20) Land degradation threatens dryland populations

The survival of more than 250 million people living in the drylands of the developing world is being threatened by a chronic problem – land degradation.

Drylands cover about 41% of the earth’s surface. The poor people in the drylands depend mainly on rainfed agriculture and natural rangelands for their survival. Their livelihoods are at risk due to land degradation, which is exacerbated by increasing population growth that is putting considerable pressure on fragile land resources.

However, science-based innovations can be mobilized to help arrest land degradation. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) headquartered in Patancheru in southern India, addresses the problem of land degradation through sustainable land management (SLM) techniques.

According to ICRISAT Director General Dr William D Dar, “Investing in SLM to control and prevent land degradation in the wider landscape is an essential and cost-effective way to deliver other global environmental benefits, such as maintenance of biodiversity, mitigation of climate change and protection of international waters”.

ICRISAT is the executing agency and coordinator of the Desert Margins Program (DMP) funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). DMP is a collaborative initiative among nine sub-Saharan African countries – Botswana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which are assisted by five Centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and three advanced research institutes. The DMP focuses on better understanding land and biodiversity degradation and finding ways to counter them.

ICRISAT, jointly with a sister CGIAR Center the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) based in Syria, is catalyzing a global research program called ‘Oasis’ to intensify the effort against dryland degradation and desertification. Oasis brings the best global science partnerships to bear across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

To address the issue of poor soil fertility, some consider this a greater food-production constraint than drought in semi-arid Africa, ICRISAT has developed a “microdosing” technique that involves the application of small, affordable quantities of fertilizer with the seed at planting time or as a top dressing 3 or 4 weeks after emergence. This enhances fertilizer use efficiency and improves productivity.

The Institute is also testing two market development strategies to address constraints such as difficult access to fertilizer and credit; insufficient flow of information and training to farmers; and inappropriate policies. In West Africa, the ‘Warrantage’ or inventory credit system aims to resolve the farmers’ capital constraint. Farmers place part of their harvest in a local storehouse in return for loans, which they use to pay debts and start various income-earning activities to tide over the long dry season. The stored grain is sold later in the year when prices are high, and the farmer is able to repay the loan. ICRISAT has also succeeded in getting private fertilizer companies to sell fertilizers in small packs that smallholder farmers can afford.

The Institute has partnered with other organizations and has evolved a new consortium watershed management model to control land degradation and improve rural livelihoods. The approach is built on the principle of harnessing the strengths of the consortium partners for the benefit of all the stakeholders, and is based on a holistic systems approach called the Integrated Genetic and Natural Resource Management (IGNRM) strategy.

The Drylands Eco-farm (DEF) is an innovative trees-crops-livestock system for rainfed crop production. Fast-growing, drought tolerant Australian Acacias and a high value tree crop (Zizyphus mauritania) are intercropped with annual crops. It also incorporates principles of crop rotation, mulch application, windbreaks and nitrogen fixing trees. Profits from the DEF are 3-5 times higher than profits from current cropping systems.

The Institute is also undertaking Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands (BDL) project in barren, unproductive soils that are widespread in the West African Sahel. This combines simple effective techniques such as zaï holes, planting-basin cultivation, trenches and land scarification that concentrate limited water and nutrient resources close to the plant roots. In addition the planting of high-value crops that restore organic matter and soil texture earn a handsome profit for the poor from fruit and gum trees, hardy leafy vegetables and legumes.

Besides developing and promoting these techniques to curb land degradation and improve the quality of agricultural soil, ICRISAT is putting great emphasis on strengthening the national capacities in studying climate, soil, vegetation and livestock trends and dynamics, standardization of methodologies to ensure data quality. It is also looking at building effective partnerships with national (NGOs, rural communities and CBOs), regional and international institutions and the private sector.

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