How to restore them and de-bunk their myths

Dryland ecosystems cover some 43 percent of Africa. They’re home to more than half a billion people dependent on the land for their food and livelihoods, largely through farming and pastoralism, harbor some of the continent’s most celebrated wildlife and plant species, and produce much of the continent’s food.

But how often do global climate change and development conversations focus on African drylands, and when they do, is the narrative applied to them one of optimism and abundance, or one of scarcity and neglect?

As 2020 marks a turning point for many global climate agendas, the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), the world’s largest knowledge-led organization on sustainable land use, focused its annual Africa-targeted conference specifically on the continent’s drylands, “GLF Africa: Restoring Africa’s Drylands,” running online for two days beginning 2 June.

This comes in a bid to elevate the science and initiatives happening in African drylands and in turn see the ecosystems more prominently incorporated into the numerous environmental summits taking place this year: the much-anticipated UN Food Systems Summit, the establishment of a new set of targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Climate Change Summit (COP 26), and the imminent 5 June launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

“This year determines how we land in 2030, which is the year we need to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals,” said João Campari, the leader of the Food Practice of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Drylands are terrestrial landscapes where the evaporation and transpiration of water into the atmosphere is at least 150 percent greater than the amount of rainfall. Drylands cover more than 40 percent of the world’s terrestrial area, hold a third of all biodiversity hotspots and 44 percent of agricultural land. They’re categorized based on their aridity, rising from dry and sub-humid lands such as savannahs and grasslands up to hyper-arid lands like the Sahara.

“About one-third of the world’s population lives in drylands, and yet they are largely overlooked and ignored,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Africa’s drylands are facing steep challenges due to climate change and lessening rainfall, striking regions with water scarcity and raising temperatures in the Sahel – a particularly vulnerable dryland region that borders the Sahara – 1.5 times faster than the global average. The economic fallout of COVID-19 has seen declines in livestock exports fall by up to 50 percent and rises in imported food prices by the same amount. Solutions to reverse degradation in drylands must include water, land, vegetation and human resources at once. “Anything that is a single, simplistic, silver-bullet solution is likely to fail,” said Nasi.

The two-day event began on 2 June to put forward multifaceted solutions, with featuring speakers from government, youth, science, local communities, the private sector, NGOs, media and a number of organizations. The day was divided into nine scientific sessions, four plenaries, film screenings, a virtual tour, digital exhibitions, two musical performances from Grammy-nominated artists Fatoumata Diawara and Rocky Dawuni, workshops, networking, and a number of inspirational speeches.

De-bunking drylands myths

“Life teems below ground,” stated a virtual tour of African drylands produced by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), alluding to the unseen nature of drylands. Drylands harbor over half of all carbon stored in soil, with immense root systems and a wealth of microorganisms found only in these landscapes. But the light cast on drylands in the public discourse tends shine on their environmental and social struggles rather than their rich complexity.

In the opening plenary of the GLF event, Ibrahim Thiaw, who leads the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought, outlined the five most common myths about drylands: that they’re unproductive, have little to offer the biodiversity and climate crises, don’t contribute to economies, are wastelands unworthy of investment, and that their inhabitants are the cause of their destruction. To each, he gave counter arguments, from the cotton grown in drylands that supports the global fashion industry, to massive opportunities for clean energy production, to the extraordinarily resource-efficient communities who have honed their relationships with the land over centuries.

“Without its drylands, Africa would not be Africa,” said Thiaw. “Change is homemade, not imported… it is time to reset, to rethink Africa’s development, to turn challenges into opportunities.”

Kenyan ecologist and policy expert Mordecai Ogada echoed Thiaw also gave an opening address that urged care in the use of the term “restoration,” which dots many of the environmental initiatives taking hold in Africa, from the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which seeks to bring 100 million hectares of continental land under restoration by 2030, to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

“Restoration is a very powerful word,” said Ogada. “It implies what happens after some kind of disaster. So we have to ask ourselves, what are we restoring [land] from, and what are we restoring it to?” The sheen of sweeping targets, such as to bring 30 percent of all global landscapes into protected areas, needs to examined in the African context, he said, as such a change could result in communities removed from the lands upon which they rely and sustainably manage.

Overcoming gaps in drylands knowledge is also critical to restoration that is socially and ecologically successful, and a number of sessions – attended by more than 70 journalists – focused specifically on doing so. Led by ILRI, WWF, and a number of other partners, a new and first-of-its-kind Rangelands Atlas was presented in depth. The Atlas is a living publication that currently comprises 16 maps charting rangelands, which cover 54 percent of the world’s land area – largely drylands –that support livestock farming. The Atlas examines rangelands’ nuances, from charting changes in water cycles to using satellite imagery to distinguish native tree cover from invasive species.  

“I really do see it as a game changer, because we’ve been looking for this kind of global data for so long… you cannot manage what you cannot measure,” said Jonathan Davies, the global drylands coordinator at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “To be fair, pastoralists have been managing rangelands very well for many centuries, using their own definitions and measures, but I think government and other actors have generally been less effective. Part of the challenge they face is agreeing what we’re talking about.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) hosted the launch the Drylands Sustainable Landscapes Impact Program of the Global Environment Facility (GEF-7), which will aim to bring 12 million hectares of drylands in Africa and Central Asia into sustainable land management practices, impacting the lives of nearly a million people.

