Seeds of hope emerge across the world’s drylands

Drylands occupy 40% of the earth’s land area and are home to 2.5 billion people – nearly a third of the world’s population. People in dry areas are forced to contend with severe environmental degradation and increasing climate variability, aggravated by amongst the highest population growth rates in the world. A groundbreaking paper heralding a new integrated systems approach to agricultural research in the drylands, was published in the journal Food Security recently (18.11.13).

This is good news for 400 million people in the developing world who depend on dryland agriculture for their livelihoods. But what is new?

To begin with, the authors distinguish between households with a low asset base, whose livelihoods are dominated by vulnerability, and those with a stronger asset base. For the first group the priority is to reduce vulnerability and improve their resilience whereas the second group are well placed to benefit from sustainable intensification, focused on improving productivity per unit of land and water.

“In reality, households are spread along a continuum from low to high resilience and productivity,” said Dr Fergus Sinclair, of the School of the Environment, Natural Resources and Geography at Bangor University and one of the authors of the paper, “But, there is a threshold of vulnerability that you have to cross before people are able to invest in increasing productivity, rather than protecting themselves from the sort of catastrophic collapses that devastated the lives of around 10 million people in the Horn of Africa drought just a few months ago.”

This new paper proposes an approach to research for development that integrates action horizontally and vertically all along impact pathways. Horizontal integration involves working across sectors of water, energy, agriculture and environment, while vertical integration refers to working across scales from field and farm to landscape and region, often connected by cross scale mechanisms like markets that connect farmers in dry areas of Africa with consumers in Wales.

“For rural households’ says Sinclair ‘food, water and energy are intimately connected but often fall under different institutional settings in terms of local and national governance. In dry areas, there are important interactions across scales. For example, pastoralists move livestock across landscapes where other people are farming crops.”

It is testimony to a commitment for integration that the paper is authored by twenty scientists from across dryland, agroforestry, crop, biodiversity, livestock and water management centres of the CGIAR (a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for a food secure future) and their development partners.

“For sustainability,” says Sinclair “we not only need to boost productivity but to do so in a way that is consistent with protecting the environment. There is widespread land degradation in the world’s drylands and we desperately need to restore this land to higher productivity and protect key biodiversity hotspots. These requirements combine actions under the UN conventions to combat desertification (UNCCD) and on biological diversity (CBD).

The authors go beyond conjecture to ground their proposal for integrated systems research in experience from four case studies that provide a proof of concept. These include development of index-based livestock insurance in Kenya; integrated improvement of tree-crop-livestock systems in the Mashreq and Maghreb; development of Andean agriculture; and, integrated watershed development in South Asia. These examples, spanning four continents, illustrate the importance of maintaining agrobiodiversity to secure a resilient production base and diversified livelihood options.

“But a key issue,” says Sinclair, “is being able to make impact at large scales so that many people benefit across many hectares of dryland. This is not easy and requires a new focus on local adaptation of interventions to cope with variation in context across large scaling domains.” (See video clip).

The authors put their new initiative in the context of the development of systems and participatory research approaches in agriculture over the last half a century, and stress the importance of new forms of partnership amongst researchers, development agencies, extension systems, market actors, policy makers and the private sector, to deliver on the promise of more resilient and productive dryland agriculture. Measures targeted specifically at women and young people will be particularly important given the rapid population expansion in dry areas.

The article is freely available to all under an open access agreement and was developed under the auspices of the CGIAR Research Programme on Dryland Systems  led by ICARDA, that was officially launched in Amman, Jordan in May of this year.

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Publication date: 19 November 2013