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A quantitative analysis of the population-land clearnance-land inequality nexus

Tole, L.A. (2004) A quantitative analysis of the population-land clearnance-land inequality nexus. Population and Environment, 26 (2). pp. 75-106. ISSN 0199-0039

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This paper provides a quantitative investigation of the population-land inequality-land clearance nexus. Drawing on the literature on farmer optimization behaviour, the study formalizes and empirically tests a model of population-induced agricultural land clearance. The model makes several assumptions about this process: (a) The rate at which agricultural land is brought into production due to rising population pressures accelerates with the level of inequality in access to land, (b) Egalitarian systems have a greater capacity to absorb rising numbers of people per unit of land area and, thus, will have lower rates of agricultural land clearance than higher ones and (c) Irrespective of its degree of egalitarianism, the capacity of any system to hold people in one place will eventually break down once a critical population threshold is reached. Due to their lower population absorptive capacity, this level will be reached sooner under unequal systems of land distribution. Thus, the model also hypothesizes that the stimulatory impact of population growth on the demand for new land will exhibit a non-linear threshold pattern. For the farmer, the decision to clear a new plot of land will reflect these population-inequality interactions: Earnings from farming in settled areas will tend to fall as population densities and inequality in access to land increase. Time series results confirm that rural population growth is a significant factor driving agricultural land clearance in many of the 59 developing countries of our sample. Results also suggest that this rate of clearance is largest in countries with highly inegalitarian patterns of distribution. In contrast, cross-sectional regression results do not suggest any direct role for land inequality in population-agricultural land use outcomes. Contrary to the modelrsquos assumption that this relationship should follow a non-linear threshold pattern, cross-sectional results also find no evidence that the absorptive capacity of highly densely populated land systems has been reached on average. However, they do provide support for an indirect linear relationship: Population induced agricultural land clearance is significantly magnified as inequality in access to land increases. Drawing on the empirics of the growth-inequality literature, the study suggests that this magnifying role may be linked to inequalityrsquos impact on the assets of the poor. That is, by undermining the capacity of the rural poor to make productive investments in the land base, inequality in land distribution mediates population pressures in a way that affects both the quality and quantity of assets available to the poor to raise incomes, invest in skills accumulation, and spur demand in the rural economy as a whole.