How do farmers perceive soil erosion?

A farmer in Pochampally (Image:Saurabh Chatterjee, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A farmer in Pochampally (Image:Saurabh Chatterjee, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Regionally and globally, soil erosion is a major contributor to total land degradation. Its impact is more pronounced in rainfed areas and it is a major threat to agriculture in India, with a significant economic cost amounting to about 0.35% of GDP in 2014-15 as per estimates by TERI (2018).

Continuous soil erosion diminishes land productivity, in turn threatening livelihoods, particularly in rainfed areas.

A study -“Farmer’s perception on soil erosion in rainfed watershed areas of Telangana, India” by Dayakar Peddi and Kavi Kumar from the Madras School of Economics investigates this issue. Based on a detailed survey of 400 households in two rainfed sub-watershed areas in Siddipet district in Telangana, the study looks at how farmers perceive the severity of soil erosion and the factors influencing these perceptions.

Soil erosion is quite high in the state of Telangana, with about 26 percent of cropland degraded in 2011-13. The area is highly vulnerable to drought, with an annual average rainfall of 650 mm. The area falls under the Godavari river basin with low and moderate levels of soil erosion assessed through satellite data (Bhuvan & Department of Land Resources, 2017).Biophysical, topographical and hydrological conditions are broadly similar among selected villages.

6 of the 12 villages chosen under the study are part of the Integrated Watershed Management Program (IWMP)through which numerous activities are undertaken to restore the ecological balance by harnessing, conserving, and developing degraded natural sources such as soil, vegetation cover and water. The remaining 6 villages are not covered by the IWMP programme.

Need for a bottom-up process

In India, information about land degradation and soil erosion is generated typically through top-down processes, whereas farmers have considerable knowledge to identify and classify soil erosion severity on their plots. Land management and conservation measures undertaken by farmers depend on their understanding of the extent of erosion; for effective planning towards soil conservation it is thus imperative that indigenous knowledge and the ground experience of farmers be given its due importance.

The present study aims to help in formulating effective policies to prevent soil erosion particularly in rain-fed areas of India, and focuses on two objectives:

  • to assess whether farmers’ perception of soil erosion matches with other objective measures; and
  • to examine the factors that shape farmers’ perceptions of soil erosion, which in turn influence soil conservation measures they tend to undertake.

Traditional practices related to soil and water conservation

The selected villages in the study are dominated with red loamy, red sand loamy, saline and black soils. Paddy, maize, cotton, red gram and vegetables are major crops cultivated in the area. Soil erosion leads to nutrient loss, which ultimately reduces agriculture productivity and yield. Therefore, farmers traditionally practice soil and water conservation measures to control their perceived level of soil erosion.

Field level observations reveal that farmers adopt counter ploughing, grass bund, soil bund, drainage ditch, silt application and plantation to prevent soil erosion.  

The determinants of the perception of farmers, of the severity of plot-level soil erosion were analysed using qualitative response statistical models. Farmers rated the perceived level of severity of soil erosion of their plot on a scale that took different discrete ordinal values. In the present case, farmers were asked to answer two questions: (a) whether they perceived a soil erosion problem in past five years, and if yes, (b) rate the extent of soil erosion problem along the scale: very low, low, medium, high and very high. These ratings were then converted into a numeric score, from 1 (very low) to 5 (very high).

Apart from biophysical aspects, the study also considered socioeconomic, demographic and institutional variables. The present study used the perceived level of soil erosion as the dependent variable, while explanatory variables included:

  • plot-level characteristics such as area of the plot, total area owned, soil slope, soil depth, type of soil, and crop intensity (i.e. ratio of grass cropped area to net cropped area);
  • socioeconomic characteristics including age of household head, sex of household head, formal years of education of the household head, source of irrigation, and social status;
  • connectivity factors including distance to the dwelling, road connectivity, and distance between the plot and the market, and
  • village level characteristics such as percentage of pastures in the total village area, percentage of current fallow land to the total village area, and annual total rainfall received by the village.

Farmers’ perceptions of soil erosion severity

Farmers’ perception of the severity of soil erosion differed significantly across the survey villages. Across all the villages, around 21 percent of farmers perceived soil erosion severity to be very low, whereas a little over 10 percent of the farmers perceived the severity of soil erosion as high and very high.Almost equal percentages of farmers (about 33 percent) perceived soil erosion severity as either low or medium.

Close to 50 percent of farmers from IWMP villages perceived the soil erosion severity on their plots to be either medium, high, orvery high, whereas only 39.5 percent of farmers from non-IWMP villages reported the soil erosion severity on their plots in these categories.

The present analysis based on the information on whether the plot had irrigation facilities or not, argues that farmers perceived lower soil erosion severity when there was irrigation. It is possible that plots having access to irrigation facilities are also those where soil is conserved more; hence leading to lower perceptions of soil erosion severity among farmers.  

Farmers from villages that received IWMP intervention have shown greater inclination to undertake land degradation prevention measures on their plots. Such plot level soil conservation measures are often considered as supplemental to the measures implemented on common and private lands by the government and non-government agencies under the IWMP programme.

Farmers belonging to villages where IWMP is implemented, have undertaken more number of soil conservation measures than their counterparts in villages not covered by IWMP.

A larger percentage of farmers in watershed covered villages have undertaken more than three soil conservation measures compared to the farmers in the non-watershed implemented villages, suggesting farmers have more awareness and complementarity between farm level soil conservation measures and the sub-watershed level interventions to prevent soil erosion. While formulating policies to address the soil erosion problem in developing countries, the integration of local traditional knowledge in to SWC planning provides scope to overcome the behavioural constraints faced while advocating top-down SWC measures.

The study argues that farmers’ expertise is important while assessing soil erosion severity. The farmer‘s knowledge of the plot level soil erosion could complement the assessments made through secondary sources. The study findings further highlight the importance of using participatory approaches when working to reduce soil erosion.

The study findings suggest that farmer‘s perception of soil erosion severity corresponds well with expectations of soil erosion determined by site specific factors such as slope of the plot, soil depth, soil texture, road connectivity, irrigation, crop intensity, and type of crops. The findings from the study also corroborate several empirical studies from different parts of the world.

Post By: Amita Bhaduri