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Local Knowledge and Natural Resource Management in a Peasant Farming Community Facing Rapid Change: A Critical Examination

Jules R Siedenburg

QEH Working Papers from Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford

Abstract: Environmental degradation is a major global problem, and addressing it is a key Millennium Development Goal. Its impacts are not just environmental (e.g., species loss), but also economic (e.g., reduced agricultural productivity), with degradation increasingly cited as a key cause of rural poverty in the developing world. The degradation literature typically emphasises common property or 'open access' natural resources, and how perverse incentives or missing institutions lead optimising private actors to degrade them. By contrast, the present paper considers degradation occurring on private farms in peasant communities. This is a critical yet delicate issue, given the poverty of such areas and questions about the role of farmers in either degrading or regenerating rural lands The paper examines natural resource management by peasant farmers in rural Tanzania. Its key concern is how the local knowledge informing farmers' management decisions adapts to challenges associated with environmental degradation and market liberalisation. Given their poverty, this question could have direct implications for the capacity of households to successfully meet their livelihood needs. Based on fresh empirical data, the paper finds that differential farmer knowledge helps explain the large differences in how households and communities respond to the degradation challenge. The implication is that some farmers adapt more effectively to emerging challenges than others, despite all being rational, optimising agents who follow the management strategies they deem best. The paper thus provides a critique of local knowledge, implying that some farmers experience adaptation slippages while others race ahead with effective adaptations. The paper speaks to the chronic poverty that plagues many rural communities in the developing world. Specifically, it helps explain the failure of proven 'sustainable agriculture' technologies to disseminate readily beyond an initial group of early innovators, and suggests a means to help 'scale up' local successes. Its key policy implication is to inform improved capacity building for peasant communities.

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