Escalating the fight against land degradation

Paul Stapleton

The processes of land degradation can be slowed, stopped and even reversed by applying appropriate technologies, many of which already exist and are being used successfully in West African countries.

Land degradation, where the soil loses its biological and economic viability, is a global problem that has its impact locally and regionally. Over 20 percent of the Earth’s land is considered degraded. Hotspots include Africa south of the equator, Southeast Asia and South China. In the drylands, drought and desertification transform 12 million ha of land into new deserts each year. That is an area with the potential of producing 20 million tonnes of grain a year.

“We should emphasize the recognition of land and soil as a foundation of the food security and poverty reduction nexus and thus provide impetus for countries to mobilize resources and scale up sustainable land management,” said Uahekua Herungua, the President of the eleventh Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Combatting Desertification (UNCCD), which met in Namibia 16-27 September 2013.

The UNCCD has set a target of ‘zero net land degradation’, which means avoiding further degradation while balancing further degradation with the restoration of already degraded land. This approach highlights one of the issues confronting the UNCCD, that of scaling up efforts to confront the widespread degradation of lands across the world. “On the ground action could be the key to the success of the Convention,” said Dennis Garrity, UN Drylands Ambassador and a Senior Fellow of the World Agroforestry Centre. 

“Rural communities have lived in harmony with the soil for thousands of years,” said Garrity. “Their natural skills can be merged with modern scientific techniques so that small-scale technologies can be used effectively on a much wider scale.” Already some approaches are showing dramatic successes.  Water harvesting, fertilizer microdosing and agroforestry techniques are proving to be highly effective and easily used by local farmers.
In Niger, farmers have regreened 5 million ha of land since catastrophic droughts in the 1970s and 80s destroyed the local agriculture By protecting and nurturing spontaneously regenerating saplings, over 200 million trees have been grown, protecting crop plants, drawing up water from deep reserves and nourishing the soil. The million rural households that are involved are growing an additional 500 000 tonnes of cereal per year, feeding 2.5 million people and generating and extra US$250 million in income.

Tony Rinaldo of World Vision in Australia was involved in establishing the first pilot project of the clumsily named ‘farmer-managed natural regeneration’. “The beauty of the technique is that everything that is the farmers need is within their reach, because the methods are simple,” he said, “Some farmers are generating almost a 1000 kg/ha of grain from previous drylands that receive only 300 mm of rain a year, plus they are producing fodder and firewood.”

As well as cultivating the trees, farmers are using simple technologies like planting seedlings in shallow water pits to concentrate rainfall around the young plants, and dosing them with small quantities of fertilizer. “In the Zinder valley of Niger had to 50 times as many trees in 2003 than in 1975,” said Chris Reij of the World Resources Institute, who was honoured by the UNCCD as a Global Drylands Champion. “New agroforests on Mali’s Seno plains cover an area of 450 000 ha, producing a grain surplus of 50 000 tonnes in 2011, which was a drought year. Over 90 percent of those trees are less than 20 years old.

“The challenge is that we need hard economic data from these innovations to convince finance ministries to fund the programmes,” said Reij. But at the same time, changes in short-sighted policies are essential. In many West African countries, the government actually owns trees growing on even private land and the Ministry of Forestry holds farmers responsible for their upkeep.

The Great Green Wall is an ambitious programme  to fight desertification that has been under consideration for many years. Recently a groundswell of support has brought together North Africa, Sahel and Horn Africa  countries, donors and CSOs into a renewed partnership, based firmly on the regeneration of millions of hectares of drylands including the Sahel. A mosaic of sustainable land practices will combine agriculture, agroforestry, rangelands management, trees and sustainable forest management and landscape restoration   to reclaim a broad zone of degraded land  in around 20 countries from the North, west to the east of Africa, and increase their resilience to drought and further desertification.

“One of the key factors is policy change and new legislation,” said Nora Berrahmouni, a forestry expert at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. “Famers need to feel secure in the ownership of their trees.” This is one of the factors that is driving the renaissance of the Great Green Wall as a protection against desertification. As countries change their policies to give farmers ownership over the trees on their land, they are more likely to take the trouble to protect and cultivate them. “FAO is working to support partners on the ground, advance agroforestry  on the policy agenda at national and global level, to enable extending such positive policy changes ,” she said.

As a complement to the Great Green Wall initiative, the Evergreen Agriculture movement has been effecting a quiet ecological transformation in the nine countries that make up the Sahel region, from the Gambia to Chad. Championed by the World Agroforestry Centre and the African Forum on Forests, Evergreen Agriculture emphasizes the role of fertilizer trees in an agriculture that works to nurture and conserve the land, rehabilitating desertified soils and revegetating drylands.
“Rainwater management encourages crop growth but also raises the water table, which allows more dry season irrigation,” said Larwanou Mahamane of the African Forum on Forests. This offers further protection against desertification, encourages plant and cereal growth, and rehabilitates the land, especially as perennials establish themselves,  increasing soil organic matter and fertilizer uptake, recycling nutrients and enhancing drought resilience.

Again, policy change is essential, to encourage government investment in the management of natural resources that combats desertification as it improves the capacity of village farmers to produce food. Already, Evergreen Agriculture has reclaimed 150 000 ha of drylands in Burkina Faso, 200 000 ha in the Niger and 100 000 ha in Mali.  “This better management turns low-potential into high-potential and productive land,” said Mahamane.

Many of the participants in the COP highlighted the need for sustainable land management as a weapon against desertification. “International support for drylands is shifting from humanitarian assistance to strengthening capacity for resilience,” said Franklin Moore, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Africa, United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Describing national policy-making as “the place where bottom-up and top-down meet,” he stressed the value of “codifying” good practices, such as farmer-managed regeneration in the Sahel.

“These are the possibilities of success,” said Dennis Garrity. “Many more areas can benefit from upscaling these proven technologies.”

Photo courtesy UNCCD.