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Monitoring the social impact of land degradation: Q&A on Argentina’s National Observatory of Land Degradation and Desertification

Photo: Frederico Agustín via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One of the key challenges facing climate researchers today is to better understand how biophysical and social systems are related. When there’s an extreme event, such as a flood, hurricane or drought, the effects on the local population are all too obvious. But beyond the headlines, what about the gradual, day-to-day effects of living with global change?

We sat down with Mora Castro, of the National Observatory of Land Degradation and Desertification (ONDTyD) in Argentina, to find out more about monitoring the social impact of land degradation – and what some of those impacts were.

The Observatory was created in 2011 and currently involves more than 30 institutions and 150 professionals all over Argentina, from across political, scientific, and technological sectors. Its main objective is to establish and maintain a national network of continuous biophysical and socio-economic monitoring and assessment of land degradation, in order to better inform decision-making and policy development on land-use planning and management.

Members of the Observatory have used an innovative participatory and holistic approach to develop a methodology for the national system of monitoring and assessment across local and national scales. A total of 15 pilot sites are currently monitoring land degradation and generating local information in almost all of Argentina’s ecoregions. In order to gather comparable data from these diverse regions, a minimum set of biophysical and socio-economic indicators were selected through a local and national participatory process. Each site also monitors indicators specific to local degradation processes and socio-economic impacts.

You’ve developed a methodology to assess and monitor the social impact of land degradation – can you tell me about that?

The socio-economic assessment and analysis are based on a Sustainable Livelihood Framework (SLF) (for more information on SLF see Dfid, 1999). The main concept is that a livelihood is considered sustainable when it can deal with and recover from ruptures and acute decreases in every component or type of capital considered (human, social, physical and infrastructure, financial and natural capital are considered in this case), without losing the capacities associated with those components – at the present time or in the future – and whilst maintaining the basis of their natural resources[i].

We’ve developed a mixed-methods methodology that combines statistical information from national population and agricultural censuses with local qualitative information collected through different tools, such as specific surveys of food producers and questionnaires for significant local institutions.

The concept is also known as the Pentagon Method, because it can be represented graphically as a pentagon shape with five axes, each corresponding to a component or type of capital that encompasses different topics related to livelihoods. In our case we selected the following:

For each of these axes, we’ve identified a series of indicators that allow us to analyze impacts over time and across the pilot sites. To give you a couple of examples, indicators for social capital include the percentage of households participating in Civil Society Organizations (CSO), and indicators for human capital include rates of children dropping out of primary school or presenting diseases.[ii]

In order to interpret the results, the Observatory uses a Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA) approach, which allows us to study land degradation complexities through the articulation of a huge volume of data of different nature. What also differs is the value that each pilot site assigns to a certain variable within a type of capital in terms of its relationship to land degradation. So this kind of analysis permits normalization of quantitative and qualitative data, its classification and weighting, in order to quantitatively express the importance of different elements that can impact local communities.

The MCA methodology is very useful for us because it establishes a common basis for data comparison once every pilot site has completed their data collection and processing stage. As the local communities being studied vary, we’ve developed different tools and common operational definitions and guidelines for fieldwork and for data management in order to collect, process and analyze all this information in a similar and thus reliable way across the 15 pilot sites. Another strong point is that MCA simplifies the communication of scientific findings in terms of what is important in this or that context, and how it affects other aspects of  social wellbeing.

What kind of social impacts does land degradation have for people and their livelihoods and wellbeing?

We’re just starting to make findings from our analysis. However, from the preliminary results in some of the pilot sites, population health seems to be the aspect that’s most directly related to land degradation, regardless of environmental region, population density, average level of education, or the percentage or type of producers. When the amount and variability of vegetation diminishes, or when the water quality declines, there is a direct epidemiological impact.

Another thing we can say is that almost none of the pilot sites demonstrate sufficient or efficient programmes to deal with local land degradation or improvements in sustainable land management. This directly affects local communities’ wellbeing and, especially, whether families decide to stay on the farms or migrate to cities. This is a huge wake-up call for policy-makers in Argentina and beyond: promoting sustainable management makes it possible for families to stay on their farms, doing jobs they generally know. Not doing so contributes to rural-urban migration and increases the vulnerable population of peri-urban areas.

