Examining Kenyan agriculture and poverty structure

September 12, 2002

ITHACA, N.Y. -- As Kenya's population grows, the available farmland dwindles and the environment is degraded, raising many questions: Are growers irreversibly mining the soil? Can poor agricultural management practices be blamed for decreasing crop yields and the exodus of people to cities? How can the economic and environmental deterioration be reversed?

To answer these and other questions about this East African country of 30.7 million people, the National Science Foundation has awarded $1.67 million to Cornell University over five years to examine the complex relationship between Kenyan small farmers, their communities and the land on which they depend for their livelihoods.

"We have people living at the edge," says Alice Pell, Cornell professor of animal science and the principal investigator on the project. About 90 percent of the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa, those in the bottom income level who earn less than a dollar a day, live in rural areas. They are primarily small farmers, but their land holdings are less than those of their parents because of population growth. Pressures to feed the burgeoning population have forced the abandonment of traditional fallow systems used to maintain soil fertility, which results in soil degradation, declines in crop productivity and increased poverty.

"Without soil remediation, the logical option for the next generation is urban migration, with its social and political costs," says Pell. "Even a small change in the amount of nutrients in the soil has a profound effect. It could affect how much money a farmer earns. If the farmer's income drops from a dollar a day to about 90 cents, that's a huge change in the farmer's livelihood."

Not only the causes of poverty but also the response of those ensnared by it will be an important focus of the research. "When households lack access to capital to finance productive investments, they cannot make investments in soil fertility that would lead to improvement in soil organic matter levels and nutrient availability," says Pell. Social and cultural factors also shape environmental management decisions, affecting the ability to sustain local food production, she explains. "Knowledge of how social structures and culture affects environmental stewardship is necessary if we are to understand the human response to natural events," she says.Other Cornell faculty on the project include: Susan Riha, the Charles L. Pack Research Professor of Forest Soils in the department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Johannes Lehmann, assistant professor of crop and soil science; Larry Blume, professor of economics; Chris Barrett, associate professor of applied economics and management; and Max Pfeffer, professor of rural sociology.

The Kenya project is part of the National Science Foundation's Biocomplexity in the Environment program, which is an effort to understand the dynamics between humanity and the surrounding natural resources. The Kenya Agriculture Research Institute and the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Nairobi also are participating in the study.

Cornell University

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