This study was motivated by the puzzlingly localised implementation of available Sustainable Land Management (SLM) practices despite the urgent need to reduce both land degradation and general poverty levels in the western highlands of Kenya. This research aimed to not only unravel reasons for the restricted geographical diffusion of SLM practices but also make concrete contributions to foster the promotion of SLM practices. Four specific research objectives and questions were formulated, and an integrated, multi-scale socio-ecological systems framework designed to address these issues at various levels. At the farming system level, high livelihood diversity was found as households increasingly depend on off-farm income opportunities. Besides, results show low production efficiency (average 40%) across five distinct farm types with important implications on intensification in land use. The off-farm oriented and resource-poor farm types were the least likely to invest in SLM practices on their farms. For the forest ecosystem, the estimated local economic benefits of around US$ 450 ha-1 yr-1 were considerably less than half the forgone returns from agricultural activities if the forest were to be converted. Arguably, continued protection of the Kakamega rainforest is justified because of the unknown value of its rich biodiversity and stored carbon in its system, which does not currently generate local economic benefits. At the landscape level, this study found that Vihiga District has undergone rapid land-use changes in the past 25 years. In particular, there has been a major conversion of forest and bare land to agricultural land use. Results show that productivity of tea and to a lesser extent, vegetables increased but the yields of maize and beans—the most common crops—oscillated around 1 ton ha-1. As a result, per capita food crop production dropped by 28% during the past two decades. Empirical findings demonstrate that high and increasing population pressure on land does not necessarily lead to agricultural intensification. Finally, with stakeholder participation, I evaluate local potentials for initiating collaborative action towards wider promotion of SLM practices in the western highlands of Kenya. A positive correlation (rho = 0.83) was found between stakeholder co-operation and the success level of past SLM projects. Reasonable prospects such as some technology adoption activities and organisation of local actors were established, which are necessary for triggering the transformation process to sustainable state of productivity. Based on synthesis of the key findings presented in this thesis, I conclude that the difficulty of achieving wider geographical diffusion of SLM practices in the study area can be attributed to four main reasons. First, there is a practical challenge to properly target the technologies to the right farming households in order to achieve the greatest impacts. Second, the rampant decrease in productive resources (land, capital and labour) for farm production coupled with low efficiencies in common farm enterprises has created an additional aspect of poverty traps—a ‘maize-centred’ poverty trap—making it difficult for a majority of farmers to invest meaningfully in SLM practices. Third, increasing pressure on land from population growth has failed to stimulate better land management practices and efficient resource use in agriculture possibly because the community attempts to make for the shortfall from off-farm activities or by accessing the almost free forest resources where available in the district. Lastly, the low collaboration level among key stakeholders involved in promotion of various components of SLM practices indicates a thin spread of efforts on the ground and unexpectedly delays an accelerated technological transition process. Therefore, I recommend a paradigm shift to embrace a broader, integrated and multi-stakeholder approach to solving the problem of land degradation in the study area and other similar agro-ecosystems in SSA; an approach that equally promotes improved farm productivity and creates off-farm income opportunities.
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