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  • 3 myths in development economics

    - Agriculture expert Leo Stroosnijder uncovers 3 myths related to land degradation and development. In his farewell speech at Wageningen University, Stroosnijder calls on researchers to question assumptions like irrationality of African farmers.

    After 45 years of research at Wageningen University, Prof. Leo Stroosnijder is taking stock of the facts and fables surrounding his field. His specialist area explores the erosion of agricultural land, soil and water management and the role played by millions of smallholders (often women) in developing countries.

    The first myth to be upturned relates to the lack of rational decisions made by African farmers. According to the departing professor, the neoclassical economics of the free market, rational decision-making and maximum profit are impractical in developing countries. Instead, so-called cultural economics state that travelling to family in times of drought, for example, is more profitable than taking conservation measures, partly because drought is often very localised (within 20 km). Forging and strengthening relations provides greater food security than investing in anti-drought measures. The accusations of a lack of market focus often aimed at African farmers are also based on myths, says Prof. Stroosnijder. Restricted access to the market is what curbs farmers in production. In order to increase production, loans are needed for investment. But in countries like Benin, for example, the interest rate is 100 % and so the benefits of extra production are immediately swallowed up by interest payments, resulting in a debt crisis. 

    Land degradation no imminent threat to food security

    There is another widely-held belief that sustainable development can only be achieved if all farmers participate fully. The so-called participative approach in development aid cooperation is very popular, but interviewers seldom hear an 'honest' answer to their questions. More frequently, the farmer being interviewed gives the answer he thinks the interviewer wants to hear. The gap between illiterate smallholders and better-educated third parties is often far too wide.

    A number of myths also exist in the area of soil-protection measures, continues Prof. Stroosnijder. Land degradation, for example, is thought to be a threat to food security. Prof. Stroosnijder does not believe in this doom scenario. The myth dates back to 1995, when it was reported that agricultural production would drop by 8% per year, leading to a current production level of just 20%. This assertion could not have been further from the truth, even though the FAO still claims that 'urgent steps need to be taken'. 

    The following phrase crops up frequently in all kinds of research grant applications: 'proven changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change'. However, analysis of long series of rainfall measurements in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Benin show no significant changes in rainfall, says Stroosnijder. "So it's a myth. The world is not being jeopardised by land degradation or changes in rainfall. A change in land usage and land quality is often referred to as land degradation, but land development would probably be a better word." 

    Human factor omitted in models

    Stroosnijder also quashes the fable of the beneficial effects of a large-scale approach to land degradation if a small-scale approach fails to achieve the desired results. This is a direct reference to plans to construct an 8,000 km-long and 40 km-wide green belt in the Sahel in an attempt to stop the desertification of the area. "Doomed before it even starts", is his opinion. This zone naturally moves hundreds of kilometres in a north/south direction in line with consecutive years of heavy rainfall or drought.

    The professor goes a step further in busting the final category of myths: research models. Although there are certainly a number of basic questions for soil physics, there is "no need to know more physical details, as it is by no means certain that this will advance our applied field of study", says Prof. Stroosnijder. "So the idea that we can generate a perfect picture of land degradation is simply another myth. Models can never be more than part of reality, and can never be of better quality than the data entered to compile them. It is the human factor that is missing in models."