Land degradation is a global phenomenon that affects human societies at the local level where rural communities closely related to land resources are vulnerable. Success in projects aimed at preventing or mitigating damage at the local level depends on the approach adopted. Since advantages and drawbacks are site- and goal-specific, traditional knowledge and community participation in all assessment stages and decisions related to implementation and follow-up are crucial (Abule et al., 2005; Moges and Holden, 2007; Reed et al., 2007). Integrated approaches seem to be appropriate to analyze causality and to define local indicators; perceptions and priorities defined by local people enable knowledge integration and consensus about goals and assessment methods (Hurni, 2000; Zurayk et al., 2001; Gray and Morant, 2003; Lestrelin et al., 2006; Styger et al., 2007). Conversely, inadequate top-down policies allowing land mismanagement and unsuitable land use are among the most important underlying causes of degradation.
Many mitigation projects of land degradation, whose focus is only on symptoms or proximate causes, have shown limited or no success. The alternative is to address underlying causes, basically related to socioeconomic, political and cultural factors. This would yield a full understanding of causality. In the attempt to prevent or to reverse the effects of land degradation, diverse groups worldwide have tried to promote conservation practices. However, although the information generated has been technically sound, much of it is only available to researchers and not to resource managers (Seely and Wöhl, 2004; Seely et al., 2008).
Rural producers use diverse strategies and diversified activities to cope with degradation. Local communities use diverse strategies and diversified activities to cope with degradation. Local communities often perceive land degradation in a wider context (Clément, 2006; Dembele, 2006) and perceive (or use) “land” or “landscape class” instead of “soil” (Oberthur et al., 2004; Cervantes-Gutiérrez et al., 2005; Ortiz-Solorio et al., 2005). In addition, they assess land quality or land suitability on the basis of perception and traditional knowledge. Farmers are more comfortable using their terminology and classification schemes for their own soil or land resources. Combination of the two types of knowledge has been widely recommended, enhancing a better communication between farmers and external actors. In this way, such knowledge could be the basis for the design of land degradation prevention and mitigation strategies.
Local communities can exacerbate or reverse land degradation; the final outcome would depend on their social organization to properly manage their land resources, to carry out conservation projects, and on the sensitivity of local and national governments to develop and fund programs where such projects would be placed. The early identification of driving forces is crucial in understanding, mitigating or preventing degradation. Many programmes for poverty reduction in rural areas fail because they do not encompass other actions to cope with convergent driving forces of land degradation. In many instances, this inadequacy in policy design triggers the failure of attempts at mitigation.
Data from local case studies in Southeast Asia and Latin America show that increased population pressure has increased land degradation, primarily through deforestation. However, a high population density need not preclude the conservation of land resources provided it is accompanied by good agricultural practices (Boyd and Slaymaker, 2000; Carr, 2003; Nyangena and Sterner, 2008*). The relationship between population and resources must be analyzed with caution because it is neither uni-directional nor linear. However, population pressure still remains a controversial issue (Erickson, 2006; Börjeson, 2007).
Environmental and socioeconomic contexts are crucial. Under extreme poverty, survival is the priority. Strategies to cope with land degradation include diversifying off-farm employment, managing fallow period and intensification of land use. Several soil and water conservation practices, and agro-ecological and agroforestry technologies have proven useful in reversing land degradation. But conservation practices are adopted if local communities have satisfied basic needs. Besides population pressure, other factors also need to be evaluated, such as the support of public institutions and sufficient cohesion of local communities, especially a strong community organization. The combination of these factors will result in the decision and the capacity of land users to invest time and resources in land conservation (Shiferaw and Holden, 1998).
Decision-making about land management and land degradation encompasses, among others, factors that may be biophysical (agro-ecological conditions, location), economic (access to credit and markets, non-farm incomes, availability of technologies), social (organizational structure, labor availability, land tenure), historical (environmental history and that of land tenure) and cultural (traditional knowledge, environmental awareness, and gender). Socioeconomic and cultural factors can be crucial to policy decision-making. For example, the attitude of local communities may be more critical than the availability of technology; the latter, although an important issue, may only be a tool to achieve goals in a social context. In turn, farmers’ goals are defined by the conditions of their households (Tiffen et al., 1994*; Swinton and Quiroz, 2003; Nyangena and Sterner, 2008).
Development on the basis of the intensification of agriculture is a controversial issue in both developed and developing countries. In the case of rural areas in developing countries intensification needs to be embedded in bottom-up land management programs. In this respect cultural differences can explain the existence of different perceptions about development and land management models. In Machakos, Kenya, drought, low literacy and low income have been addressed by agricultural strategies (Tiffen et al., 1994*), showing that under certain conditions, basically strong social organization, population pressure can promote the conservation of land resources and agricultural intensification. The population quintupled in the period of 1930 – 1990 and by 1990 “there was no more land to occupy” and the new generation had to resort to other income sources in addition to agricultural activities. The experience was successful, especially because of the strength of local institutions, which have been transformed to adapt to new conditions. However, those authors indicated that the experience might be hard to replicate elsewhere. Despite criticisms from several authors, the work of Tiffen et al. (1994) has led to a rethinking of approaches to deal with LD; it has identified the need to stop seeing farmers as victims of world forces (globalization), or as passive receptors of government actions, and instead to encourage them to use their potential and capital to develop sustainable agriculture.
The priorities of local communities regarding the uses of natural resources must be recognized in order to reach a consensus concerning feasible alternatives within their socioeconomic context. In order to move beyond the typical methods to assess and combat land degradation, it is important to include adequate tools to address the factors that determine the farmers’ attitudes to land conservation projects. Likewise, conservation actions need to be designed with consideration of short-term priorities for local people, in order to insure short-term economic benefits. Hence, resource conservation must incorporate actions that guarantee sufficient income for land users. This is likely to stimulate local people to adopt land conservation/restoration practices. Local communities should not be expected to simply adopt suggested practices; they may rather be supported to develop their own projects on the basis of their indicators and perception of land degradation, and their own survival priorities.