F. Land tenure and agricultural productivity in Africa: a comparative analysis of the economics literature and recent policy strategies and reforms. World Dev. 37, 1326–1336 (2009).
Holden, S. & Otsuka, K. The roles of land tenure reforms and land markets in the context of population growth and land use intensification in Africa. Food Policy 48, 88–97 (2014).
Binswanger, H. P. & Sillers, D. A. Risk aversion and credit constraints in farmers’ decision-making: a reinterpretation. J. Dev. Stud. 22, 504–539 (1983).
Boucher, S. & Guirkinger, C. Risk, wealth, and sectoral choice in rural credit markets. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 89, 991–1004 (2007).
Zeller, M., Schreider, G., von Braun, J. & Heidhues, F. Rural Finance for Food Security for the Poor (International Food Policy Research Institute, 1997).
Barbier, E. B., López, R. E. & Hochard, J. P. Debt, poverty and resource management in a rural smallholder economy. Environ. Resource Econ. 65, 411–427 (2016). Recipient of the 2017 European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists Award for outstanding publication in the journal Environmental and Resource Economics.
Barbier, E. B. Links between economic liberalization and rural resource degradation in the developing regions. Agric. Econ. 23, 299–310 (2000).
López, R. E. Environmental externalities in traditional agriculture and the impact of trade liberalization: the case of Ghana. J. Dev. Econ. 53, 17–39 (1997).
Barbier, E. B. The economic linkages between rural poverty and land degradation: some evidence from Africa. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 82, 355–370 (2000).
López, R. & Galinato, G. I. Should governments stop subsidies to private goods? Evidence from rural Latin America. J. Public Econ. 91, 1071–1094 (2007).
Massey, D. S., Axinn, W. G. & Ghimire, D. J. Environmental change and out-migration: evidence from Nepal. Popul. Environ. 32, 100–136
Gray, C. L. & Bilsborrow, R. Environmental influences on human migration in rural Ecuador. Demography 50, 1217–1241 (2013).
Gray, C. L. Soil quality and human migration in Kenya and Uganda. Global Environ. Change 21, 421–430 (2011).
Shah, A. Land degradation and migration in a dry land region in India: extent, nature and determinants. Environ. Dev. Econ. 15, 173–196 (2009).
Krieger, T. & Meirrieks, D. Land grabbing and ethnic conflict. Homo Oeconomicus 33, 243–260
Dell’Angelo, J., D’Odorico, P., Rulli, M. C. & Marchand, P. The tragedy of the grabbed commons: Coercion and dispossession in the global land rush. World Dev. 92, 1–12 (2017).
Holmén, H. Is land grabbing always what it is supposed to be? Large-scale land investments in sub-Saharan Africa. Dev. Policy Rev. 33, 457–478 (2015).
De Schutter, O. How not to think of land grabbing: three critiques of large-scale investments in farmland. J. Peasant Stud. 38, 249–279 (2011).
Davis, K. F., D’Odorico, P. & Rulli, C. Land grabbing: a preliminary quantification of economic impacts on rural livelihoods. Popul. Environ. 36, 180–192 (2014).
Pender, J. & Hazell, P. in Promoting Sustainable Development in Less-Favored Areas (eds Pender, J & Hazell, P) (2020 Vision Initiative, Policy Brief Series, Focus 4, International Food Policy Research Institute 2000).
Fan, S. & Chan-Kang, C. Returns to investment in less-favoured areas in developing countries: a synthesis of evidence and implications for Africa. Food Policy 29, 431–444 (2004).
Fan, S. & Hazell, P. Returns to public investment in the less-favored areas of India and China. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 83, 1217–1222 (2001).
World Development Report 2008: Agricultural Development (World Bank, 2008).
The Global Land Outlook 1st ed. (UNCCD, 2017). The first comprehensive assessment of the state of global land resources, and the policy challenges for managing increasing desertification and land degradation.
The State of Food and Agriculture. Leveraging Food Systems for Inclusive Rural Transformation (FAO, 2017).
de Graff, J., Aklilu, A., Ouessar, M., Asins-Velis, S. & Kessler, A. The development of soil and water conservation policies and practices in five selected countries from 1960 to 2010. Land Use Policy 32, 165–174 (2013).
Emran, M. S. & Hou, Z. Access to markets and rural poverty: evidence from household consumption in China. Rev. Econ. Stat. 95, 682–697 (2013).
Haggblade, S., Hazell, P. & Reardon, T. The rural non-farm economy: prospects for growth and poverty reduction. World Dev. 38, 1429–1441 (2010).
Andersson, E., Brogaard, S. & Olsson, L. The political ecology of land degradation. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 36, 295–319 (2011).
Pattanayak, S. K., Wunder, S. & Ferraro, P. J. Show me the money: do payments supply environmental services in developing countries? Rev. Environ. Econ. Policy 4, 254–274 (2010).
The authors acknowledge the departments and institutions at Colorado State University and East Carolina University that supported this research. The authors are grateful to A. Grainger for invaluable advice and comments on this research and work.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Barbier, E.B., Hochard, J.P. Land degradation and poverty. Nat Sustain 1, 623–631 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0155-4
Measuring forest and agricultural income in the Ecuadorian lowland rainforest frontiers: Do deforestation and conservation strategies matter?
Forest Policy and Economics (2020)
Journal of Cleaner Production (2020)
Remote Sensing Applications: Society and Environment (2020)
Nature Sustainability (2020)