“A renaissance of nature” for Africa’s drylands

Seeding hope at the frontiers of the climate crisis

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Soil degradation affects a third of our planet, reducing crop yields, food security and climate resilience wherever it occurs. The sharp edge of this crisis is in Africa, where a full 65% of soils are degraded. Crucially, the continent’s drylands – which make up 43% of its land area and are home to 525 million people that depend primarily on rainfed agriculture and livestock husbandry for their livelihoods – are threatened with desertification.

 As climate impacts begin to bite, these concerns are becoming even more pressing. “The reality of climate change is that we need really healthy landscapes to be able to take the droughts, but also the heavy rains,” said Éliane Ubalijoro, the chief executive officer of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), and the director general of ICRAF, in a new video from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

 Restoring those landscapes’ health is challenging, but it’s not an impossible quest. Regreening Africa, a CIFOR-ICRAF-led partnership that has recently been recognized by UNEP as a World Restoration Flagship, has been working since 2017 to restore close to a million hectares of land across eight sub-Saharan African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, and Somalia), improving the livelihoods, food security and climate resilience of over 500,000 households in the process.

 To do so, it’s using evidence-based techniques and approaches such as agroforestry, farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), and wild enclosures to incorporate trees into cropland, communal land and pastoral land. “We see agroforestry as a really critical tool to fight climate change,” said Ubalijoro. “That includes planting indigenous trees that are helping to enrich the landscape and stabilize the soil.”

While the work’s importance in the bigger picture is clear, implementation on the ground has not been straightforward. “It’s work that takes time – and that takes a lot of trust-building,” said Ubalijoro. Convincing farmers to change age-old practices requires careful communication and consideration of the local context. “We saw that it was very important to incentivize farmers to adopt agroforestry practices,” she said. “That requires being able to listen into the communities to ensure that the work we’re doing really aligns with their needs.”

If planned well, agroforestry can boost soil health, climate resilience, biodiversity, food security and livelihoods simultaneously. For instance, farmers can combine annual crops with beehives and fruit and nut trees. “Having the possibility of multiple revenue streams is a really important way to help smallholder farmers thrive,” said Ubalijoro.

“Today, we have farmers that in one hectare of land are growing ten to 13 different crops. Some of them will be corn; some of them will be fruit trees; some of them will have trees that they’re using for charcoal production; some of them will be long-term timber.”

Looking forward, the project aims to scale out its learnings and bring an additional four million hectares of land under restoration by 2030. “The good news is restoration works and can bring major benefits to communities – from supporting smallholder famers to helping raise household incomes,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director, in a press release. “As people begin to quickly recognize the benefits of ecosystem restoration, it makes perfect sense to extend regreening practices to more lands and kickstart a renaissance of nature.”

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