This summer, I completed with a graduate student of mine a major report for the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative, which is entitled Land Degradation, Less Favored Lands and the Rural Poor: A Spatial and Economic Analysis. This study had three objectives:
- To determine the spatial distribution of global rural populations on less favoured agricultural land and in less favoured agricultural areas from 2000 to 2010;
- To determine the spatial distribution of global rural populations on degrading and improving agricultural land from 2000 to 2010;
- To analyse how these spatial distributions affect poverty in developing countries.
The table below summarizes our findings over 2000 to 2010 for the distribution of rural populations on less favoured agricultural land (LFAL), in less favoured agricultural areas (LFAA), degrading agricultural land and improving agricultural land.
A sizable proportion of the rural population in developing countries is concentrated on LFAL, which are subject to low productivity and degradation due to steep slopes, poor soil quality or limited rainfall. In 2000, over 1.3 billion rural people in developing countries, representing almost 36 per cent of the rural population, were located on these lands, and their numbers increased to 1.5 billion in 2010 (35% of the rural population).
Summary of spatial distribution of global rural population, 2000 to 2010
Developing countries are all low and middle-income economies with 2012 per capita income of US$12,615 or less (World Bank 2014).
A large segment of the rural population is also located in LFAA, which include LFAL plus favourable land that is remote, due to long distances to markets and limited access to infrastructure. In 2000, nearly 1.4 billion people (37% of the rural population) lived in LFAA in developing countries, increasing to nearly 1.6 billion (still 37% of the rural population) in 2010.
Perhaps most critical may be the rural population located on LFAL that are also remote due to poor access to infrastructure and markets. In 2000, this population in developing countries consisted of 288 million people. Although they comprised less than 8% of the rural population, they accounted for 22% of the rural population on LFAL. By 2010, the rural population on remote LFAL had increased to 323 million people.
It was also concluded that large numbers of the rural population in developing countries are located on agricultural land that has been degrading over 1981 to 2000. In 2000, nearly 1.3 billion people were located on all degrading agricultural land (32% of the rural population), which included 202 million persons without market access (around 6% of the rural population). By 2010, over 1.4 billion people were located on degrading agricultural land (34% of the rural population), which included 230 million people in remote areas (over five% of the rural population).
In addition, large segments of the rural population in developing countries are located on agricultural land that has been improving in terms of net primary productivity over 1981-2000. In 2000, there were 1.3 billion people on improving agricultural land, or 36% of the rural population. They included 155 million people without market access, or 4% of the rural population. By 2010, there were over 1.5 billion people on improving agricultural land in developing countries, and the numbers in remote areas increased to 169 million people.
Our poverty analysis found no evidence of a direct impact on poverty changes from the spatial distribution of rural populations on LFAL, LFAA or degrading and improving agricultural land, but there is a significant indirect impact of these distributions on the poverty-reducing effects of income growth.
Across a wide range of developing countries, as more rural people are located on LFAL, LFAA and degrading agricultural land, the result is an increase in the overall poverty rate. However, if the share of the rural population on improving agricultural land rises, then poverty is reduced. The most critical population groups appear to be rural populations on less favored and degrading agricultural land without market access. If there is a substantial reduction in the share of the rural population on remote LFAL and degrading agricultural land, then poverty rates could fall across a wide range of developing countries.
These results lend credence to recent concerns about the prevalence of geographical poverty traps in the rural areas of developing countries. As the 2008 World Bank Development Report (p. 49) has pointed out, “in such a case, reducing rural poverty requires either a large-scale regional approach or assisting the exit of populations.” It may be that both strategies will be required to alleviate the problem of the concentration of rural populations on LFAL, in LFAA, and on degrading agricultural lands and less favoured agricultural areas, which appear to be a major obstacle to the poverty-reducing effect of overall income growth in developing countries. In particular, our results suggest that the most critical and vulnerable rural population group are those located on LFAL and degrading agricultural lands that are also remote from markets. It is these segments of the rural population that should be the main target of any strategy aimed at encouraging out-migration while investing in improving the livelihoods of those who remain in such areas.
As our study indicates, currently just about the same number of rural people in developing countries (1.4 billion) are on degrading agricultural land as are on improving agricultural land (1.5 billion). Both groups account for approximately one third (around 34% and 36%, respectively) of the rural population. These results suggest that substantial poverty reduction could occur in developing countries if more of the rural population farmed improving as opposed to degrading agricultural land. Targeting such rural populations in developing countries to overcome biophysical constraints to agriculture and limited market access and infrastructure must be an urgent priority.
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