Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Importance of Drylands Management

by Duncan Gromko

Nick and I went to an interesting presentation on drylands by UN Dryland Ambassador Dennis Garrity yesterday afternoon.

Source: UNDP
Dr. Garrity's talk focused primarily on drylands in Africa, particularly in North Africa, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. He set the stage by tying resource degradation in the region to conflict. From Mali to Algeria to Somalia, countries bordering the Sahara have been plagued by war and insecurity. There are are many good explanations for these conflicts, but declining natural capital is a big part of the story. It was good context because it showed how the environment should be a concern for the security community.

Another, more surprising connection that Dr. Garrity made was that between desertification and women's illiteracy....huh? Well there is an important intermediate variable here: women's fertility. Illiterate women tend to have more children, and a rapidly expanding, rural population puts added pressure on the environment. Niger, which is ground zero for desertification, also has the highest fertility rate in the world, at over 7 children per woman. This is an important point because it shows that more holistic strategies are needed to address the drivers of environmental degradation. At some point I'm going to do a population/health/environment post.

Source: Schmidt
So what is the immediate solution to degradation? For those who know me or this blog, the answer is obvious: more trees. There are few places in the world where trees can help more with the biggest obstacles to human well-being. Trees help cool the microclimate (heat is obviously an issue near the desert), regulate water supply (ditto), and fix nitrogen in the soil (soil degradation from overuse is another problem). Dr. Garrity had great photos of drylands where crops that were close to trees were growing substantially bigger than other crops. In addition to improving agricultural yields, trees also provide people with firewood and fodder for grazing animals. Different agroforestry methods - where trees and traditional agriculture grow side by side - such as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) and intercropping have increased productivity in these very marginal lands. FMNR is totally centered around getting native trees to grow in your fields. In a nutshell, by pruning saplings and bushes correctly and protecting them from grazing animals, trees grow naturally - there is zero capital investment. Then, these trees fix nitrogen and help protect the soil.

The amazing part about the use of agroforestry techniques in African drylands is how quickly they have spread through a grassroots movement. Most of the training has happened farmer to farmer. In Niger, where FMNR really got its start, over 5 million hectares of drylands have been restored. There has been some important NGO and multilateral support (by organizations like Dr. Garrity's) for agroforestry, but the real success is due to the grassroots effort. There is a cool video about "The Man Who Stopped the Desert."

This approach flies in the face of modern agriculture, which means that it is not universally accepted by agricultural development organizations or national governments. Modern agriculture says you should plant in monoculture, using fertilizer, a tractor, and in straight lines - trees are seen as competing with crops for water and nutrients. While this approach has helped the US produce a ton of food, it puts too much stress on the more marginal soils in drylands.

In fact, there was a funny/tragic story told by an audience member: it was only when the World Bank cancelled its agricultural extension program in Niger that the drylands became productive again. I wish Dr. Garrity had expanded a little more on how big organizations like the UN can positively support and engage grassroots movements because that seems to be a challenge.

It was a fascinating talk and I'm glad I went. This story is a great case study for the blog because of the obvious connection between human well-being and the ecosystem services supported by ecosystem restoration. I also like the story because this blog can kind of be a downer and this is a great success story, even if there is a lot of work still to do.

1 comment:

  1. What you refer to as 'modern agriculture' is a result of overpriced labor and underpriced oil. This was the deliberate policy of the mid twentieth century liberalism which saw overpriced labor as the answer to poverty.
    NATURAL CAPITAL! Rebuilding soil is quite practical if you have a bunch of cattails to work with. Lake Chad is choked with them, and their removal would fight the desert dramatically. Cattails are dessication and siltation machines that produce soil that clogs lake beds. Clearing Lake Chad's cattails and dredging their silt is the way to drive back the Sahara. It can be financed with the biofuel that can be made from the biomass. The processes range from hi-tech to lo-tech to fit your energy market.