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Editorial – Combating desertification

Desertification and land degradation are not just natural phenomena. They are the outcomes of long-term over-exploitation and mismanagement of fragile ecosystems. To address these problems, we cannot pursue the same ways of thinking that have led to this situation. We need to take a different perspective – which is already presenting itself.

In February 2013, the United Nations will organise a major conference on desertification, sustainable land management and resilience. This is now more relevant than ever. The UN itself estimates that 1.5 billion people around the world are directly affected by land degradation, while every year 12 million hectares of land become unproductive through desertification. The effects are worsened by climate change. Pastures are scorched, crops and livestock often do not survive.

The impact can be devastating. For example, impoverished dryland communities in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa are experiencing high levels of chronic malnutrition, hunger, child mortality and migration, in an environment that is at risk of being degraded beyond repair. Humanitarian aid to cope with each new crisis costs over a billion dollars each time, and leaves many new problems in its wake.

Land degradation is not just the result of natural disasters. It is also the outcome of long-term over exploitation of natural resources and ecosystems, generated by the dominating approach to agricultural development. However, promising initiatives demonstrate that a new paradigm is emerging.

The old model

Drylands – Some facts

Drylands cover approximately 40% of the world’s land area, and support two billion people, 90% of whom live in developing countries.

Dryland degradation costs developing countries an estimated 4–8% of their national gross domestic product (GDP) each year.

Approximately 6 million km2 (about 10%) of drylands bear a legacy of land degradation.

15 of the 24 ecosystem services studied in drylands are in decline.

Source: Global Drylands: A UN system-wide response, prepared by the Environment Management Group, UN, 2011

The dominant model of agricultural development leads to conflict and controversy. Policies and practices continue to be biased towards export oriented, commercial production in areas that have access to more reliable rainfall, inputs, roads and markets.

But tens of millions of small-scale farmers who live fragile drought prone areas cannot afford industrial inputs, such as hybrid or genetically engineered seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation.

The current neo-liberal development paradigm, focused on rapid growth, does not see investment in ecologically fragile, drought prone, areas as being economically feasible. It foresees (and often drives) many small-scale farmers and pastoralist communities living in such areas to leave and work in towns and cities or large scale commercial plantations or farms. Food aid is dispensed during periodic droughts and shocks while this “inevitable” transition goes on.

A variety of experiences of farmers, NGOs and scientists over past decades has laid the basis for a new agricultural paradigm. A small selection of these experiences is presented in this issue of LEISA India. A central concept in this new paradigm is the resilience of farming communities and their ecosystems. This concept has two aspects: ecological resilience, coping with drought and climate change, and socio-political resilience, the ability of farmers to develop their skills and voices to choose their own development path.

The path forward

In this new paradigm, farming systems are seen as a whole, with healthy, active soils as the basis. The aim of this paradigm is not just increased productivity, but also resilience to climate change and sustaining the natural resource base. For all three aims, it is essential to increase the organic matter in the soil. This improves water retention and fertility, and prevents erosion. Agro-ecological practices range from recycling nutrients and energy, integrating crops and livestock, using low external inputs and diversifying crops. In an agro-ecological approach, these practices go hand in hand with the empowerment of small-scale farmers, both men and women. As farmers gain greater control over their lives, they decrease the risk of crop failure or livestock deaths due to drought and degradation. Farmers reap multiple benefits at once: increased productivity and food security, higher incomes, improved food security, adaptation to a changing climate, regeneration of their natural resource base and more autonomy.

Many civil society organisations have worked closely with local communities and interested scientists, to develop and document holistic approaches to dryland management. Experiences of WOTR (p.6), BAIF (p.13 and p.34) are good examples of such holistic approaches. These approaches are powerful because the technical, social and governance dimensions are closely integrated. In most of these cases, the landless poor have also been included in the process of development.

Day by day, these experiences are accumulating. Some initiatives, particularly at the watershed level, have already been massively scaled up as can be seen in the State of Andhra Pradesh (see page 20). Other successful examples include the experiences of community groups in converting wastelands into orchards in the Himalayan region (see page 23) as well as in arid regions like Rajasthan (see page 13). Such experiences demonstrate that agroecological farming is an appropriate and cost-effective approach to increase resilience in drought prone, ecologically fragile areas. There is abundant evidence to support this. Yet, there are challenges preventing a more comprehensive upscaling of this approach.

Change is in the air

Governments and donors still have a long way to go in mainstreaming the agro-ecological paradigm. For example, in India, the Watershed Development Programmes (WDPs) which have been accorded high priority in India’s development plans have made a negligible impact on the livelihoods of poor people in the fragile ecosystems. However, there is a growing realization that the approaches need to be people oriented, local knowledge systems need to be respected and the skills and expertise of small farmers need to be strengthened, while supporting their use of agroecological farming practices. This requires a truly integrated perspective on dryland management, breaking down institutional barriers and improving collaboration between stakeholders. There are pilot initiatives taken up by the mainstream institutions (see page 10 and page 20) which show that the change is happening.

Many institutions have not yet grasped that building agroecological resilience requires a fundamental change in agricultural investment patterns. For example, while the UNCCD argues that it is important to build production systems based on the intensification of locally available and adapted biodiversity, using local knowledge, its finance mechanism explicitly encourages a large role for the private sector while it could equally mention the need to support local knowledge-based farming systems.

Social movements and NGOs have a role to play in supporting the upscaling of agro-ecological practices and fundamental policy change. There is urgent need to improve the documentation, analysis and communication of successful experiences. It is also important to understand the strategies and dynamics that exist in, highly politicised, decision making arenas. Civil society organisations need to take a broad perspective and build strong alliances, truly exchanging knowledge with farmers and scientists.

The call for change is getting louder. Farmers are becoming more powerful in voicing their concerns and proposals. We are also witnessing a growing movement of consumer organisations that have become conscious of the need for ecologically responsible and socially just food systems.

Policy makers are facing the huge and mounting costs of disasters caused by climate change, land degradation and desertification. If they listen well, and open their minds towards a new way of understanding a multi-functional approach to agriculture, they may well discover that part of the solution is within reach.

In preparing this write up, the inputs provided by the member organisations of the AgriCultures Network, which share knowledge and provide information on small-scale, sustainable agriculture and Groundswell International, a not-for-profit corporation that works to strengthen rural communities to build healthy farming and food systems, is gratefully acknowledged.