What is Land Degradation?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Land degradation is damage to land that makes it less economically useful and less biologically diverse. Degradation of the natural environment is a worldwide problem, and some examples are quite ancient. This term is used specifically to refer to damages caused by human activities rather than natural ones, and human activities can indirectly contribute to environmental changes that may accelerate the speed of land degradation.

Land degradation may occur due to intensive agricultural practices.
Land degradation may occur due to intensive agricultural practices.

In land degradation, land that was once rich in nutrients and able to support diverse organisms becomes compromised. Some types of degradation include salinification and acidification of soils, topsoil loss, soil compaction, and pollution of land that makes it unusable. The more degraded the soil becomes, the less it can support. This can cause degradation to speed up, as plants and animals that would normally help restore the soil are unable to survive.

Ecosystems can be degraded by construction, hunting, and other human activities.
Ecosystems can be degraded by construction, hunting, and other human activities.

Agricultural practices are a common culprit in land degradation. Overworking the soil can damage it, sometimes permanently. A modern example of degradation can be seen in the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when large-scale topsoil loss occurred as a combination of intensive agricultural practices and drought conditions. Degradation can also be the result of overutilization of timber resources that destabilizes the ecosystem; as trees are cut down, the organisms they support are no longer able to survive.

Industrial pollution from activities such as mining and manufacturing can also contribute to or cause degradation. In this case, the soil is damaged by release of chemicals into the soil and water. These chemicals may kill off plants and animals, reducing biological diversity. They can also lead to soil compaction and other declines in soil quality. Poor soil and water quality can be seen at sites used historically for manufacturing, illustrating that it can take decades or centuries for the land to fully recover.

The process of restoring land that has become degraded is known as remediation. In remediation, people identify the causes of the land degradation and explore methods for reversing it. Usually remediation takes time, as scientists want to encourage the land and ecosystem to rebuild and become stable again rather than enacting a quick fix. In some cases, land is too badly degraded for remediation to be effective, forcing human populations that relied on the land to relocate in order to access new resources. This in turn can contribute to population pressures in other fragile environments, ultimately repeating the land degradation all over again.

Changes in agricultural practices can help restore land that has been overused.
Changes in agricultural practices can help restore land that has been overused.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Scientists have matched up spots in Africa and in Asia and parts of South America to areas that are expected to have a big weather change in the next 40 years. There will be hotter temperatures and drier lands for the agricultural growing seasons. This could affect many people.

It is being predicted that in parts of Africa and India, two forces are colliding. One is natural, the climate change leading to a hot and shorter growing season. The other is a human circumstance of poor, disadvantaged people. Thanks to the people working on this.


As more and more of the earth's land is being degraded, some patches of land are being desertificated. For some years, attempts are being made to deal with dry land degradation desertification. Some of them have been successful.

One company involved in this effort wants more publicity about their success, hoping that other companies will follow suit. There have been success stories in parts of Asia and in China.

The one problem with desertification of dry lands is that it takes a long time for the soil to get back to the point where food can be grown again.


I really like the idea of studying remediation at university. It seems like the sort of thing that is going to be very important in the near future.

In school they taught us how people would burn the rainforest, then farm crops for a few years until all the nutrients were gone, then burn more forest. I want to be able to help the bits that are left behind regrow, and stop the soil degradation.

Maybe we can start a rainforest again in the unwanted bits.


I like how this article puts emphasis on how overloading the land with human population can lead to environmental degradation. This is a bigger problem than most people realize, and it is partly the fault of charities and NGOs. They dig wells and provide shelter for people who are living through an environmental disaster, allowing them to continue as normal on their traditional lands, having children and so forth.

But, the already devastated land can't handle that many people anymore and just becomes more and more sick. If the NGOs left it alone, the people would naturally move from areas that aren't able to support them, rather than staying until all the land is degraded.

After a certain point desertification sets in and it's next to impossible to reverse.

And people wonder why the poor people overseas can't seem to catch a break.

I don't mean that we should let people starve, but using some common sense rather than just throwing food and money at them would seem like the better way to go.


People think of land degradation as a new thing, but it has been happening ever since people started farming the land. Or, at least since they started using irrigation, which can cause all kinds of trouble, even if it seems like it would be fairly harmless.

I remember reading that the Ancient Romans may have had their civilization collapse because they had been irrigating their fields with well water, and had been draining the aquifers around the area, until finally the water they could reach was polluted with salt. The more they poured it onto their fields the less the fields produced, and of course there was no way for them to know why.

So, they were already weak from economic woes when other peoples came along and crushed the city.

At least they had the excuse of ignorance. We should learn from that example and take better care of what provides us with all our food.

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