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Experiencing a Healthy Ecosystem in Spanish Altiplano

Author: Ashleigh Brown | Published: November 6, 2017

I have been in the remote area of the Murcian Altiplano for two months. It has been a life changing experience, living in an area so degraded. Every day the sheep walk past our bedroom window, followed closely by a huge cloud of dust that used to be fertile soil. You notice the dryness everywhere. My skin, hair, throat, everything feels parched, desperate for moisture. And the reasons for this dryness are everywhere too. Huge ploughs litter the farm, and it is a regular sight to see tractors, pulling these ploughs in the fields, also surrounded by huge clouds of dust.

All the life in the soil died long ago. Going for a walk around these parts is a surreal experience. It is often deafeningly quiet, it almost doesn’t seem real.

However, there are still small patches of land that have not been ploughed or over grazed. They are mini oases, where rivers flow, birds sing, butterflies flutter by, and wild boar roam. These patches give me a sense of what the damaged land could become, and motivate me to get up in the morning and continue with this mission.

Last weekend, we decided to venture into one of the largest patches of in-tact land in the area, a small mountain which the locals call ‘El Gato’ (the cat). We left the house just after dawn, and travelled as the sun rose to the foot of the mountain.

To get there, we had to walk across ploughed fields, with soil as pale and fine as sand. However, once we got to the foot of the mountain, Spanish Oak trees, surrounding by wild juniper, rosemary, thyme and a host of other plants were happily growing, giving homes to birds, insects, wild boar, squirrels, partridges, and more.

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Deforestation Drives Climate Change More Than We Thought

Author: Lindsey Hadlock-Cornell | Published: September 6, 2017

Deforestation and use of forest lands for agriculture or pasture, particularly in tropical regions, contribute more to climate change than previously thought, research finds.

The study also shows just how significantly that impact has been underestimated. Even if all fossil fuel emissions are eliminated, if current tropical deforestation rates hold steady through 2100, there will still be a 1.5 degree increase in global warming.

“A lot of the emphasis of climate policy is on converting to sustainable energy from fossil fuels,” says Natalie M. Mahowald, the paper’s lead author and faculty director of environment for the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University.

“It’s an incredibly important step to take, but, ironically, particulates released from the burning of fossil fuels—which are severely detrimental to human health—have a cooling effect on the climate. Removing those particulates actually makes it harder to reach the lower temperatures laid out in the Paris agreement,” she explains.

She says that in addition to phasing out fossil fuels, scientific and policymaking communities must pay attention to changes in land use to stem global warming, as deforestation effects are “not negligible.”

While the carbon dioxide collected by trees and plants is released during the cutting and burning of deforestation, other greenhouse gases—specifically nitrous oxide and methane—are released after natural lands have been converted to agricultural and other human usage. The gases compound the effect of the carbon dioxide’s ability to trap the sun’s energy within the atmosphere, contributing to radiative forcing—energy absorbed by the Earth versus energy radiated off—and a warmer climate.

As a result, while only 20 percent of the rise in carbon dioxide caused by human activity originates from land use and land-cover change, that warming proportion from land use (compared with other human activities) increases to 40 percent once co-emissions like nitrous oxide and methane are factored in.

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Our Land. Our Home. Our Future

Author: Monique Barbut | Published: June 17, 2017 

We all have dreams. For most of us, those dreams are often quite simple. They are common to individuals and communities all around the world. People just want a place to settle down and to plan for a future where their families don’t just survive but thrive.  For far too many people in far too many places, such simple dreams are disappearing into thin air.

This is particularly the case in rural areas where populations are suffering from the effects of land degradation.  Population growth means demand for food and for water is set to double by 2050 but crop yields are projected to fall precipitously on drought affected, degraded land.

More than 1.3 billion people, mostly in the rural areas of developing countries, are in this situation.  No matter how hard they work, their land no longer provides them either sustenance or economic opportunity. They are missing out on the opportunity to benefit from increasing global demand and wider sustained economic growth. In fact, the economic losses they suffer and growing inequalities they perceive means many people feel they are being left behind.

They look for a route out.  Migration is well trodden path.  People have always migrated, on a temporary basis, to survive when times are tough. The ambitious often chose to move for a better job and a brighter future.

One in every five youth, aged 15-24 years, for example is willing to migrate to another country. Youth in poorer countries are even more willing to migrate for a chance to lift themselves out of poverty. It is becoming clear though that the element of hope and choice in migration is increasingly missing.  Once, migration was temporary or ambitious. Now, it is often permanent and distressed.

Over the next few decades, worldwide, close to 135 million people are at risk of being permanently displaced by desertification and land degradation.  If they don’t migrate, the young and unemployed are also at more risk of falling victim to extremist groups that exploit and recruit the disillusioned and vulnerable.

