University of Kentucky doctoral student, Karen E. Rignall, under the direction of Dr. Lisa Cliggett, will examine the effects of livelihood transformations on land use in arid regions. In arid and semi-arid areas around the world, lands historically used for grazing are increasingly being converted into farmland. This has important implications for the environmental sustainability of arid-lands agriculture, the economic viability of rural livelihoods, and the ways that inequality shapes people's access to productive resources. The research will specifically examine how farmers acquire rangelands for cultivation and how their strategies affect their own livelihood security and the security of other households.

The study will take place in a southern Moroccan oasis that lies between the Atlas mountains and the Saharan desert. The research design will focus on case studies of household livelihood strategies in order to shed light on how changes in livelihoods relate to changes in the way people acquire, exchange, and use land. In particular, it will trace the impact of livelihood diversification -- especially the rise of labor migration -- on the differential abilities of households to acquire rangelands for conversion into farmland. A series of semi-structured interviews with a larger sample will test the broader applicability of the case studies.

This study will contribute social scientific understanding of how expanded cultivation relates to broader processes of agrarian change. An ethnographic focus on the cultural context of land tenure, social stratification, and changing livelihood strategies will shed light on how expanded cultivation may create new forms of vulnerability among households with reduced access to land. This will have implications for scholarship, policy, and development planning that relate rural livelihoods to land tenure and land use. The research will also contribute to the training of a social scientist.

Project Report

In my dissertation research, I explored the relationship between agriculture, land ownership, and livelihood strategies in a pre-Saharan oasis valley of southern Morocco. I used these issues to examine larger questions about food production and poverty in arid lands: what is the role of agriculture in people’s efforts to move out of poverty in marginalized communities with severe environmental and socio-economic constraints? The research placed people’s livelihood strategies – the diverse ways they make a living – in the context of how they access land as a productive resource. If we can understand the way land use and livelihoods relate to one another, we can better understand the possibilities for addressing chronic poverty in marginalized regions around the world. Twelve months of field research in three communities along the Mgoun valley revealed the increasing importance of agriculture to people’s livelihoods in this arid environment. This was a counterintuitive finding: in a place where water scarcity and long-standing poverty led many observers to conclude agriculture was in decline, I encountered communities that were expanding the amount of land they cultivated. Whereas most households relied on income earned from labor migration to Europe, in recent years, people increasingly invested in farming as a way to both stay home and provide needed cash. This new emphasis on commercial agriculture – farming for the market as opposed to farming only for home consumption – created new opportunities but also new tensions in community life. There was a new competition for agricultural land, raising prices and excluding many of the poorest community members from this new avenue for economic growth. The new agrarian landscape was also dependent on a gendered division of labor; women’s unpaid work ensured that production costs were kept low, but increased their agricultural labor obligations and overall work burdens. My research explored these changes at a variety of scales – region, community, and household – and used household case studies to address the centrality of land as a site of political and social contestation. The research findings indicated that households with the resources and prestige to manipulate traditional land management institutions in their favor used them to facilitate their investments in expanded agriculture. Rather than push for capitalist land markets and individual ownership – as predicted by many scholars of agrarian change – they turned to customary land tenure systems that maintained collective ownership to support their commercial agricultural enterprises. In contrast, marginalized families without access to land resisted these customary systems because they were excluded from their benefits. Instead, they mobilized to divide collectively owned land and secure individual title to their land so that they could secure access to some land in support of their livelihoods. This indicates that even though commercial agriculture was becoming an important livelihood strategy in this marginalized region, farmers relied on a mix of customary and market-based systems for accessing land. Economic policies for promoting rural development should therefore take into account the complicated ways that people combine capitalist and non-capitalist systems for accessing land.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Deborah Winslow
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University of Kentucky
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