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Every year, 12 million hectares of land are degraded because of drought and desertification. The Food and Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations hopes to reverse that trend and return land to agriculture production.
A major EU-funded FAO-programme called Action Against Desertification has paved the way for large-scale land restoration in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Its restoration method could become a vital tool in support of efforts to reverse land degradation through restoration. According to UNCCD, the United Nations body tasked with addressing desertification, the area lost each year to degradation could produce 20 million tons of grain and could have stopped some deforestation in the process. Of course, the restoration effort also can create jobs for local villagers and farmers.
Adding to the pressure on fragile ecosystems in Africa’s drylands and on islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific are population growth and climate change.
“However grim this outlook may be, these problems are not insurmountable” said Eva Müller, Director of FAO’s Forestry Policy and Resources Division at the opening of the executive committee meeting for Action Against Desertification. “Bold action and investments can boost food security, improve livelihoods and help people adapt to climate change,” she added.
“Action Against Desertification has shown that land degradation is not yet irreversible,” said Pietro Nardi of the European Union, the programme’s major sponsor. “This is good news now that efforts to halt land degradation are high on the international agenda,” he added, referring to the upcoming UN review of the sustainable development goals in July.
Action Against Desertification, a key partner of Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative, was launched in 2014. So far, it has reached an estimated 500,000 people. By the end of this year, it plans to have planted 35,000 hectares of degraded land.
Central to the success of Action Against Desertification is a method that puts rural communities at the heart of restoration work by focusing on their needs for useful species and preferences in support of their livelihoods.
“We support communities in planting the right species in the right place at the right time,” said Moctar Sacande, who is in charge of the programme. He underlined the importance of upscaling operations in view of the massive need for restoration, explaining that mechanized land preparation is being employed to shift into higher gear.
At the same time, Action Against Desertification also puts a lot of effort into stimulating economic growth. It helps local communities to develop the value chains of non-timber forest products. Some of these products, gum Arabic, honey or tree oils, offer substantial commercial potential. Others, such as fast-growing grasses, are very useful to feed the animals, but can be sold as well.
Groundbreaking results were also achieved in monitoring and evaluation, vital to track progress of activities on the ground. An innovative monitoring system, using FAO’s Collect Earth developed in partnership with Google, allows Action Against Desertification to measure its contribution to achieving land degradation neutrality targets.
Action Against Desertification played a key role in the first global assessment of trees, forests and land use in drylands, based on the analysis of over 200 000 sample plots of half a hectare each, which found that forests in drylands are much more extensive than previously assumed. The findings were published in Science magazine in May 2017.
The global drylands assessment enabled to map the restoration needs and opportunities for Africa’s Great Green Wall for the first time. Its core area is estimated to cover 780 million hectares, more than twice the size of India and home to 232 million people. 166 million hectares of this area are in need of restoration, the assessment concluded.
As a result, it has become clear that the need for land restoration is enormous: in Africa’s Great Green Wall area alone, over 10 million hectares must be restored each year until 2030 to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 15 on land degradation neutrality.
At the same time, efforts are underway to expand the Great Green Wall initiative to other parts of Africa. Several countries have expressed their interest to participate, including Ghana, Cameroon, as well as Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho, the latter three within the framework of the Southern Africa Development Community and its (SADC) efforts to combat desertification.