Political Economy of Soil Erosion

Blaikie, Piers. 1985. The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. London: Longman. [Ch. 1-2]

Besides the uncertainties generated by scarce, long-term measurement and the difficulty of parsing out human impacts on environmental degradation, Piers Blaikie’s classic study on the political economy soil erosion focuses on a third problem: Degradation can be viewed in multiple ways and many of these ways carry implicit and unexamined political judgments. Blaikie sets out to make sense of all this regarding debates about soil erosion in poor countries. He positions soil erosion as an explicit political-economic and environmental concern in light of the social conflicts it generates. This nexus is what makes this text a seminal work in political ecology.

Once identified as a problem, soil erosion becomes an object of thought and state interventions and further politicized (e.g. state taking “a side” or “stance,” while often enlisting actors from various scales (2). Such problems are compounded by the fact that soil erosion is both a cause and an effect of the economic and power inequalities between those most affected by erosion and those in a position to do something about it (3).

Soil erosion has often been cast in a quintessentially colonial rubric: environmentally determined and caused by stubborn and overpopulated “natives” with dysfunctional cultures (4). The conservation programs of aid agencies have either reproduced this approach or compounded the problem through defunct designs (5). What these approaches often fail to take into account are the scalar relationalities of soil erosion—namely, that the source of the problem lie “outside” of the affected area. They also wrongly assume that the state is a neutral actor, and they fail to anticipate that any conservation policy has winners and losers.

Along with a “bottom-up” approach beginning with the household, Blaikie suggests an approach that is both “place-based” and “non-place-based” to ensure that multiscalar political-economic and ecological dynamics can be fully taken into account. Blaikie compares soil conservation and family planning programs to illustrate his plans. And he moves on from there to a more technical examination of “program” implementation, ending with an explicit political economic study of surplus extraction and land-use. The major dynamics of property relations he identifies relate to the marginalization, proletarianization, and reincorporation of land users. Above all, he sees soil erosion as simultaneously a cause, symptom, and result of underdevelopment.

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