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The High Price of Desertification: 23 Hectares of Land a Minute

Author: Busani Bafana | Published: June 15, 2017 

Urban farmer Margaret Gauti Mpofu would do anything to protect the productivity of her land. Healthy soil means she is assured of harvest and enough food and income to look after her family.

Each morning, Mpofu, 54, treks to her 5,000-square-metre plot in Hyde Park, about 20 km west of the city of Bulawayo. With a 20-litre plastic bucket filled with cow manure in hand, Mpofu expertly scoops the compost and sprinkles a handful besides thriving leaf vegetables and onions planted in rows across the length of the field, which is irrigated with treated waste water.

“I should not be doing this,” Mpofu tells IPS pointing to furrows on her field left by floodwater running down the slope during irrigation. “The soil is losing fertility each time we irrigate because the water flows fast, taking valuable topsoil with it. I have to constantly add manure to improve fertility in the soil and this also improves my yields.”

Mpofu’s act of feeding the land is minuscule in fighting the big problem of land degradation. But replicated by many farmers on a large scale, it can restore the productivity of arable land, today threatened by desertification and degradation.

While desertification does include the encroachment of sand dunes on productive land, unsustainable farming practices such as slash and burn methods in land clearing, incorrect irrigation, water erosion, overgrazing – which removes grass cover and erodes topsoil – as well as climate change are also major contributors to desertification.

Desertification is on the march.  Many people are going hungry because degraded lands affects agriculture, a key source of livelihood and food in much of Africa. More than 2.6 billion people live off agriculture in the world. More than half of agricultural land is affected by soil degradation, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

It gets worse. The UN body says 12 million hectares of arable land, enough to grow 20 tonnes of grain, are lost to drought and desertification annually, while 1.5 billion people are affected in over 100 countries. Halting land degradation has become an urgent global imperative.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that by 2030 Africa will lose two-thirds of its arable land if the march of desertification — the spread of arid, desert-like areas of land — is not stopped.

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10 Million Hectares a Year in Need of Restoration Along the Great Green Wall

A groundbreaking map of restoration opportunities along Africa’s Great Green Wall has been launched at the UN climate change conference, based on collection and analysis of crucial land-use information to boost action in Africa’s drylands to increase the resilience of people and landscapes to climate change.

“The Great Green Wall initiative is Africa’s flagship programme to combat the effects of climate change and desertification,” said Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division, while presenting the new map at the COP22 in Marrakech.

“Early results of the initiative’s actions show that degraded lands can be restored, but these achievements pale in comparison with what is needed,” he added during a high-level event at the African Union Pavilion entitled: “Resilient Landscapes in Africa’s Drylands: Seizing Opportunities and Deepening Commitments”.

Mansur hailed the new assessment tool used to produce the map as a vital instrument providing critical information to understand the true dimension of restoration needs in the vast expanses of drylands across North Africa, Sahel and the Horn.

Drawing on data collected on trees, forests and land use in the context of the Global Drylands Assessment conducted by FAO and partners in 2015-2016, it is estimated that 166 million hectares of the Great Green Wall area offer opportunities for restoration projects.

The Great Green Wall’s core area crosses arid and semi-arid zones on the North and south sides of the Sahara. Its core area covers 780 million hectares and it is home to 232 million people. To halt and reverse land degradation, around 10 million hectares will need to be restored each year, according to the assessment. This will be major a contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

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Dispatch From the Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands

[ English | Español ]

Author: Judith D. Schwartz | Posted on: August 19, 2015

A drive through Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert grasslands offers vast, near-boundless vistas—and a glimpse of a landscape in the balance. Passing the ejidos, communal farmland given to people as part of land reforms after the Mexican Revolution, one sees land with sparse annuals and brush and the occasional flaca vaca: a skinny cow, often barely alive. Then there are the huge tracts of brown, bare ground, where Mennonite farmers employ intensive agriculture.

My guide, rancher Alejandro Carrillo, has watched this landscape degrade, nearly in real time. “When I was growing up this was the best land in the area, with grama grass up to that wire,” he tells me, gesturing to an indifferent brownish weedy plot lined with waist-high fencing and dotted with random brush, a far cry from the lush pasture he remembers. The consequences of land deterioration throughout Mexico’s largest state have been devastating to local communities as well as to wildlife—particularly to migratory grassland birds that winter in the region and whose populations have plummeted, among some species more than 80 percent. And yet Carrillo’s ranch, Las Damas Ranch, is an oasis of bird life. Carrillo, who has holistically managed Las Damas Ranch since 2006 after leaving a successful career in IT, now works with bird conservation groups to create habitat for the endangered birds. He and several other ranchers who practice Holistic Planned Grazing have established research and conservation partnerships with organizations including the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, the American Bird Conservatory and Mexico’s Pronatura.

