[Article] Reclaiming Africa’s Degraded Land? Here are Five Keys to Succeed
Africa, where over 65% of agricultural landscapes are degraded, is facing a growing environmental crisis affecting the livelihoods of many millions. Rising demand for farmland, combined with poor management methods such as monocropping and excessive land clearing, makes a toxic brew that threatens small scale farmers, pastoralists and everyone else
depending on the land for their livelihoods. This is a problem that affects not only the earth but all of us.
The consequences are dire. They are reflected in rising food prices and the growing fragility of rural communities unable to cope with the increasingly unpredictable weather climate change
brings, and are a harbinger of worse to come. As they degrade, soils are less and less able to hold water, worsening the impacts of droughts and floods, and providing fewer nutrients to crops and pastures alike. The disappearance of biodiversity means pests can thrive. And all that increases the desperation that pushes so many young people towards migration or rebellion. But none of that is fate.
Tools and approaches to reverse soil degradation and re-green landscapes exist. Figuring out how to get them adopted at scale is what Regreening Africa, a pioneering research in the development programme, has been doing across eight countries. Five years later, some of the results hold lessons for the whole of Africa. It is the deployment of these principles that allowed Regreening Africa to reach over 540,000 households – and already positively impact the lives of almost 500,000 of them, across Kenya, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, and Somalia by restoring close to one million hectares of land. Restoration can be achieved in a variety of ways, from working on rangelands to growing trees on farms. In all cases, it leads to better soil health and more plants, which makes the land more productive. That’s why landscape restoration provides so many outcomes for biodiversity, climate adaptation and mitigation, and livelihoods.
Today, five years after we started, we have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t.
We found that focusing on five key ingredients massively increases the chances of a land restoration project’s success. They are:
1. Think big. Large-scale, impactful restoration is achievable.
2. Break down silos. Close working partnerships across the Science-Practice-Policy
interfaces are crucial
3. There’s no magic bullet. No single practice works in all situations.
4. Understanding reality is key. Scientific tools integrated in the process make it far more
effective and efficient
5. Fair economic, livelihood and policy incentives inspire people and communities to
To restore land at scale, it is essential to understand and work through local government structures and include all stakeholders, especially those who directly manage the land and live
with it. Consider our team in Ethiopia, who set out to restore 200,000 hectares of land. Led by Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and World Agroforestry, it is made up of communities, local
experts, and government representatives, who together have delivered: their work has boosted vegetation cover and biodiversity, and so significantly raised the prospects of people depending
on those landscapes. Similar stories can be told in most of the countries we’re working in. Second, science-practice-policy collaborations are key to regreening efforts. Regreening at
scale requires strong partnerships involving governments, communities, development actors, researchers, and donors.
Landscapes, soils, cultures and livelihoods are so diverse that no single intervention will meet all needs. Any regreening practice must be matched to current and future local contexts, and its
implementation must be integrated into local processes and structures. In Senegal, World Vision and its government partners are restoring 160,000 hectares by using Farmer Managed Natural
Regeneration (FMNR). FMNR, a low-cost restoration technique that exploits the ecosystem services provided by regenerated trees to increase the productivity and resilience of crop fields
and pasturelands, is perfectly suited to landscapes rich in tree stumps and tree seeds lying dormant in the ground where the community desires the regenerating trees. In other locations, tree planting can complement FMNR to bring in desired species. Together, these regenerated and planted trees provide a cornucopia of benefits, from better soil fertility to new products to
bring to market.
In Regreening Africa, we embraced change by integrating citizens in the discovery process. A free app has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to identify the GPS coordinates of the
fields and record the trees they have regenerated or planted. Combined with the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework, a set of scientific tools that gives unmatched insights into the health of soil and land across Africa, this science-in-development approach has made it possible to track the regreening of land and its effects on soil health almost in real time. The continuous and timely fine-tuning of project interventions this allowed had a tremendous impact on our ability to scale operations and convince policymakers to adapt policies to enable their
adoption. Finally, every landscape we work in is not only somebody's home, but the substrate onto which that person builds a future for themselves. That means that land restoration must have positive economic consequences.
Incentives must grow, and they must be fairly shared across the community. It quickly became clear to the project teams how much people working on landscape restoration could benefit from and be motivated by fair incentives. Once farmers, pastoralists, and communities believe their efforts will result in higher returns, they will devote a significant amount of labour, capital, and other resources to land restoration. When this project started, five years ago, a director in the European Commission called it a quota pilot project at scale"a. Today, as the first phase of this effort comes to a close, we can take stock. We have exceeded our targets, reaching almost 10% more households than the 500,000 we hoped to contact (over 540,000 to date). Of those reached, 83 percent are taking up the practices already – and we expect more will do so in the future as they see the benefits.
When communities learn about new ways of restoring their landscapes, they typically start their interventions on a small part of their land. When they see that it works, they expand them to the
rest of the fields. And, since land restoration efforts involve interventions like regenerating or planting trees that may take years to grow and deliver benefits, the regreening the project has
achieved by now is only the beginning. To date, we have recorded restoration taking place on 61% of the land where we are directly working. The speed with which this regreening happens has accelerated, a phenomenon consistent with the hypothesis that farmers like what they see and they, and their neighbours, progressively expand these interventions to the rest of their
lands. These figures are conservative. We are reporting only on what we know has actually resulted in uptake and will therefore change.
They will rise over time as more and more farmers apply these practices to more of their land, and their neighbours and friends adopt them too. In order to make a real difference in restoring our continent’s landscapes, we need natural, sustainable solutions. The Regreening Africa project is an effective example of how, through agroecology and other relevant practices, scalable and replicable land restoration is possible.