"Local Perception of Land Degradation in Developing Countries: A Simplified Analytical Framework of Driving Forces, Processes, Indicators and Coping Strategies"
Juan Pulido and Gerardo Bocco 

3 From local perception to definition of LD indicators

How do local communities perceive and cope with degradation? At the local level, perception occurs in two dimensions: the internal, basically that of farmers, and the external, basically that of technical and government officials. The perception varies as a function of the way these two dimensions interact in the field. Hybrid approaches (peasant/scientific), which are becoming widely accepted, are feasible at the local, field level. Perception will partly control awareness, goals and methods to be applied in research or practical actions. Local perception refers to the causes and status of LD as farmers detect and express it as occurring on their lands. For example, in Kushinga Ward, Zimbabwe, the major causes of soil erosion identified by peasants were the cultivation of steep slopes and stream banks, population pressure and overgrazing (Manjoro, 2006*). The farmers’ perceptions coincided with the views of researchers and agricultural advisers in the district. Peasant perception is strongly based upon TK-derived indicators (Table 2). Long-term observations of LD patterns and qualitative assessments of LD processes are of paramount importance and can be scientifically accepted on the basis of quantitative evaluations (Pulido and Bocco, 2003*; Di Falco et al., 2006; Tsegaye and Bekele, 2010).

Table 2: Biological, physical and chemical indicators used by local communities to assess land degradation




Declining crop yields

(1), (4), (5), (6), (7), (9), (10), (11), (18), (21), (23), (24), (25)

A tendency during short to medium time spans. It is an integrated consequence derived from many other degradation processes, particularly soil erosion, loss of soil organic matter and declining soil fertility.

Sheet, rill and gully erosion; sedimentation

(1), (4), (7), (9), (10), (11), (12), (18), (21), (22), (23), (25)

Frequently, gullying is a symptom of severe past erosion. In (4) and (21) sheet erosion is considered as more damaging than gullying. Controversy exists on the effects of different types of erosion.

Changes in rangeland condition for livestock production

(3), (6), (7), (13), (14), (16), (19), (24), (25)

Also referred to as (3) reduced herbaceous cover; (6) change in plant species composition; (7, 19) disappearance of grass cover; (13) decline of plant abundance; (14, 16) decline of key forage species; (17) disappearance of useful plant species; (14) a condition that varies according to spatial and temporal perspectives, and also for different livestock species.

Presence of particular weed species

(1), (7), (10), (17), (18), (19), (25)

Also referred to as (7, 10, 19) emergence of weeds and unpalatable species; (17) invaded by previously unknown grasses and weeds that are of no economic value; (18) weed infestation.

Surface soil color

(1), (10), (18), (21), (25)

Specifically (18), assessing change in color: pale or red colors indicate degradation; dark color suggests stability (organic matter).

Barren or infertile land

(2), (3), (9), (17), (19), (20), (22)

Also referred to as (3) reduced herbaceous cover; (9) badlands development; (17) increase of bare lands; (19, 20) decreased vegetation cover/increased bare land.


(1), (9), (11), (12)

Also referred to as (9, 12) rock exposure and limited soil depth; (11) soil becoming coarse and stony.

Fewer trees and increased distance and time to collect fuel wood

(2), (3), (9), (17)

Also as (2) use of non-appropriate wood for fuel, and a need to rely on vehicles for collection; (9) related to deforestation and selective cutting of good-quality woody vegetation close to human settlements; (17) loss of woody vegetation.

Exposure of roots; pedestals

(7), (9), (12), (22), (25)

Specifically (9, 12) as related to sheet erosion, steep slopes and poorly structured top soil horizons.

Changes in livestock parameters

(3), (14), (16)

Also referred to as (14, 16) decline in livestock productivity.

Decreased water absorption capacity

(7), (10), (22), (25)

Also referred to as (10) low moisture retention and increased runoff; (12) a need of investment in soil and water conservation structures

Soil structure degradation; soil crusting

(10), (12), (22), (24)

Also referred to as (12) “weak” soils

Change in color of crop leaves

(7), (11), (25)

Also referred to as (11) “yellowing” of the crop

Stunted crops

(7), (10), (25)

In (10) this is referred to as less vigorous crop/vegetation. In (11) it is referred to as poor crop performance

Bush encroachment

(2), (8)

In (8) it was also pointed out that perception of bush encroachment as LD indicator depends on the livestock species.

Bare land, wind erosion, and sand dune formation

(3), (14)

In (14) sand dunes formed by wind erosion are referred to as dead lands, an extreme LD stage.

Other indicators are less referred to in the literature. They include slope gradient, fast sedimentation, turbidity in streams, sand deposition, crop diseases, termite mounds, low rainfall, decreased water level, anomalous vegetation cover, decline of wild, splash pedestals, build-up of soil against barriers, drying up of vegetation, poor seedling emergence, reduced human population and poverty.

Land quality indicators perceived by peasants

In natural resources management in general and in land degradation in particular, traditional knowledge refers to the concept of land rather than soil. During the late 1980s, traditional knowledge was gradually accepted by leading soil and water conservation institutions (Bocco, 1991). It is strongly based on peasant perception of land quality and land degradation (Pulido and Bocco, 2003*). TK held by communities proved to be useful in evaluating and classifying lands according to types, levels and risks of degradation. Indicators derived from local perception and traditional knowledge are complex, i.e., they encompass an holistic suite of partial elements. (Millar and Dittoh, 2004). Peasant land quality indicators are a good example of this approximation, as documented by case studies. Peasants frequently assess suitability to land degradation in terms of soil fertility depletion and soil erosion; this is corroborated by a high correlation between crop yields and nutrient availability (Pulido and Bocco, 2003*; Malley et al., 2006*). Other common peasant LD indicators include plant species (Oberthur et al., 2004*; Styger et al., 2007*), weed abundance, changes in soil texture and stoniness, crop yield and crop performance. In Kenya, farmers divided soils into productive and non-productive classes, according to yield and crop performance, soil colour and texture (Mairura et al., 2007); categories used by farmers were highly correlated with key soil parameters. In some cases, indicators commonly used by external stakeholders do not detect degradation changes otherwise perceived by local producers. Conversely, Gray and Morant (2003*) showed that land degradation features perceived by farmers in southwest Burkina Faso were not detected by conventional laboratory tests.

In brief, there are many locally derived site-specific indicators. Ranking of each indicator varies among farmers. Ranking may depend upon individual experience, age, gender and social position (Warren et al., 2003). Indicators are based on sensory perception and are intrinsically practical; robust ones usually follow long-time observations at parcel level. Therefore they are recommended for inclusion in local assessments. Sometimes, they may contradict technical indicators (Gray and Morant, 2003*), or at least be more sensitive to seasonal change. In other cases they are complementary and technical knowledge may validate TK (Pulido and Bocco, 2003). When coupled with technically based indicators they ground integrated, participatory approaches.

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