Did you look at asking any questions about subjective wellbeing?

The fieldwork survey we’ve designed has around 75 questions, most of them descriptive, about issues such as producer’s background, features of the farm holding and household, dwelling, agricultural activities, producers’ associations, financial credits and subsidies and household incomes. There are three particular questions that aim at collecting subjective information: what the producers perceive as difficulties for their own economic activity, their own opinions of their household incomes and a section for observations (from both the producers and form the interviewer).

Besides the survey, there have been several local workshops at the pilot sites where producers and institutions discussed the advances of the research. Those occasions were also used to collect subjective information about the land degradation process in the pilot areas.

The project has a participatory approach to data collection and monitoring, whereby large networks are involved in monitoring. How does that work? Are there any challenges?

There are lots of challenges! The Observatory’s work is entirely based on preliminary research into local communities’ visions of land degradation conflicts. We used the famous “problem tree” method in every pilot site to try to find out what kind of issues the local producers and families saw as important. From there on, local families and institutions played a central role in gathering information, which is the basis for all our analysis. What’s more, all of the technical teams across the 15 sites are involved in the development of the methodology. The current indicators, database, fieldwork survey and other technical tools were developed with them, taking into consideration failures and successes.

The structure of the network involves collaboration across the pilot sites, but it’s not always necessary to go through the board or the central technical teams. This allows more fluid relations and exchanges among teams regarding difficulties, successes, obstacles and wise decisions. This particular crosscutting work has helped the pilot sites to move ahead with their activities and lightened the workload for the board and central technical teams (both the Socioeconomic Group and Biophysical Group). And we’re lucky to have a great general coordinator, supported by a group of assistants, who know every aspect of the Project and keep everyone updated quickly and efficiently!

The project is committed to public communication. What kind of things are you doing? Are they having effects outside of the immediately concerned community?

This is one of the next challenges: now that we have some preliminary results and a lot to say, it’s important that this information reaches different audiences.

Do you have any international collaborators? Could the observatory’s work be relevant outside of Argentina?

The Observatory is the “heir” of the Land Degradation and Assessment in Drylands (LADA) Project, and so it was born with international roots – the monitoring processes and results were being shared with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), since the Ministry of Environment is the focal point for the Convention.

The Observatory has also been awarded different funds and is related to other projects that share similar objectives, such as GEF Chaco. This is the result of great articulation work conducted by the technical representatives at the Ministry.

The methodology that the Observatory has developed has gained interest in environmental agencies in other countries, such as Cuba and Mexico, which is a big step towards a more homogenous way of measuring land degradation processes at a regional scale.

International partners are really important for the further development of the Observatory, not only in terms of broadening funds, but also for finding different places to test the methodology and to build capacities among other technical groups.

Do you make any recommendations based on what you’ve observed? If so, are they being taken up and used by decision makers? If this has not happened yet, is it something you hope to do in the future?

Definitely. All this effort in terms of gathering institutions, technical teams, methodologically innovations and interdisciplinary perspectives aims at making recommendations for a better policy-making on these topics.

And finally: What kind of transformations would you like to see in the world?

Social organizations stopping land degradation, and policy-makers realizing that they can efficiently promote sustainable land management through programmes and funds assigned to small and medium scale producers, increasing local markets, labour creation and food sovereignty. Not much to ask… right?

The National Observatory of Land Degradation and Desertification (ONDTyD) was created in 2011 by the former Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development (SAyDS) (now the Ministry); the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET); the Argentina Institute for Arid Zone Research (IADIZA); the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) and two national universities (Center for Surveying and Assessment of Agricultural and Natural Resources, University of Córdoba; and School of Agriculture, University of Buenos Aires).

For more information, see

[i] See Department for International Development (DFID), UK. (1999). World Bank (2007).
[ii] For the calculation method for each indicator, see


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