Broadening land management options for improved economic sustainability across Central Asia: A synthesis of national studies
Land degradation is a pressing concern that reaches across all republics of Central Asia and is increasingly affecting the economy and quality of life in each. The resulting loss of arable land particularly affects the rural poor, who depend directly on what the land can provide for their very survival and livelihoods. The breakup of the Soviet Union led to mass de-collectivisation of agricultural frameworks across Central Asia, with formerly centralised land management regimes dissolved. The reorganisation of boundaries and priorities quickly led to a conversion of natural landscapes and traditional fallows to agricultural and industrial landscapes dominated by monocrops, water mismanagement, and a net rise in livestock that now graze in the same pastures year-round, rather than traditional nomadic pastoralism on seasonal pastures. Induced by the establishment of land management planning that understandably focused on economic growth but lacked long-term, sustainable strategies, the land is now becoming dangerously impoverished under ever-growing demands. Of the nearly 400 million hectares in the region, two-thirds are drylands with extreme biophysical constraints of arid and continental climates, vulnerable to even the slightest pressures beyond their capacity and which in turn affect local populations significantly. Each country faces unique challenges related to their landscape and agricultural demands, but across the board there are widespread losses of fertile topsoil and nutrients necessary for growth, declining productivity of crops and pastures, losses of biodiversity and habitats, increasing salinisation and deforestation, and increasing weed infestation in rangelands. Estimates are imprecise due to a lack of research to date, but degradation is observed to be extensive, ranging from 4-10 per cent of cropped land, 27-68 per cent of pasture land and 1-8 per cent of forested land, in total representing 40-100 per cent of land degraded in each country. In Kazakhstan, 48 million hectares of land are now degraded due to land conversions, and in Kyrgyzstan over 30 per cent of all highland pastures are degraded. Tajikistan saw an estimated loss in GDP of 7.8 per cent (USD 5.6 billion) in 2010 as a direct result of land degradation. In Turkmenistan, 70 per cent of all pasture lands are degraded and in Uzbekistan, over half of the irrigated landscapes suffer from salinisation due to improper management. This is a growing issue in need of addressing, with immediate action at governmental levels to establish long-term sustainable land management strategies for the well-being of their economy and people. Part of these strategies necessarily includes understanding the biophysical aspect – the science – behind land use changes. However, for decisionmakers, there is also a need to understand the economic outcomes of land management planning, in order to make choices that optimally reflect the most beneficial scenario both economically and environmentally. It is on this basis that in 2015, the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative supported the development of a regional Central Asia study, with case studies in each country in identified ecosystems. National-level researchers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were supported in the undertaking of cost-benefit analyses for current land management scenarios, as well as feasible alternative scenarios that integrated sustainable land management, to determine economically viable choices for sustainable land management planning. Specific ecosystems were selected to cover a range of landscapes across the region, so that the countries could engage in knowledge exchange and sharing of best practices, including high mountain pastures (Kyrgyzstan), foothill pastures (Tajikistan), forests (Kazakhstan), lowland pastures (Turkmenistan), and irrigated agriculture (Uzbekistan). These analyses moved beyond the market value for crops that normally act as an indicator for land value. They included a range of ecosystem services benefits, from carbon storage and sequestration to nutrient provision and cycling, which fall into four categories as part of an attempt to measure total economic value of land. While not valued directly in market prices, these values (and the loss of them) do eventually factor into future economic losses or benefits, depending on their maintenance and use. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, there are net benefits when carbon value is considered explicitly, but the current economic incentives for land managers do not encourage this. In Tajikistan, increasing agricultural productivity leads to improved livelihoods, while incurring only minor economic losses from managing pasture lands in a way that prevents emergency situations. Total economic valuation is becoming increasingly used in international arenas to enhance understandings of the benefits of land and landbased ecosystems. They factor into international agreements and binding UN conventions, and can help countries meet targets such as those outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, ratified in New York in 2015, particularly Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. These cost-benefit analyses also help identify how to share benefits so that land users like farmers and herders who can directly support sustainable land management and thus create economic benefits, can reap rewards that are otherwise distributed throughout the rest of society. For instance, efforts to reduce deforestation can contribute directly to carbon sequestration and thus play a role in mitigating climate change – benefits which do not necessarily accrue directly to farmers, and of which other members of society benefit from. Rewarding sustainable land management practices through the provision of these economic incentives is a powerful tool in establishing sustainable land management, which is sorely needed in light of the severe degradation and subsequent economic and environmental losses faced across the Central Asian republics. This regional report presents the findings of all five country-level research reports, following the outline of the ELD Initiative’s 6+1 step approach. Unique characteristics and findings from each country, alongside shared challenges and concerns uncovered throughout the project are put forward. Finally, the report concludes with a summary of recommendations borne out of the research, and intended to support policy-/decision-makers in developing informed policies for sustainable land management. Beyond understanding the economic drivers of sustainable land management, these decisions will also need to address the lack of data, research support, and institutional capacity, lack of intersectoral coordination and regional cooperation at the political level, as well as the need to empower the ministries responsible for land use management, which currently lack the necessary power and influence. In doing so, the Central Asian republics can root their future in the sustainable productivity of their shared landscapes, stabilise food, water, and energy security, and move towards an enhanced future for the health of their people, economy, and environment.