on the Ground
Resources: Now and for the Future
363 000 people were born
154 000 died
World population increased by 209 000
Annual world population increase:
2008 77 M, 2009 80 M, 2010 78 M, 2011 76
land? A challenge to official estimates
A series of estimates by
FAO and other international organizations have identified a 'land
balance', land that is cultivable but not presently cultivated,
for developing countries, of about 1600 million hectares. The
supposed existence of this spare land is widely quoted in forecasts
of capacity to reduce present hunger and food requirements of
future population increase.
This view has recently been
challenged. In an article Is
there really spare land? Anthony Young argues that official
figures, obtained by subtracting data on present cultivation from
estimates of cultivable land, greatly over-estimate the land balance.
The impression given by
current estimates, that a reserve of spare land exists, is misleading
to world leaders and policy makers. It reduces the urgency for
better funding of agricultural research, and more development
in the rural sector. Above all, it misleads those with the power
to influence policy over the urgency of stronger action to check
Basis of the challenge
What is this challenge based
upon? Primarily, personal observation in many developing countries.
Is there really a land balance (cultivable minus cultivated) of
about 50% in Vietnam, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia and Ethiopia? .
And what about the 80-90% land balances quoted for Tanzania, Sudan,
Madagascar, Zambia and Venezuela? There would certainly be an
outcry if the land balances of Malaysia and Venezuela, almost
entirely under rain forest, were cut down for farming.
If there is so much spare
land, why has cultivation so often been extended onto steep slopes
(e.g. Jamaica) or into semi-arid regions with high drought risk
(e.g. Kenya, the sahel zone of West Africa)? Why are farm sizes
so small, and why is poor land cropped continuously?
is cited as a test case. Average farm size there is now below
0.5 hectare. Under-nutrition is endemic. A recent field tour found
that in two thirds of the country there is virtually no spare
land to be seen, whilst in the Northern Region, land currently
being taken into cultivation is steeply sloping, and being farmed
in ways which are non-sustainable.
Reasons for the over-estimates
Four reasons for the incorrect
official estimates are given:
of cultivable land. The Soil Map of the World, used to
estimate cultivable land, ignores substantial inclusions of
hills, swamps, rocky land, etc.
of present cultivation. Data on land use are the least reliable
of international statistics. Governments often ignore illegal
cultivation, e.g. in forest reserves.
of land required for settlement and other non-rural uses.
to allow for forest, woodland and pasture on cultivable land.
A speculative adjustment
A speculative adjustment
to official figures is suggested, taking a hypothetical country
with a supposed gross land balance of 50%. Mean, minimum and maximum
adjustments are suggested. Taking 1000 ha as a basis, the mean
| Net balance
as % of original estimate of cultivable land
12% (range between min. and max. adjustments: 3-20%)
Thus, an original gross
land balance of 50% is reduced to a realistic area of between
3% and 20%.
Testing the challenge
A simple and direct means
to test this challenge is proposed: locate, and if possible map,
the supposed spare land. In outline, observers would go to the
regions of a country where spare land is believed to exist, and
ask to be shown it in the field. They would then determine:
land in fact cultivable, sustainable and without degradation?
Is it in
reality not yet cultivated?
Is it already
in use for other necessary purposes (e.g. strategic water catchments,
support for indigenous peoples)?
Research of this kind could
be carried out by consultants, visiting sample countries and working
with national land resource survey organizations. Still better,
any national organization (Soil Survey, Land Use Planning Department,
etc.) could directly undertake to estimate the available land
in their own country.
Your own experience
How does your experience
match up with official estimates? Look up the figures for countries
you know, and compare them your field knowledge. The current FAO
estimates can be found on TERRASTAT: select "Actual and potential
available arable land" and your region of interest; note
especially colum 7, "Percent of potential arable land actually
in use".. Comparison may be made with earlier estimates found
in World Agriculture: Towards 2010 (ed. N. Alexandratos,
Wiley for FAO), Table A.5, p.463.
* * * * *
The above argument was put
forward in outline in Chapter 13, Land, food, and people, of Land
Resources: Now and for the Future (see pp.240-249).