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close this book2020 Vision Focus 4 - Promoting Sustainable Development in Less-Favored Areas (IFPRI, 2000, 18 p.)
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View the documentBrief 1 of 9 - November 2000 - Overview
View the documentBrief 2 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 3 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Tropical Andes
View the documentBrief 4 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Southeast Asian Uplands
View the documentBrief 5 of 9 - November 2000 - Returns to Public Investment: Evidence from India and China
View the documentBrief 6 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for Semiarid South Asia
View the documentBrief 7 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 8 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for West Africa
View the documentBrief 9 of 9 - November 2000 - The Role of Agricultural Science

Brief 1 of 9 - November 2000 - Overview

John Pender and Peter Hazell

John Pender is a research fellow in and Peter Hazell is director of the Environment and Production Technology Division at IFPRI.

Poverty, low agricultural productivity, and natural resource degradation are severe interrelated problems in less-favored areas of the tropics. Less-favored areas include lands that have low agricultural potential because of limited and uncertain rainfall, poor soils, steep slopes, or other biophysical constraints, as well as areas that may have high agricultural potential but have limited access to infrastructure and markets, low population density, or other socioeconomic constraints (see figure). In other words, less-favored lands may be less favored either by nature or by man.

According to a recent study by the Technical Advisory Committee of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, nearly two-thirds of the rural population of developing countries - almost 1.8 billion people - lives in less-favored areas, including marginal agricultural areas, forest and woodland areas, and arid areas. These areas include most of the semiarid and arid tropics of Africa and South Asia, mountain areas in South America and Asia, much of the highlands of East and Central Africa, hillside areas in Central America and Southeast Asia, and large portions of the humid tropics of Africa and Latin America. The available evidence suggests that most of the rural poor in developing countries live in these less-favored areas. Low agricultural productivity and land degradation are severe in these areas. Cereal yields of less than one metric ton per hectare are common, and deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, and soil nutrient depletion are widespread.

Classification of Favored and Less-Favored Areas

The conventional wisdom in policy circles has said that strategies for development in developing countries should emphasize public investments in favored areas. Many experts have believed that returns to investment would be greatest in favored areas and that increased food production and rapid economic growth in these areas would ensure food security and allow people to migrate out of less-favored areas, reducing poverty and pressure on the resources in such areas.

This conventional wisdom is being increasingly challenged. Despite large investments in favored areas and rapid urbanization in most countries, rapid population growth continues in less-favored areas. Poverty and resource degradation have worsened in these areas, while investments in favored areas have faced diminishing returns and increased social and environmental problems. The threat of famine is severe in many less-favored areas, and resource degradation appears to be contributing to this threat.

Although less-favored areas often have an absolute disadvantage in producing many types of crops compared with favored areas (that is, productivity is lower than in favored areas), they usually have a comparative advantage in some type of agricultural production or in nonfarm activities (that is, production is profitable given alternative uses of the land and labor of people in these areas). The diversity of situations in less-favored areas can allow them to exploit their different comparative advantages, provided that necessary investments in infrastructure and institutions are made. Increasing evidence suggests that investments in less-favored areas can yield relatively high rates of economic return and significantly reduce poverty in some countries. Anecdotal evidence also suggests the possibility of reducing resource and environmental degradation alongside economic growth and poverty reduction. However. the evidence on such strategies is still very limited.

IFPRI commissioned this set of policy briefs to assess the potential of achieving sustainable development in less-favored areas and to suggest the technology and policy strategies needed to realize this potential. Although there are large gaps in knowledge about the underlying causes of the problems facing less-favored areas and the appropriate strategies to address them, several key lessons emerge from these assessments:

1. Less-favored areas offer opportunities for socially profitable investments. Brief 5 cites research showing high returns to various kinds of public investment in lower-potential areas of China and India (in many instances higher than returns to investments in favored areas), in terms of both economic growth and poverty reduction. Investments in agricultural research and development, education, roads, and irrigation had greater incremental impact in less-favored areas in these countries, in part because the opportunities for investment in these areas had been neglected.

2. The success of alternative investments in less-favored areas depends upon differences in comparative advantage across these diverse areas. Given the variety of situations in less-favored areas, no one-size-fits-all strategy is likely to succeed everywhere. Three factors are particularly important for determining comparative advantage: agricultural potential, access to markets and infrastructure, and population density. In less-favored areas having high agricultural potential but poor market access - as in much of humid West Africa, parts of the East African highlands, and the Southeast Asian uplands - high-value nonperishable perennial crops such as coffee, cocoa, or oil palm often have a comparative advantage. Areas with low crop production potential are likely to have comparative advantage in extensive livestock production, particularly if they are far from markets and not densely populated, as in much of semiarid West Africa and the Altiplano of the southern Andes. In remote areas where population densities are greater, mixed-crop livestock production is more important, even where crop production potential is low, as in parts of the East African highlands. Areas with low crop production potential but good access to markets - as in periurban areas of semi-arid India and other low-potential areas - are likely to have a greater comparative advantage in forestry, intensive livestock production, or nonfarm activities. Development strategies will be more successful if they recognize and build upon such comparative advantages.

3. Strategies for developing and disseminating technologies must take into account the special characteristics and demands of less-favored areas. A high degree of diversity in biophysical and socioeconomic conditions is one of the main challenges. Other challenges may include susceptibility to droughts, pests, diseases, temperature extremes, and other risks; the fragility of land and other resources; remoteness from markets and services; and the subsistence orientation of farmers in these areas. A technological strategy should therefore be participatory and demand driven, stimulating and building upon farmer innovation and adapting to local circumstances. Technologies that help reduce risks (by increasing tolerance to drought, pests, or frost, for example) and conserve and improve resources may be more effective than those that simply promote high yields in response to high levels of inputs.

4. Sustainable and profitable technologies are needed to conserve and efficiently use scarce water, control erosion, restore soil fertility, and increase the supply of useful bio-mass. Such technologies are often labor or land intensive (such as terrace building) and may be unattractive to farmers where labor costs are high or where land is scarce. Labor- or land-saving technologies such as improved fallows during a short rainy season or agroforestry on farm boundaries may have more potential. In areas with limited rainfall, scarcity of biomass and high demands for alternative uses of biomass (for fodder and fuel, for example) limit the potential of many organic approaches to land management. In such circumstances, technologies and policies for conserving water and profitably increasing the production of useful biomass (such as promotion of wood-lots) should have high priority.

5. Strategies for less-favored areas will be most effective if they are linked to the development pathways that have comparative advantage in particular circumstances. Small-scale irrigation development is likely to yield the highest returns in areas with good market access and otherwise suitable soil conditions, since this can enable high-value crop production as well as intensified food crop production. Road development is likely to have the highest returns in densely populated areas with good agricultural potential but limited market access, by enabling marketing of high-value commodities and inputs for these. Improved management institutions for common property resources such as community grazing lands or woodlots are critical in many less-favored areas, particularly low-potential areas with limited opportunity to increase crop productivity. Investments in education and training are also important, particularly in low-potential areas with limited market access, where emigration is likely to be an important element of people's livelihood strategies for the foreseeable future.

No single strategy will work in all less-favored areas. However, all effective strategies will require investments in physical, human, natural, or social capital. The key is to identify and implement the appropriate portfolio of such public and private investments for different circumstances in less-favored areas. Achieving this goal requires more than simply new technologies or policies. It requires responsive and effective institutions to mobilize such investments and to ensure accountability, efficient management, and equitable distribution of benefits. Progress is being made in this direction as a result of recent trends toward decentralization and improved governance in developing countries. Still, the challenges remain great, even if potentially profitable strategies are identified.