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Over-grazing and desertification in the Syrian steppe are the root causes of war

Author: Gianluca Serra

Civil war in Syria is the result of the desertification of the ecologically fragile Syrian steppe, writes Gianluca Serra – a process that began in 1958 when the former Bedouin commons were opened up to unrestricted grazing. That led to a wider ecological, hydrological and agricultural collapse, and then to a ‘rural intifada’ of farmers and nomads no longer able to support themselves.

Back in 2009, I dared to forecast that if the rampant desertification process gripping the Syrian steppe was not halted soon, it could eventually become a trigger for social turmoil and even for a civil war.

I was being interviewed by the journalist and scholar Francesca de Chatel- and was feeling deeply disillusioned about Syrian government’s failure to heed my advice that the steppe, which covers over half of the country’s land mass, was in desperate need of recuperation.

I had just spent a decade (four years of which serving a UN-FAO project aimed at rehabilitating the steppe) trying to advocate that livestock over-grazing of the steppe rangelands was the key cause of its ecological degradation.

However, for the Syrian government’s staff, it was far too easy to identify and blame prolonged droughts (a natural feature of this kind of semi-arid environment) or climate change (which was already becoming a popular buzzword in those years). These external causes served well as a way to escape from any responsibility – and to justify their inaction.

In an article on The Ecologist, Alex Kirby writes that the severe 2006-2010 drought in Syria may have contributed to the civil war. Indeed it may – but this is to disregard the immediate cause – the disastrous over-exploitation of the fragile steppe ecosystem.

Before my time in Syria, as early as the 1970s, international aid organizations such as the UN-FAO had also flagged the dire need to not apply profit-maximization principles and to therefore not over-exploit the fragile ecosystem of the Syrian steppe.

KEEP READING IN THE ECOLOGIST

Green Gold

“It’s possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.” Environmental film maker John D. Liu documents large-scale ecosystem restoration projects in China, Africa, South America and the Middle East, highlighting the enormous benefits for people and planet of undertaking these efforts globally.

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Land Restoration With Holistic Management

Karoo Region, South Africa: (On left) Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG). Photo credits: Kroon Family


Karoo Region, South Africa

This is a picture (above) taken in Eastern Cape in South Africa – Karoo country – showing desertification with low stocking rates and conventional grazing on the right, and high stocking rates using holistic planned grazing on the left.  The land on the right continues to deteriorate supporting fewer animals, while the land on the right improves, supporting more. The property on the left has been under holistic management since the 1970s. Average rain fall is approximately 230 mm (9-in) / yr.

Las Pilas Ranch, Chihuahuan Desert Region, Mexico

[Photos taken from the same spot. The arrow marks the same point on the horizon. Photo credits, Guillermo Osuna.]

The Las Pilas Ranch in Coahuila, Mexico, is a model of ecological restoration using Holistic Planned Grazing. Over a twenty five year period from 1978 to 2003, the barren landscape was completely revived. The images below show the transformation. Although the first picture is from 1963, the restoration with Holistic Management didn’t actually start until 1978. During the restoration period, the livestock population was doubled and grazing was done according to a plan that paid close attention to grass health. The top landscape from 2003 actually has six-times the water as the the lower landscape from 1963. The water is held in the soil and in the plants and trees. Previously a 1-inch rain would fill the trough from runoff. Now a 6-inch rain does not cause standing water in the low point. It is all absorbed. The trough is no longer needed because the streams flow year round. See a tale of restoration case study.

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Could Cows and Sheep Halt Climate Change and Tackle Rural Poverty?

Author: Judith D Schwartz

Holistic management, with its counterintuitive claim that more, rather than fewer, cattle can improve the land, has been around for decades – a kind of perennial cattleman’s quarrel, and a thorn in the hide of ranchers and anti-ranchers alike.

The use of livestock as a tool for restoration has been scoffed at by scientists, reviled by vegetarians and those who blame cows for climate change, and a flashpoint for tension over how to conserve land in the American West.

Reviving grasslands

But that was before Allan Savory, who developed holistic management, won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for a programme with “significant potential to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems.” And before governmental agencies such as USAID and large NGOs like the Nature Conservancy teamed up with the Savory Institute on international projects after seeing the benefits on the ground. And, in an era when one viral video makes the difference between anonymity and renown, before Savory’s TED talk, How to Green the Desert and Reverse Climate Change, flew round the Internet with some 2m views.

At the end of June, I attended the first Savory Institute International Conference, Transforming Landscapes for Global Impact, in Boulder, Colorado. This two-day event, attended by 300 ranchers, scholars and investors from around the world, showed that holistic management is now launched as a global movement – one that’s positioned itself as a vehicle for addressing seemingly intractable problems of climate change, desertification, and rural poverty.

Keep Reading on The Guardian