Author: Andrew Stevenson | Published: September 23, 2017
Land degradation has long been recognized as a major problem which threatens ecological health, social stability and economic prosperity. For several decades, a series of solutions have been devised and attempted with varying degrees of success. However, efforts to combat land degradation have been hampered by a lack of resources and the sheer scale of the problem. According to the UNCCD’s new flagship publication, the Global Land Outlook, from 1998 to 2013 approximately 20 per cent of the Earth’s vegetated land surface declined in productivity; and 1.3 billion people, most of whom live in developing countries, currently live on degrading agricultural land.
Two of the biggest challenges facing efforts aimed at avoiding, reducing or reversing land degradation are therefore how to tackle degradation at a massive scale, and how to ensure that any investment generates the ‘biggest bang for the buck’. This was the subject of an event at the recent UNCCD COP13 in Ordos, China, and which was organized jointly by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the European Commission (EC), and the Economics of Land Degradation initiative (ELD) on 13 September. The event took place at the outset of a new European Union-funded project aimed at uncovering pathways for large-scale restorations across the world.
The EC’s Bernard Crabbé introduced the new project, which involves eight African countries and focuses on two components. First, the project will work with ELD to help participating countries assess the costs and benefits of investing in different approaches aimed at combating land degradation, raising agricultural productivity and restoring land health. Second, the project will work with partner organizations including the World Agroforestry Centre and local NGOs to implement low-cost, high-impact Sustainable Land Management (SLM) measures. As Mark Schauer of ELD explained, project activities would draw upon ELD’s experience in providing toolkits for economic analysis and stakeholder integration “to keep scientific information both credible and usable for decision-makers”
Dennis Garrity, Senior Fellow at ICRAF, laid out the scope of the challenge at hand: “for any serious hope of success, we must provide solutions that are applicable, desirable and affordable for massive populations of smallholder farmers and pastoralists”. Yet he emphasized that not only is this achievable, it is already happening, in some of the poorest countries in the world. Over the past two decades, millions of hectares of farmland in Niger and other countries in the Sahel region of Africa have been transformed by the adoption of Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). This approach encourages farmers to select and protect existing tree stumps and stems, pruning them to promote growth alongside other crops, which then benefit from increased soil fertility, organic matter and moisture. As a result, FMNR provides a low-cost, low-risk method for large scale restoration of degraded landscapes while supplying farmers with valuable benefits such as fuelwood and fodder. According to Dr Garrity, similar ideas have taken root in several African countries including Sengal, Mali, Ethiopia, and Malawi, resulting in vast increases of tree cover: what Garrity called “the biggest single positive environmental change ever witnessed in Africa”. In addition, new tools such as Collect Earth enable non-scientists to access high resolution satellite data in a free and user-friendly manner, raising the exciting possibility of farming communities being able to track changes in tree cover in their landscape.
The meeting also heard from several speakers who shared their countries’ experiences of reversing land degradation. Cai Mantan of Elion Resources recounted Elion’s efforts to transform the Kubuqi desert near Ordos, noting that private-sector involvement could bring important resources and ideas. However, he also emphasized that private companies need to be incentivized to pursue restoration efforts over long-term timescales, potentially lasting several decades.