Ecological Economics of
Conservation Farming


Farmers have argued that economic forces dictate how they use their land. For most, the costs of ecologically sustainable farming practices have often outweighed the benefits. However, the demise of farming subsidies and the growing demand for ecotourism and game-hunting have changed the context for decision-making relating to land use. Against this background, there are some farming practices in use in areas of high biodiversity that apparently promote biological diversity and have a low impact on natural ecosystem processes. Farmers who have used these so-called "conservation farming" methods argue that they are more productive and sustainable because (a) they provide a buffer against the vagaries of the environment, (b) they generate income from alternative sources such as ecotourism, (c) they result in superior yields of animal products, and (d) they result in savings on capital costs and running expenses. These farms provide ideal test cases for evaluating the costs and benefits of conservation farming in areas with high biodiversity. It is essential that the experience of conservation farmers and their contribution to biodiversity conservation in South Africa is documented and placed in a dynamic economic-ecological framework so that successful models can be widely communicated and applied.

The Conservation Farming Project has three broad components which cover ecological, economic and sociological assessments of the impacts of conservation farming practices, respectively. The ecological assessments will provide detailed information on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning under alternative landuse practices. The economics component will play a major role in the overall project, and will effectively synthesise much of the overall work.


  • To determine the financial costs associated with different forms of landuse in the four biodiversity hotspots by acquiring and analysing information from farmers and by analysing costs of known inputs and outputs.
  • In each of the four hotspots, to evaluate the economic costs and benefits derived from consumptive use (e.g. productivity), non-consumptive use (e.g. ecotourism), indirect benefits (ecosystem services, e.g. carbon sequestration), and non-use benefits or future use options (conservation of endemic species and genetic storage). Where appropriate, these benefits need to be assessed at the level of farms, rural communities, or even national level (e.g. carbon sequestration, genetic storage).
  • To integrate economic data with other components of the Conservation Farming project via a series of workshops.
  • To develop ecological-economic models for each of the four biodiversity hotspots in consultation with biodiversity specialists, soil scientists and farmers.
  • To evaluate possible aggregation effects that may arise should farmers all convert to the same type of conservation-friendly landuse.

General approach

Following a detailed assessment of the type of information being supplied by other components of the Conservation Farming Project, the economics sub-project team will devise a methodology for the collection and analysis of financial, economic and other pertinent information in the four areas. Data collection will be done in conjunction with other sub-projects as far as possible. Based on preliminary data analysis, the core team will develop a general ecological-economic model framework, using Stella and spreadsheet applications, prior to holding modelling workshops. The modelling workshops will draw in ecological and other expertise from all the project components in an integrative multidisciplinary approach. The modelling exercise will involve integrating data from all of the component studies of the larger project, thus explicitly identifying and quantifying the functional relationships between ecosystems and the goods and services that they provide to farmers and society as a whole. The models will then be refined by the core team, and scenario analyses performed to evaluate the implications of the application of conservation farming methods on a broader scale within the study areas.

Project executants Jane Turpie
Tony Leiman
Nick Vink
Myles Mander
Hugo van Zyl
Mazda Wildlife Fund


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