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A line in the sand: Dryland restoration for a food secure future

Delegates at GLF Africa urge unity
Women carry baskets full of cotton on their heads along a road
Nigna Latifa, Dadjan Wassinatou and Nacro Rainatou carry baskets of freshly harvested cotton along a road near Zorro village, Burkina Faso. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard

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Fortifying dryland ecosystems in Africa against degradation and desertification is crucial to avoid exacerbating the risks of widespread food insecurity on the continent, said participants at a virtual conference hosted by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) on the eve of the launch of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

Presentations at GLF Africa: Restoring Africa’s Drylands, featuring research and scientific findings, provided the basis for an eclectic exchange of ideas involving thousands of participants from around the world.

Several key themes emerged, including recognition that inclusive national policies designed to bring together stakeholders to build on capacity-building efforts – particularly engaging the local community level – are urgently needed to shore up dryland dependent livelihoods.

“All our speakers shared the simple message: we can do this, but we must act urgently, now and together,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the International Center for Forestry Research (CIFOR) and managing director of World Agroforestry (ICRAF). “If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky,” he added, quoting a Somali proverb.

Drylands are home to about half the population in Africa, make up more than 40 percent of the continent’s overall land surface and three quarters of its agricultural landscape. The livelihoods of millions of people dependent on farming and pastoralism in drylands are at risk as ecosystems become more vulnerable, exacerbated by agriculture-related degradation and climate change.

Resources in Africa are already insufficient to meet steadily increasing demand, putting additional pressure on policymakers, entrepreneurs, investors and communities to align strategies that will conserve and restore ecosystems.

“Transformation starts with the local community,” said Charles Karangwa, who leads the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Forests, Landscapes and Livelihoods Programme in East Africa.

Research has demonstrated that when trees and vegetation are cleared for agriculture, firewood, grazing or to meet other human needs, exposed soil can become arid and degraded, negatively affecting the hydrological cycle, disrupting environmental equilibrium, and potentially leading to drylands or deserts.

One tool under discussion — the Regreening Africa app — was developed by CIFOR-ICRAF. It allows farmers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal and Somalia to monitor the effectiveness of their tree planting, nursery establishment, farmer-managed natural regeneration and training efforts.

“Very often, we develop tools, and then we expect them to be taken up by the people who need them,” said Tor-Gunnar Vågen, a senior scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF. “But often that doesn’t happen. It’s really important to involve stakeholders in that process from the beginning, also so they understand the information and make decisions at different scales.”

The application of sustainable land management practices has been shown to increase yields by between 30 to 170 percent, according to data gathered by the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which hosted the recently concluded U.N. Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification 2010-2020.

“Without its drylands, Africa would not be Africa,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of UNCCD,  in his remarks at GLF Africa. “Change is homemade, not imported – it’s time to reset, to rethink Africa’s development, to turn challenges into opportunities.”

Other large-scale initiatives designed to create transformative change at an international level were also discussed at the conference.

Luxembourg announced it will partner with GLF on a new Finance for Nature Platform, which aims to increase investment in climate and sustainable land use, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched the Dryland Sustainable Landscapes Impact Program, supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). A partnership with the World Bank, IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund, it is designed to reach almost a million people, and bring 12 million hectares of drylands under sustainable land management, including 1.6 million hectares of protected areas, and 10,000 hectares of high conservation value forests.

The Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR) supported by GEF and managed by the World Bank, also featured in discussions. The 27-country initiative is designed to alleviate pressure on natural ecosystems by transforming the global food system through the promotion of sustainable, integrated landscapes and efficient value chains for beef, cocoa, coffee, maize, palm oil, rice, soy and wheat.

CIFOR-ICRAF, which jointly coordinates GLF with the World Bank and the U.N. Environment Programme, will lead FOLUR knowledge-sharing efforts to mainstream good practices in relation to forest-related green initiatives and certification, Nasi said.

Of the countries covered by FOLUR in Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar and Nigeria feature dryland areas.

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