Fighting the Desert, One Farmer at a Time

Image courtesy Foundation for Ecological Security
Image courtesy Foundation for Ecological Security

By Karol Boudreaux, Omidyar Network

Bringing life to barren places may seem like an impossible dream,  but, last week, as we celebrated World Day to Combat Desertification (June 17), we were reminded that this dream can blossom into reality.

Sure, you might be thinking, with enough irrigation you can turn any brown patch into a lush field. However, given the high costs associated with these projects and the world’s shrinking development budgets, it is unlikely that large-scale irrigation alone can meet the challenge of reviving deserts.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to.

Around the world, small-scale, bottom-up efforts to fight desertification are having an outsized impact. Last week, through its Land for Life Award, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) highlighted two examples of what people are doing to save their local environments.

UNCCD honored the Indian NGO Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) for their work with more than 5,200 rural villages and local government leaders to sustainably rehabilitate degraded ecosystems, including drylands, forests, and so-called “wastelands.”

In India, wastelands are lands that don’t generate taxable income because it seems that nothing valuable grows on them. The term, a legacy of British colonial rule, masks an important reality: wastelands can be extremely valuable at the local level when sound administrative systems are in place to regulate their use.

In the past, the commons were not well governed in India. Local legislatures had neither the money nor the will to protect these ecologically sensitive environments, which became overused and depleted. With access to few legal rights and declining benefits from use of these lands, local communities also lacked strong incentives to effectively manage common spaces. The result: a classic example of the tragedy of the commons.

Then, FES stepped in. The organization works with community members to form local committees to manage resources such as water users’ associations, grazing committees, and forest committees. FES helps communities gain stronger legal rights with regard to common lands, shifting incentives from overuse or misuse towards productive stewardship. It also works with local leaders to build support for community administration.

These community-led efforts are helping to improve the management of well over 4.5 million hectares of land, transforming denuded hillsides and valleys into healthier, more biodiverse environments and improving opportunities for locals to grow food, raise livestock, and protect and expand their livelihoods.

Africa’s Sahel region has experienced a similar revitalization, but at an even bigger scale. Over the past two decades, huge swathes of the drought-stricken Sahel have turned into green, productive landscapes. This impressive transformation is not the result of increasing rainfall in the region. Nor is it the result of massive infrastructural projects bringing irrigation to previously un-irrigated areas. Rather, this dramatic change is the result of farmers protecting and nurturing trees that grow in their fields.

One organization that helped catalyze this change is World Vision Australia, another UNCCD honoree. Through a quintessential bottom-up development program called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), World Vision Australia has helped farmers push back the Sahara. FMNR is a low-cost, low-tech, high impact approach to sustainable agriculture that has transformed millions of lives and millions of hectares of land.

Like farmers in India with commons, farmers in the Sahel had few incentives to protect trees because, until recently, the trees were government property. But with little government oversight of the resource, people cut trees for firewood or to make plowing easier.

World Vision Australia has trained thousands of farmers to work around the trees, capture scarce rainwater, and improve pruning and harvesting of branches and leaves.  These practices have improved levels of groundwater, increased crop yields, and produced more fertile soil and fodder for livestock. They have also had an impact on policy.  The government of Niger has changed the law to recognize the on-the-ground reality: farmers need to be the real owners of trees.

While it might seem counterintuitive, a powerful lesson to take from FES’s and World Vision Australia’s work is that less can, in some cases, be more: local people, empowered with the right incentives and legal authority, can do an extraordinary job of meeting one of the world’s most pressing problems.

They can make the desert bloom.

Karol Boudreaux is Director of Property Rights Investment at Omidyar Network

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