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Credit University of Exeter

One probable cause of the problem is overgrazing by cattle 

Psychologists target root cause of soil erosion

Psychologists might hold the key to reducing soil erosion that wrecks pasture land belonging to the Maasai tribe in Tanzania.

Land degradation is a major environmental challenge that costs 17% of global GDP and undermines economic development in many regions of the world.

One probable cause of the problem is overgrazing by cattle that depletes grass cover, leaving soil to be washed away by rain and creating gullies that can be several metres deep.

Now an interdisciplinary project led by the University of Exeter is addressing this problem. Researchers are investigating obstacles and opportunities for the adoption of sustainable land management approaches by Maasai pastoralists (livestock farmers).

They are holding workshops with pastoralists, co-developing and sharing knowledge about how erosion happens and how it can be stopped.

“Soil erosion is a significant problem in northern Tanzania,” said Dr Anna Rabinovich.

“Gullies make the land unsuitable for cattle grazing or growing crops, depriving pastoralists of essential sources of livelihood. This creates a serious threat of poverty and starvation.

“The gullies are also a direct safety threat – there have been cases of people and cattle being washed away after falling into them during the rainy season.

“While previous work explored physical processes behind soil erosion, most of it has not engaged with the social and psychological side of the issue.

“At the same time, offering solutions without understanding social dynamics within pastoralist communities can be counterproductive.

“We are addressing this issue by exploring communities’ views of the problem, identifying barriers and opportunities for sustainable change, and co-developing solutions.

“In doing this, we rely both on socio-psychological evidence we collected and on local knowledge.”

Scientists from Exeter and Plymouth Universities and Schumacher College travelled to Tanzania to collect data in order to better understand the social dynamics behind pastoralists’ land management choices.

They then delivered workshops to share the knowledge and co-develop solutions.

As a result, communities started a number of initiatives to prevent further soil erosion, such as planting schemes and development of land management plans.

Researchers have been working with some villages for more than two years, and a growing number of villages are taking part.

“Our work is about supporting behaviour change, such as adoption of sustainable land management practice,” said Dr Rabinovich.

“Many Maasai pastoralists recognise the need for change. They are already making changes, such as reducing cattle numbers, using rotational grazing systems and making by-laws to protect their land.

“Our role is to support and spread the positive change by harnessing community dynamics, social norms and cultural values.

“The approach we are using to encourage behaviour change can be used for other social dilemmas – situations where people need to find motivation to protect a shared resource.

“In this case communities are working to protect the land, but there are many other natural resources that require protection.”

The project has been funded by the British Academy and the Global Challenges Research Fund impact accelerator programme.

Date: 3 June 2019

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