Roland Krämer and Alexander Prishchepov from the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO) in Germany, and colleagues, used archival land-use maps and satellite images to reconstruct land-use dynamics in a region of northern Kazakhstan from 1953 to 2010.

In their roughly 5.8 Mha study area, the researchers found a six-fold increase of croplands from 1954 to 1990, from just 0.5 Mha to 3.1 Mha. This coincided with the massive and rapid Soviet cropland expansion programme, often called the Virgin Lands Campaign, which reached its peak between 1954 and 1961.

This period of expansion was followed by drastic cropland abandonment after the Soviet Union's collapse; 45% of the croplands cultivated in the study area in 1990 were abandoned by 2000. After 2000, both abandonment and recultivation were taking place simultaneously and almost to the same extent, albeit with distinct spatial patterns, the team discovered.

"The massive cropland abandonment after the collapse of the Soviet Union was no surprise to us, as we had observed similar processes across other post-socialist Soviet and Eastern European countries," said Krämer, one of the authors of the study that is published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). "But what surprised us was that the croplands that were abandoned in Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union were actually the lands that were converted from primarily virgin steppes only after the peak of the Virgin Lands Campaign (from 1962 to 1990)."

This abandoned land has lower agro-environmental potential than the land cultivated during the peak of the campaign. "After the end of the Virgin Lands Campaign, the Soviet government continued to try and push further into marginal lands and ended up trying to cultivate land that was unsuitable for crop production," said Prishchepov. "It is this unsuitable land that has now been abandoned, and we are advising the Kazakhstan government that its focus should be on improving crop yields in currently cultivated lands and not on re-cultivation of abandoned lands. There is sufficient land already cultivated for crops in Kazakhstan but there is a large yield gap – the focus should be on getting these yields in line with those in western Europe by increasing productivity."

Krämer and Prishchepov are also concerned for biodiversity in the region and the survival of certain birds and other rare species such as the Saiga antelope, which is extinct in many parts of the world but is found in three areas of Kazakhstan.

"The preservation of non-provisioning ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, and the protection of biodiversity, should be [the] priority on more marginal lands," said Prishchepov. "Kazakhstan could also use the land to produce more of its own meat in a sustainable way for consumption and trade, instead of importing meat from foreign countries such as Australia, Argentina and Brazil, which is often coupled with uncertain land conversion such as tropical forests to rangelands."

Related links

Related stories