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From degraded drylands to productive systems

From degraded drylands to productive systems

As we celebrate the UN’s World Day to Combat Desertification today, it is worthwhile noting why the effort on drylands should be accelerated, with greater focus on the spectrum of partnerships required. 

Overall, about one quarter of usable land worldwide is degraded, affecting approximately 1.5 billion people. Land degradation is increasing in severity and spreading, particularly threatening livelihoods in dry areas where it leads to desertification or serious losses in productivity.  In Africa, where two-thirds of the continent is dry, the population stands to be the worst hit.

The rhetoric around drylands has emphasized the negative aspects of land degradation in developing countries as poverty traps, limited job opportunities, increasing migration trends from rural to already overcrowded urban areas, and social conflict and civil unrest – all put unprecedented pressures on countries ill equipped to handle them. This creates a ripple effect even in developed countries, especially those around the Mediterranean, where illegal immigration (spurred on by the severe impacts of land degradation) can contribute to social unrest.

However, all is not bleak. While dryland communities face harsh realities due to degraded lands, there is also much to be built upon and learnt from their ingenuity and resilience, which is a key piece of this debate and critical to developing solutions. Adding to and enhancing these success stories is a feature of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems, where partnerships between local communities, researchers and governments are being built to scale up these positive examples (watch  video: “The Last Wall against Desertification)

Scientists are taking a more inclusive inter-disciplinary approach to include new interventions, continually building on the contextual characteristics of a particular situation. Starting with local communities, these teams are reaching upwards and outwards to bridge the science-policy and science-practitioner divides. Several case studies have illustrated the success of an integrated agro-ecosystems approach to improving the livelihoods of poor smallholders in degraded areas in Africa, Latin America and South Asia.

One major challenge ahead is to convince the private sector to invest in drylands. For example, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), has set a target of restoring 12 million hectares (ha) of degraded land per year in its sustainable action platform – Action 2020. They will specifically work in areas where land tenure issues are not an obstacle and are looking to establish partnerships with research institutions, training and extension services, NGOs, and local, regional and national governments. Dryland Systems therefore, can play a facilitation role in these new partnerships while providing research and capacity building. With its focus on the farm level, the program is well set up to interact more effectively with the private sector and can help prevent polarized viewpoints so that partners meet and work alongside one another, rather than in parallel.   

The private sector plays a key role in providing investments that both create and improve livelihoods for smallholder farmers, and is an important actor in scaling up successful interventions.  However, such interventions from the private sector are unlikely unless the public sector recognizes the latter’s role. But, the private sector will be reluctant to act without clear and encouraging signals from the public sector. To scale this barrier, a portfolio of economic, communication and educational instruments, and complementary regulatory instruments will be needed. Some potential examples of these are:

  • Establishing payments for ecosystem services schemes or other rewards for better land stewardship
  • Establishing new markets for ecosystem services
  • Providing subsidy schemes for farmers e.g. one-off basis for lowering establishment or switching costs to sustainable land management (SLM) practices
  • Taxes to raise costs of production or consumption of environmentally damaging goods and practices e.g. eco-tax on plastic bags
  • Implementing of bans that require strong government action
  • Encouraging of voluntary payment for environmental conservation or offsets
  • Providing of micro-finance schemes
  • Establishing research, policy and stakeholder platforms for exchanges (databases, local cluster development)
  • Improving data availability through education, communications, research and collaboration

The CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems has already begun to research many of these above mentioned requirements. A number of current activities are providing the program with comparative advantages to make a difference:

  • Trans-disciplinary integrated approaches that are bottom up (user or country-led) with policy perspectives providing the credible evidence base for SLM interventions (technical, financial, political and social aspects)
  • Studies in line with identified gaps and national, regional and international priorities
  • Design and testing of new approaches and technologies that include the private sector
  • Collation and synthesis of lessons learned from deployment of SLM options
  • Establishment of robust, cost-effective ‘neutral’ monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems, data quality, warehousing and analyses
  • Capacity building in problem-solving skills
  • Playing a neutral role in integrated partnerships

One such example is conservation agriculture or zero-till, a practice widely adopted in high-income countries for more than two decades for its energy-saving and soil conservation benefits, but has failed to take-off in low-income countries, particularly in dry areas where it can be especially beneficial. Research suggests existing zero-till seeders are neither adapted nor affordable to local needs. An innovative partnership between scientists and local machinery manufacturers in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan which helped collaboratively develop a prototype for zero-tillage seeders suitable for smallholders in the region is a step forward in this challenging context.  With promising results during the 2012/13 season, the technology is now being adopted by farmers, further customizing the machine for their needs.  Apart from being sold in local markets for less than a quarter of the cost, this collaborative effort is leading to  scaling out as can be seen from current exports to Morocco.

The CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems will continue to build on expanding these activities through the wide array of partnerships to drive impacts on the ground as it develops further.  This World Desertification Day, we, together with our partners encourage a focus on a diverse network of partnerships as an important way forward in the effort to improve the lives of those affected by land degradation.

This Op-ed was submitted by Richard Thomas, the new Director of the ICARDA-led CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems, currently at the United Nations University-Institute for Water, Environment, and Health. It was originally published on the Dryland Systems website.    

To explore spatial solutions for integrated agro-ecosystems, visit

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A summary of the the Dryland Systems Research Program can be accessed here