Assessing the sustainability of agricultural land in Botswana and Sierra Leone

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    Y. BIOT, M. SESSAY AND M. STOCKING School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, U K


    Land degradation processes, such as soil erosion, which threaten the sustainability of agricultural production have been studied for many years. While research progresses on the processes, little advance has been -ade on translating results into terms which can be used directly in the design of appropriate and economically justifiec lorms of soil conservation and land husbandry.

    Research by the authors has shown how soil erosion affects the potential of land to produce crops. Simple models have been developed which provide a first approximation of the impact of soil erosion on future production, to be used as a baseline against which the benefits of soil conservation can be compared. The concepts of soil life and residual suitability have been developed as a measure of the sustainability of the production system considered. In this paper a simple experimental technique to derive the future production and the residual suitability of land is proposed.

    The method is based on the principle of sequential testing and uses a simple graphical technique to translate information on production and erosion into a crop production forecast. The soil life or residual suifability of land is derived from the minimum allowable crop production which depends on socio-economic criteria. In case the minimum allowable production level cannot be reliably estimated, the concept of production half-life is introduced as a relative measure of sustainability. The method and its applications are illustrated using examples from Botswana and Sierra Leone.

    KEY WORDS Sustainable agricultural production Soil life Residual suitability Production half-life Modelling Economic evaluation


    We have the opportunity to reduce soil degradation much more effectively in the future than we have done in the past ...

    concluded Hudson (1988: 127) in a paper to a recent conference on soil conservation. How? By changing our approach to soil and water conservation from how to stop soil moving? to which improved farming systems meet the goals of the land users and how can they assure the continued use of that land? Soil conservation may then enter centrally into the realm of rural development.

    The foremost data requirement of this new approach to soil conservation is to know the degree and type of impact of soil degradation on the productive capacity of the land. If the cost of the loss of production can be quantified, soil conservationists might design appropriate and acceptable techniques, and land users and planners might better appreciate their importance (Moldenhauer, 1980). Estimates of future production are crucial in this debate.


    To date, reviews of the impact of erosion on crop production and soil productivity have, despite large numbers of experiments, provided little information enabling the assessment of the decline in production over time (Stocking, 1984; 1988). In the majority of cases, researchers have established the link between production losses and cumulative soil erosion either on artificially de-surfaced or naturally eroded sites. None of the research projects reviewed have as yet attempted to simultaneously measure rates of erosion and

    0898-581 2/89/O40263- 16 $08.00 0 1 9 8 9 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Received 19 November 1989 Revised 6 March 1990


    crop production, and it is impossible to use existing production/erosion relationships directly to forecast future production.

    Computer models such as EPIC (Williams, et aJ., 1984) have been developed to simulate future crop production given rates of erosion calculated using the Universal Soil LOSS Equation (USLE) (Wischmeier and Smith, 1965) and crop growth models. These models are based on the assumption that land use systems can reliably be condensed in a set of mathematical equations which, once suitably calibrated, can be used to simulate the behaviour of the system at any scale and moment in time. They demand substantial calibration and have been developed specifically for conditions of agricultural production in the USA.

    Both the crop growth and the erosion component of EPIC do not provide realistic forecasts of agricultural production levels and rates of soil erosion in most tropical regions. Moreover, the sophistication and data requirement are such that it will not be possible to use it to study the impact of land degradation on crop production in these environments for many years to come.

    There is thus a large gap between the demand for knowledge and usable techniques, and their provision by researchers. This paper attempts to redress this balance by presenting an alternative approach to forecasting which is based on a much simpler model of the land use system, and relationships between crop production, the rate of soil erosion and cumulative erosion which are established empirically for the area considered. The approach is based on the identification in the landscape of sites which are representative of future soil conditions. It enables rapid and relatively inexpensive assessments of future production to be made, and makes use of empirical evidence to assess both crop production and rates of erosion in the future instead of complex computer models.

    Evaluating production forecasts Once future production levels are predicted, two types of analysis can be proposed, depending on the time- spans considered:

    (1) Cost-benefit analysis (Bojo, 1986a, b; Dixon, et a/., 1986; Seckler, 1987) is used to compare the benefits of soil conservation with levels of earning achieved when letting the land degrade. This type of analysis is confined to short-term projections (typically 20 to 30 years).

    (2) The concepts of soil life (Elwell and Stocking, 1984) and residual suitability (Biot, 1988a) have been introduced as a measure of the time during which production can be maintained above a given minimum allowable level. In essence these measure the sustainability of the farming system considered over the long term.


    The basic information is derived from sites which are representative of different stages of the prevailing soil degradation process-a procedure referred to as sequential testing. From initial surveys of major soil types, soil characteristics such as texture and depth, their geomorphological relationships and degradation sequences are identified on a qualitative basis: e.g. if soil erosion is considered-deep, moderately deep, shallow. Alternatively, these different stages can be created artificially (Stocking, 1985). In the case of soil erosion this can be achieved by removing layers of topsoil-a process which is referred to as artificial de- surfacing. There is no guarantee, however, that the latter procedure produces soil conditions which are truly representative of the conditions which would have been achieved by the natural erosion process.

    For each stage on the degradation sequence, productive potential and present rate of degradation are measured. The exact methods of doing this depend on the farming system and processes involved, scale, data and time availability. In the case of rangeland, grass production is the key variable, while on arable land, economic yields need to be assessed. Where little time and few resources are available, one may resort to soil- derived productivity indices and empirical formulae (such as the USLE) for rates of erosion. Where there is less urgency, on-farm experiments and surveys are recommended for establishing rates of soil erosion and levels of crop yield for the different degradation stages.


    The difference between the proposed technique and existing erosion/productivity trials on soils of various depths (Engelstad, et al., 1961 and Stone, et al., 1985) is in:

    0 The selection of sampling sites on the basis of their representative value as stages of a given sequence. 0 The simultaneous measurement of both yields and rates of soil erosion (or any other process of land

    Given the rates of degradation for the different stages of the process, it is possible, using mathematical integration methods, to estimate the time taken for the soil to evolve from one stage to another. Thus soil conditions at any time in the future can be forecast. These condition forecasts are then translated into a production forecast using a simple graphical technique.

    degradation for that matter) on each site.


    The following two examples illustrate the application of the general methodology in widely differing farming systems and the use of different experimental techniques.

    Botswana The farming system considered in this example is a semi-nomadic grazing system (Ruthenberg, 1980) operating in a semiarid tree savanna. Since the beginning of the century livestock numbers have increased substantially, and the resilience of the ecosystem has been questioned (Arntzen and Veenendael, 1986). Abel, et al. (1987) have hypothesized that soil erosion is the main threat to the sustainability of this system. Biot (1988b; 1988c) has, using a modelling approach, estimated its residual suitability under present livestock densities.

    The data collected for the calculation of this residual suitability are reinterpreted in order to illustrate the proposed technique.

    Materials and methods. Following a reconnaissance soil and geomorphological survey of a pilot region in Central District (see Figure 1) representing the steepest