- The UN declared 2021–2030 to be the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, but global initiatives aiming to tackle land degradation run the risk of failing unless they shift their approach to include farmers.
- Agricultural techniques that restore land such as agroforestry boost crop production and also positively contribute ‘ecosystem services’ such as fuelwood production, habitat creation, carbon sequestration and erosion control.
- We must acknowledge that local people have a wealth of knowledge about where they live, so tapping into this knowledge and gaining their partnership is key to long-term restoration goals, a new op-ed argues.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Land degradation – the deterioration or loss of the productive capacity of land – is progressing at an alarming rate. Globally, over a fifth of the total land area has already been degraded, causing substantial greenhouse gas emissions and leading to a decline in the productivity of crops, food insecurity, higher food prices – as well as the loss of biodiversity.
With the United Nations declaring 2021–2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, there are several large global initiatives aiming to tackle land degradation – but they run the risk of failing unless they shift their approach.
Traditionally, land restoration projects have focused on improving conditions on small areas of land. But the success of future landscape restoration projects depends on a more expansive approach. This requires both a widening of the physical focus – from farms or forests to entire landscapes – and a more inclusive process that involves working with farmers and other local actors.
Thinking beyond the farm
We need to ensure that practices that improve soil health such as conservation agriculture, agrobiodiversity management and agroforestry not only boost crop production but also positively contribute to several other ‘ecosystem services’ such as fuelwood production, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and erosion control.
An example of this wide focus can be seen in landscape restoration efforts in Chad and Kenya. Researchers involved in the Restoring Degraded Landscapes (RDL) sub-program, under the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), have combined soil analysis with indicators like vegetation cover, biodiversity, historic land use and visible signs of degradation, resulting in the creation of maps that provide information across entire landscapes.
In Kenya, for instance, data and maps for restoration use have been fed into a national resource hub that helps steer soil health measures on the ground, and in the future may even help farmers to generate income from global carbon offset funding.
Partnering with farmers
When working with local communities, land restoration projects need to begin by asking key questions of the people who live on the land: What are your needs and interests? How have you been using the land? What do you see as the main cause of landscape degradation? What outcomes are important to your health, security and livelihoods? What solutions would you propose?
As tempting as it is for researchers to go to a location and come up with a scientific approach to restoration – we must acknowledge that local actors have a wealth and depth of knowledge and experience about where they live. Tapping into this knowledge – as well as showing communities who influence land use decisions the monetary and non-monetary benefits of land restoration – is key to long-term success.
RDL worked alongside farmers and local actors in the Caquetá Department of Colombia where 35,500 hectares of land were lost to deforestation in 2020. RDL proposed silvopastoral systems that included forestry, forage plants and livestock in designated degrading zones. The program combined farmer field trips; peer-to-peer mentoring; workshops where farmers helped design spatial maps of their land; and advice on a range of practical topics, including the number and type of trees and shrubs that could be planted, and the management practices needed to improve soil health.
With the help of local universities and research institutes who provided continuous and ongoing support, some 103 hectares of land have been restored and participating households have reported a 24% increase in their annual income per hectare.
Inclusion is key
It is also important that women, youth and other marginalized groups are included in land restoration efforts. The economic, social and cultural costs of not including them throughout the project cycle are high, and inclusion needs to happen at every step – diagnosis, planning, implementation and benefit sharing – not just as a token measure at the start of a project.
Each of these groups has different needs, assets and interests, and without getting a proper understanding of different local perspectives, it is impossible to design effective landscape restoration programs.
Ultimately, for landscape restoration projects to achieve their goals in the long term, we need to adopt a ‘big picture’ approach – widening the focus of the land that we are surveying, as well as including the needs and interests of all the people who live on that land. With this approach, we will not only be able to bring landscapes back to life, but also enrich the lives of the people who live there.
Marcela Quintero is Agroecosystems and Sustainable Landscapes Research Area Director for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Co-leader of Water, Land and Ecosystem’s Restoring Degraded Landscapes (RDL) flagship research program. Ermias Betemariam is a land health scientist in the Centre for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).
Banner image: Maureen Selem shows off a pumpkin grown amongst her trees in an agroforestry system at her farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Photo by Sophie Mbugua for Mongabay.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of restoration efforts worldwide, from Finland to Africa and North America, listen here:
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