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The case against direct incentives and the search for alternative approaches to better land management in Central America

Hellin, J., Schrader, K.
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2003 v.99 no.1-3 pp. 61-81
Chrysopogon zizanioides, agricultural products, crop yield, decision making, farmers, issues and policy, land management, prices, soil erosion, soil quality, soil water, water conservation, Central America
Land shortages are forcing smallholder farmers to cultivate steeplands. Resulting accelerated soil erosion is being addressed by the promotion of soil and water conservation (SWC) technologies, such as cross-slope barriers. These are designed to reduce soil and water loss and increase productivity. Farmer adoption rates, however, are low and many development organisations have reverted to using direct incentives, such as cash payments and food-for-work, to attract participating farmers. Research in Central America shows that whilst these incentives stimulate implementation of SWC technologies, many of the farmers abandon the technologies once the direct incentives are withdrawn. Field research from 1996 to 1998, involving farmed test plots on slopes greater than 33° sought to test a priori assumptions about the impact on soil loss and maize production following adoption of SWC technologies. Research demonstrates that at least one typical SWC technology-live barriers of Vetiveria zizanioides (vetiver grass)-has little or no impact on reducing soil loss or contributing to increased maize yields. This explains why, in the absence of direct incentives, few farmers adopt official recommendations: farmers see little benefit from their investment in the implementation and maintenance of SWC technologies. However, there are major off- and on-farm benefits to reduced soil loss and the research suggests that these benefits can be attained without the use of direct incentives, which are neither sustainable nor contribute to farmer empowerment. An alternative approach is to promote strategies that seek to combine farmers' concerns about productivity with conservationists’ concerns about reducing soil erosion, often via soil cover management and an improvement in soil quality. The alternative approach poses a challenge to development practitioners, politicians, and society in general. Firstly, a new professionalism is needed in which the interests of farmers are put first and where farmers' active participation in decision-making is encouraged. Secondly, farmers are more likely to practice better land management if they have secure access to land and receive favourable prices for agricultural products. These so-called indirect incentives are only likely to come about in the context of an enabling policy environment, created, in turn, by pressure from public and private institutions.