Bottom-up approach for combating land degradation

Contour strips of Aloe Vera help to combat land degradation in Cape Verde (Western Africa)(© Hanspeter Liniger 2008)

Terracing, agroforestry, dams or basins? Which of the available soil conservation strategies should local residents choose to combat land degradation? Policymakers, NGOs and 28 research institutes, including ISRIC, have now launched a freely available book Desire for green land to help answer this question. Part of the book consists of a ‘roadmap’, compiled from the experiences in 16 vulnerable ‘hot spots’ in countries from southern Europe to Chile, Botswana and China. The new roadmap can help stakeholders to combat land degradation by using scientific insights as well as a bottom-up approach.

The most suitable practices in a region – the roadmap outcomes – are always the result of negotiations, explains project coordinator Coen Ritsema of Alterra (Wageningen UR). Stakes such as water quality and combating land degradation have to be combined with local residents’ stakes such as income and labour availability. Culture also plays a role, Ritsema adds. ‘Large-scale terracing can be effective in China because Chinese people can be more easily mobilised for large-scale and labour-intensive works. In less hierarchic cultures, small-scale measures, such as vegetative strips or water-trapping basins will probably work better.’

Desire for green land resulted from the EU-project Desire, initiated by Alterra, Wageningen UR in 2007. The aim was to come up with alternative land-use strategies to combat land degradation and desertification caused by climate change, erosion, fires, pollution, salinization or, for instance, soil depletion. Many countries are aware that all these types of degradation lead to major problems, which is why 193 countries have signed the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Using the new roadmap, policymakers, planners and local communities can now systematically choose the land-use strategies that are most suited to their region.

At the 16 ‘hot spots’, the partner institutes first inventoried the types of land degradation. They then assessed how effective the current soil- and water conservation techniques are at each site. These findings can now be checked in an open DESIRE database, using Google Earth. Together with local stakeholders, the researchers selected suitable land-use strategies. Then they tested and evaluated alternative strategies in the field. Finally they used computer models to assess what would happen if a successful strategy were to be adopted in a larger region.

ISRIC’s contribution consisted of reviewing existing global literature and datasets, and using the outcomes of two other international programs in which it participated: the LADA program, which identified land degradation hot spots at risk throughout the world, and the WOCAT program, which has already documented more than 450 soil and water conservation strategies worldwide. In addition, the institute identified drivers for land degradation and potential stakeholders in the participatory process. ‘The outcomes of the previous WOCAT and LADA programs were datasets’, says ISRIC researcher Godert van Lynden. ‘DESIRE goes further, as does Green Water Credits, a second bottom-up approach in which we are involved. In both programs we’ve also evaluated strategies to implement scientific outcomes, and we’ve made recommendations.’

DESIRE is formally coming to an end, but some participants have already said they will start using the bottom-up method in other vulnerable hot spots.