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OPINION: Greening the world’s drylands isn’t only possible, it’s imperative

by Mette Wilkie | FAO
Monday, 17 June 2019 12:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Farmers plant grass to stabilise sand dunes at the edge of the Mu Us Desert in Lingwu, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China, November 26, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Decreasing land productivity undermines efforts to end hunger, it also makes societies vulnerable to instability

Mette Wilkie, Director of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division (FAO).

Long before most people had ever heard of sand and dust storms, climate change and desertification, Denmark was losing fertile land, and was even forced to relocate some of its villages due to sand drifts that kept pushing inland from the dunes along its coasts. As early as 1539, the King prohibited the stripping of the land of trees and other vegetation, but people needed to build houses, gather fuel, graze animals and grow food. The conflict between use and conservation of natural resources was only a hint of what was to come in many regions of the world.

In the 1800s, Denmark launched a major project to plant trees to stabilize some of the country’s sand dunes. The country embarked on extensive tree plantation programmes and passed regulations to allow the state to finance and create dune plantations, becoming an early example of what people and governments, working together, could do to keep their drylands relatively green and healthy.

Many of the trees planted in that era are still standing today. But the degradation of arid and semi-arid lands in much of the world is continuing at an alarming rate. With it comes the vicious cycle, which makes the loss of forests and other plant life both a contributor to and a result of climate change.

Decreasing land productivity undermines efforts to end hunger. It also makes societies, particularly those in drylands, vulnerable to socioeconomic instability. In dryland areas, years with extreme low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict.

Globally, desertification and the associated land degradation are currently threatening the livelihoods of 1 billion people in more than 100 countries. United Nations figures show that 12 million hectares of arable land are lost annually to drought and that the economic consequences of desertification and land degradation amount to an estimated $490 billion per year. The only way out of this trend is to turn the tide against it.

But what does this mean in practical terms?

It means investing in research and development, changing day-to-day action around the world through the training of farmers to employ more soil-friendly practices, and the provision of technical and financial support needed for the active restoration of vegetation cover with seedlings, cuttings and seeds that are adapted to the local conditions and to the effects of climate change.

A fundamental part of such action is to involve the people who depend most directly on forest and dryland resources for their basic needs. This is one of the principles behind the Action Against Desertification (AAD) programme to promote sustainable land management and restore drylands and degraded lands in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

In just a few years, this initiative has managed to bring 53 000 hectares of land under restoration using innovative technologies combined with local knowledge, planting around 8 million seedlings and work with 700 000 people in local low income communities to improve their resilience to the impact of land degradation and desertification.

As an example of the early impact of this programme, farmers in Niger were reaping an abundant amount of fodder just one year after their land had been restored – 1200 kg per hectare.

It is one of several innovative initiatives currently underway and which demonstrate that greening the world’s drylands is indeed possible and brings with it a wealth of associated benefits, from reduction of poverty and hunger to mitigation of climate change and reduced risks of conflict.

Let's grow this kind of future together.