Degradation Of Land And Its Socio-Economic Consequences

 Dr. Shamsul Alam


Use of land resource currently faces several problems like declining soil fertility owing to land degradation and shrinking of net sown area that have important socio-economic consequences. 

Soil quality has been continuously declining in Bangladesh mainly owing to high population pressure on land, people tend to exploit the soils as much as possible rather than maintaining them in good quality. Bangladesh is predominantly a mono-crop (rice) agricultural country. Rice covers 76 percent of the total arable land. Higher techno-biological researches favour more intensive cultivation of rice crop in the country. This affects exhaustion of specific soil nutrients and makes the soil barren or low productive. 

Farmers in Bangladesh use fertilizer indiscriminately without adequate information concerning actual soil/plant requirements. Imbalance use of chemical fertilizers hinders plant nutrient uptake and thus affect not only yield level but inflicts detrimental effects on soil quality and texture. 

In our country not only the edible portion (grain) of crops is harvested but also the straw is collected for fuel or fodder. The stubble is grazed or uprooted for fuel. The result is that the soils are low in organic matter (in most soils less than 1.5%, where 3% is required for optimum plant growth) and in nutrients. With this changes in river courses, breaking of embankments roads, polders and bunds due to high flooding/human encroachment submerge the topsil by deposition of sandy over wash and make the soils barren or low productive. Extensive use of polymer/polypropylene bags and spreading of those through flowing waters to the fields also is becoming a long-term threat to land quality and soil productivity. Moderate to severe erosion is observed in the hill farming areas because of faulty management practices. Degradation of the soil resource is enormous because of the continuous removal of topsil and exposure of unstable sub soil to rain drop impact (hill and terrace soils represent 20% of the country’s soil resource and 8-10% of the cultivable land). Other natural hazards like salinity deteriorates soil fertility. This problem is more acute in Khulna, Satkhira and parts of Patuakhali districts. Exhaustive upstream water withdrawal for irrigation of Rabi crops make the salinity situation worse every year. Acid-rain as a consequence of extreme air pollution is also causing changes in chemical properties of soil and water. 

Contrary to the availability of more flood free areas (as a result of embankments and flood protection measures), development of arterial and feeder roads, growth centres and establishment of industrial estates accentuate re-settlement of households which make cultivable land area reduced in the country (around one percent each year). 

Total area cultivated decreased by about 12% from 8.2 million hectares in 1983/84 to 7.2 million hectares in 1996. On an average, 1 percent of the total cultivable land is going out of cultivation in the country for non-farms uses that have negative impacts on food supply and on agricultural growth. Consequently, there has been a significant decline in the average size of farm holding (per household) from 1.27 ha to presently 0.82 ha over the period. 

Over the years, cropping patterns have changed significantly due to changes in economic and non-economic factors. Economic factors for cropping pattern changes are; relative change in output prices, change in cost structure of production and increasing marketing accessibility of products. Non-economic factors responsible for cropping pattern changes are; land degradation, change in crop cultivars, and long-term change in climate pattern, advancement in technology of production, development of processing industries and changing soil characteristics in the country. It has been observed pattern has shifted towards high value crops like vegetables, soil seeds and fruits, and crops with advance technology of production (rice, potato and wheat). But with this, prospect of diversified agriculture is reduced affecting nutritional status of the populace. 

Impact of socio-economic consequences of land degradation and changes in land use pattern could be of different dimensions as of land degradation reduces soil fertility that in turn has negative trends in agricultural productivity. Yield increase of HYV (rices) have already been slowed down or stagnated. Prospect of expansion of hybrid rice is yet bleak. Crop production activities could be less profitable or more expensive to pursue, as profession. Marginal households are on pressure to leave agricultural sector. Out-migration from rural areas has enhanced. Congestion in urban areas has already been tremendous and unbearable. Congestion and overcrowding of population inflict multi-dimensional problems in urban areas including the law and order situation. 

Changes in cropping pattern may not be able to circumvent the declining soil quality in the long term. Changes in cropping pattern may have impacts on profitability for some crops in the short-term but total value of agricultural productivity may not be increased in the course of declining product prices and declining yield levels in the long-run. Declining cultivable areas with increasing demand for agricultural land create tensions among the farming communities with land ownership and unscrupulous little change. Intensifying land use may cause deforestation, fragmentation of ecosystems, blockaded of water streams, encouraging monocultures and excessive applications of agrochemicals. 

Unplanned re-settlement or new settlement on the agricultural lands accentuated severity of floods and waste of scarce land resources. Declining land quality/productivity reduced the quality of lives of the habitats on it on many counts and in interactive ways. Reducing biodiversity poses a threat to ecological balance. 

Immediate and planned steps are to be taken to halt land degradation process in the country with utmost urgency. Bangladesh Agricultural Research /Council (BARC) should come forward with the broad policy measures and prioritize research areas towards dealing with stopping land degradation process. Ministry of Agriculture through DAE (Department of Agricultural Extension) should augment the efforts and measures for crop cultivation diversification and extensive use of green manuares, Use of polymer and polypropylene bags need to be restricted and ultimately stopped in the country emphasising using bags/carriers of natural fibres, Air-pollution creating sources need (including motorised vehicals) to e identified and must be reduced/stopped. 

(The author is an Agricultural Economist and a Professor of Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh) 

Source: The Bangladesh Observer, June 10, 2001