Restoring degraded land and slowing the pace of desertification is vital for the achievement of the SDGs, including those on hunger, poverty, biodiversity, and climate action, as well as for contributing to the UNCCD goals on land degradation neutrality, and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
As we embark on global green recovery from COVID-19, restoration will also continue to contribute to economic growth and employment, with broader socioeconomic benefits.
Desertification is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time, yet – even as we mark World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought (17 June) – it rarely receives the public attention or understanding it requires.
First, desertification is not only about the expansion of deserts. More than that, it is the persistent degradation of the world’s dryland ecosystems as a result of climate change and human activities, from clear-cutting land, unsustainable farming, and overgrazing to mining and the overexploitation of trees and bushes for fuel and timber.
And despite the lack of productivity their name might suggest, drylands matter.
They cover over one-third of the world’s land area, and are home to some two billion people, most of whom rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. Drylands harbor a quarter of the world’s forests, and are productive landscapes, providing much of the world’s crops and livestock.
But at the current rate of desertification, estimated to be 30-35 times the historical rate, some 50 million people may be displaced within the next ten years as a direct consequence.
Restoring degraded land and slowing the pace of desertification is therefore vital for the achievement of the SDGs, including those on hunger, poverty, biodiversity, and climate action, as well as for contributing to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) goals on land degradation neutrality (LDN), and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. As we embark on global green recovery from COVID-19, restoration will also continue to contribute to economic growth and employment, with broader socioeconomic benefits.
So how can we best address land degradation and desertification?
For more than a decade, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has been supporting the Great Green Wall, an Africa-led flagship programme to combat the effects of climate change and desertification and improve the livelihoods of rural communities across the drylands in North Africa, the Sahel, and Southern Africa.
Our experience has shown that restoration interventions need to do more than plant trees if they are to succeed.
Restoration must go beyond increasing biomass and improve ecology, lives, and livelihoods simultaneously. Approaches should increase climate resilience and prioritize income generation through green jobs and addressing food insecurity and malnutrition.
Communities should choose the species they would like to plant to forge landscapes that are not only ecologically useful and resilient, but that can fulfil their food, nutrition, income or cultural needs. Scientists, local botanists, and seed centers should support well-adapted species selection, carefully ensuring that ecologically suited, nutritious, and marketable species are planted that can ultimately provide a range of benefits in any given month of the year.
Young people and women should benefit from training on seed collection and seedling production, nursery techniques, and small-scale green business/market development – an approach that tackles restoration across the entire value chain, from seed to market.
As part of FAO’s support to the Great Green Wall initiative, since 2016, at least ten major value chains have been developed through planting highly nutritious food-source species such as Egyptian balsam (Balanites aegyptiaca), hanza (Boscia senegalensis), Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana), African baobab (Adansonia digitata), and many others. There are economic benefits to planting food-source species as well. In Burkina Faso, for example, communities generated revenues from fodder species of 40 USD per hectare during the first years of planting.
Conscious of the need to increase pollinators worldwide, FAO also ensures most projects include honey-producing tree and shrub species and associated training in beekeeping as a core activity. Some communities are already generating an additional annual income of some 73 USD per harvest, in addition to enjoying the health benefits of honey.
Close monitoring and evaluation through established methodologies allows us to measure biophysical as well as socioeconomic impacts of restoration activities. FAO’s Open Foris suite of tools and the Framework for Ecosystem Restoration Monitoring support governments in monitoring and reporting progress.
The results are clear. In over 500 communities across 13 African countries, FAO has supported the restoration of over 60,000 hectares of degraded barren land, increasing land productivity and plant diversity, and reaching close to one million people. Between 2016 and 2020, food insecurity experience scales significantly decreased in communities at FAO large-scale restoration sites, declining sharply by over 65% in some countries. FAO’s tested approach is ready to be replicated and scaled up, and – given the alarming rates of desertification and land degradation – the demand for such support is increasing.
Merging traditional and scientific knowledge can turn the tide to bring ecological and societal benefits at scale. We have seen the results. It is no easy task – but FAO’s success in supporting the Great Green Wall initiative offers a simple starting point: restoration and halting desertification must put people first.
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By Tiina Vähänen, Deputy Director, Forestry Division, and Moctar Sacande, Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN