16 February 2007


Land degradation - especially in dryland regions - is one of the most significant environmental challenges facing the world today. Whether trade helps or hinders the struggle against this process is a controversial question.

Arguably, it is also one which has no easy answer. The impact of trade on the sustainable management of land depends on a whole host of factors: the nature of the product being traded; the volume of production and trade; the structure of the producing country's economy and the degree to which this is integrated with the global economy as a whole; and the nature of the regulatory environment at national, regional and international levels.

Despite its prevalence worldwide, and its intimate relationship with poverty and deprivation in both rich and poor countries, land degradation to date has lacked the attention required to propel it up the international political agenda. It is similarly conspicuous by its absence in the Doha Round of talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) - not to mention in other regional or bilateral trade deals.

This is despite the fact that WTO negotiations on a broad sweep of issues - from trade in goods, to services, to rules on intellectual property or agriculture - could have wide-spread implications for the future sustainable management of land around the globe.

In agriculture alone, the reduction of developing country tariff barriers risks exposing small-scale farmers to a flood of subsidised cut-price imports, potentially pushing them to discard traditional land management practices simply in order to survive.

At the same time, because the hefty subsidies disbursed by developed country treasuries are so often linked to production levels, these payments continue to provide incentives for intensive industrialised farming. Both small-scale and export-oriented farmers in developing countries are therefore often forced to compete with highly-mechanised farming in rich countries, sometimes with disastrous long-term consequences for the soil on which they depend.

The example of cotton illustrates the point well. In 2003, the US provided cotton subsidies worth USD2.4 billion to its 28,000 producers: this amount is more than the entire GDP of Burkina Faso, a country where more than two million people depend on cotton production to make a living, in a fragile dryland ecosystem.

Recent initiatives to explore alternative export products from dryland regions may represent a possible way out for developing countries. Unexpectedly, these zones are often characterised by remarkable levels of biological diversity, which, some experts argue, represent a vast untapped resource that could benefit local inhabitants. Plants with medicinal properties, fruit collected from the wild, or wool, meat and fibre could be collected or harvested, and then sold abroad.

Labelling and certification schemes could constitute an important tool for expanding market access for such products - along the lines of similar models for 'fair trade' or organic goods. Challenges, however, include the lack of any credible intergovernmental agency establishing and monitoring verifiable standards for sustainable land management, and consumer confusion and scepticism in the face of a bewildering proliferation of voluntary private initiatives.

Other concerns include the fact that large-scale trade in such products may simply replicate some of the environmental challenges inherent in other export sectors, and the inevitable reality that tackling land degradation in many dryland countries will, of necessity, require some kind of attention to products such as cotton which are at present heavily-traded.

In any case, local communities often face an uphill battle in gaining recognition for their knowledge and resources in a global commercial environment which is dominated by multinational pharmaceutical and agrochemical giants. While international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity stipulate that benefits from the use of genetic resources must be shared in a fair and equitable way, the relationship between this treaty and WTO rules on 'intellectual property' remains controversial. Finally, other important agreements - such as the FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture - underscore the need for countries to share genetic resources freely, in order to safeguard the long-term sustainability of global agriculture.

If trade is to promote, rather than undermine, sustainable solutions to the problem of land degradation, decision-makers and politicians will need to accord the subject a far higher level of importance at the national, regional and global level. While voluntary initiatives are important, a lasting solution can only be established as part of a coherent public policy framework that is agreed on and implemented at all these three levels. Only under these circumstances will trade finally become part of the solution.

By Jonathan Hepburn, Programme Officer - Agriculture, ICTSD.

Additional resources

Trade and sustainable land management was discussed at a recent ICTSD dialogue. For further information on the meeting and ICTSD's work on sustainable land management, including access to a comprehensive background document, visit

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