Causes of Land Degradation

Land degradation is a widespread phenomenon in the Pamir-Alai Mountains, especially affecting forestland, dwarf-shrub vegetation, pasture and arable land. To formulate integral and effective mitigation approaches both the direct and root causes of degradation have to be properly understood.

A variety of natural factors, related to the harsh bio-physical environment within the High Pamir and PamirAlaiMountains increase the risk of human induced land degradation occurring, and reduce the potential for recovery through natural processes. Steep slopes, shallow soils, and large areas of bare rock, increase the risk of water erosion during seasonal rain storm events of high intensity. Strong winds combined with a semi-arid to arid climate increase the risk of wind erosion when dry soil is exposed. Geological instability, periodic intensive seismic activity and unconsolidated materials on steep valley sides, all increase the risk of erosion by mass wasting (land slides, mud and debris flows). Low and erratically distributed seasonal precipitation, and cold temperatures, makes the vegetation of the mountain ecosystems particularly susceptible to degradation and slow to recover from improper land use interventions. A high rate of natural ‘geologic’ erosion is a major contributory factor to the high sediment loads in many of the region's  rivers.

Various types of human activity can be identified as the direct causes of land degradation within the High Pamir and Pamir Alai Mountains, the most important are believed to be:

  • over reliance on fuelwood, shrubs, dung and peat to meet household energy needs;

  • poor pasture management, in particular the overgrazing of pasture areas close to the village;

  • poor soil and water management in plots used for irrigated and rainfed crop production;

  • poor construction and maintenance of irrigation systems, especially distribution canals located on steep, and unstable slopes; and

  • poorly regulated hunting, combined with grazing competition and habitat destruction impacting negatively on wildlife numbers.

The regional root causes of land degradation, or the underlying reasons for the above direct causes, can be found within the wider social, cultural, economic, policy and legislative environment in which the farmers, herders and forest users operate. Tackling the direct causes requires an understanding of the root causes, as the project will need to address these through appropriate corrective and mitigative measures, before improved land management practices can be adopted at the field level, and degraded ecosystems recover. The following are believed to be some of the key root causes:

  • active promotion of settlement and population growth in the Soviet era (beyond the carrying capacity of the natural resources) to increase the human presence in a strategically important border area;

  • lack of adequate and affordable alternative energy supplies has forced people to rely on locally available biomass fuels (firewood, shrubs, peat and dung) for cooking and heating leading to over harvesting of woody plants, 'mining' of valley floor marshes for peat, and insufficient manure for fertilizing the crop lands;

  • collectivization of agriculture during the Soviet era, when rural people employed as workers on state farms, lost their previous indigenous knowledge on how to manage mountain ecosystems as part of traditional natural resource based livelihood strategies;

  • loss of state subsidized goods and services, and increased unemployment, following the change from a centrally planned economy to a market economy, causing a sharp decline in people's standard of living and a return to subsistence-oriented agriculture with the emphasis on maximizing short term returns at the expense of long-term sustainability;

  • poor communications infrastructure (roads, phone network etc) increases the costs of external farm inputs, makes marketing surplus produce expensive, limits the scope for cash crop production to non-perishable products, and lack of phones hinders access to market information;

  • civil war in Tajikistan, from 1992 to the signing of the peace treaty in June 1997, led to increasing pressure on the region's natural resources as refugees, fleeing from the fighting in adjacent areas of the country, moved into the relative safety of the Tajik Pamirs;

  • central and local (Oblast) level government technical agencies have limited financial and trained manpower capacity, which restricts their ability to provide effective advisory support services (research, extension and training) to rural land users, particularly with regard to the control and management of land degradation, and protection of ecosystem resources;

  • conflicting mandates and contradictory policies amongst the institutional support services have led to gaps and contradictions in field level efforts to combat land degradation and sustainably manage ecosystem resources;

  • inadequate policies and legislation for the sustainable management of mountain ecosystems with extensive gaps, an absence of key elements required to address the specific ecological and land management problems of mountain ecosystems, and an inability to enforce existing laws and regulations;

  • undervaluing of the region's natural resources, notably water, pasture, forest and wildlife products, has failed to encourage sustainable land management;

  • trans-boundary trade, market opportunities and information exchange, have been hindered by customs and military regulations, in part a legacy of the former geo-strategic importance of the region to the USSR, and part due to more recent political sensitivities;

  • given that all land resources are legally the property of the state, unclear private user rights for individual farm plots, and de facto common property resources (eg. pastures, wildlife, woodlands), encourages short term resource exploitation rather than long term conservation.

Designing appropriate strategies and approaches to mitigate the causes and impacts of land degradation, however, requires an understanding not only of the factors that give rise to land degradation and their interactive effects but also of the perceptions of different stakeholders thereof. In this regard, the participatory participatory land degradation assessment survey conducted by NCCR North-South in Gorno Badakhshan, Tajikistan which provides a ranking of the factors contributing to land degradation according to different stakeholder groups, constitutes a useful basis for moving from research on to development of promising responses to the problem of land degradation.