The FAO also launched the French version of its longest-running periodical, the international forestry journal Unasylva, “Restoring the Earth – The next decade,” which stands as a robust resource on restoration efforts around the world in preparation for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Bringing biodiversity to food

To satisfy the projected global food demand in 2050, the FAO has estimated that agricultural output might need to increase by up to 53 percent as compared to a 2012 baseline. Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for the Food Systems Summit, said that this will have to be done while reducing the ecological footprint of agriculture, which requires more investment in farmers to adjust their practices.

Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), in which dryland farmers tap into underground tree root systems to cheaply incorporate trees onto their farms, is one such mechanism that has proven highly effective for improving soil fertility and boosting crop yields and livestock fodder. Bishop Dr. Simon Chiwanga, who leads the FMNR-focused LEAD Foundation in Tanzania, said in an address that the work of his organization has now seen more than 120,000 farmers raise more than 8 million trees across 100,000 hectares of Tanzania.

Genebanks also play an unsung role in the future of the global food supply, and a session hosted by the Crop Trust highlighted the importance of these institutions in developing and providing seeds to farmers that are resilient to climate change and extreme weather conditions. The session emphasized the need political support for genebanks, including expanding their locations from urban centers to rural areas where farmers and breeders can have greater access to their seeds.

A food-focused session at the event brought together speakers Salima Mahamoudou, a researcher at WRI, Nigerian entrepreneur Ndidi Nwuneli and Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika (clockwise from top left). Global Landscapes Forum
A food-focused session at the event brought together speakers Salima Mahamoudou, a researcher at WRI, Nigerian entrepreneur Ndidi Nwuneli and Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika (clockwise from top left). Global Landscapes Forum

“We must remember… everyone on earth is interdependent when it comes to genetic resources. If we are to succeed, there must be no more silos,” said Stefan Schmitz, the Crop Trust’s executive director. “Without secure, robust food systems that builds on the diversity of our seeds, we are lost.”

According to Ismahane Elouafi, a chief scientist at FAO, only 9 out of the some 6,000 crops in the world account for 66 percent of all crop production, and the future of food security and nutrition in Africa hinges on diversifying food production. To a large degree, this requires reshaping the continent’s supply chains, which speakers said were deteriorated by colonialism and the infiltration of cash crops to a point where imported foods are now cheaper than those locally produced. Acclaimed Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika bemoaned the lack of systemic support for Indigenous crops, specifically recalling how, in 2016, Ghana spent USD 1.6 billion to import rice from Asia.

“The question I was asking was what that money would look like if it was spend on local rice that was sustainably grown, or other crops such as fonio, millet, sorghum,” she said, citing some of the continent’s nutrient-rich “miracle grains.” Overcoming this likely requires a collective decision on one or two Indigenous crops to prioritize, such as fonio, which New York–based Senegalese chef Pierre Tham has now brought into Western markets, with his fonio-based brand Yolélé now sold across the U.S. in thousands of natural foods markets.

In a video address, he encouraged African viewers to similarly work to find market opportunities for their local products. “You are supporting biodiversity, and you are also creating opportunities for smallholder farmers from your area,” he said.

Intergenerational restoration

As Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with some 60 percent of its population under the age of 25, the importance of intergenerational exchange and youth empowerment echoed throughout sessions and plenaries.

“The role that young people play is pretty much the biggest comparative advantage that Africa has,” said Wanjira Mathai, vice president and regional director for Africa for the World Resources Institute (WRI). “How do we interest them, activate them and invest in their ideas? The Sahel is the youngest part of the world’s youngest continent. That ought to be a source of great strength and inspiration.”

The Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute in Ghana works to preserve the biodiversity of African plant species. Crop Trust, Flickr
The Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute in Ghana works to preserve the biodiversity of African plant species. Crop Trust, Flickr

Again, however, youth empowerment must arise through African exchange rather than a top-down or outside-in approach. “The term capacity-building is arrogant – the capacity is there,” said Tony Simons, director general of World Agroforestry (ICRAF), while discussing the role of genebanks in preserving African biodiversity for future generations. The need is rather to mobilize exchange between generations, he said, and “get that theme and paradigm working in Africa for intergenerational success.”

Ndidi Nwuneli, a Nigerian businesswoman who wears a multitude of hats leading West African agriculture companies and consultancies, focuses much of the effort of the youth-empowerment organization LEAP Africa on teaching entrepreneurs how to scale their businesses sustainably, not only protecting but also restoring the environment during business expansion, to not “repeat the mistakes of the West.” This means infusing environmental education into school systems, agribusiness curriculums and business development plans.

“The advice I have for the youth is for you to start seeing what is around you,” said Helina Teklu, co-founder of Seed Bomb Ethiopia, in a youth-organized session on green jobs. “The opportunities are right in front of us, especially in Africa. So I suggest you change your paradigm and the glasses through which you see the world, and start viewing Africa as a land of opportunities and just go tackle them.”

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