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How do we ensure our landscapes support agriculture to increase wealth and equity in smallholder farming communities?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

Soil. It’s like the air we breathe - we can’t live without it. It provides our food, cleans our water, supports our ecosystems and livelihoods, and even gives us lifesaving medicines.

But we aren’t doing enough to protect it and our landscapes are in trouble.

This is why the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) blog is focusing on restoring degraded landscapes for the next month. As the research and development world meets to discuss the most pressing issues relating to soil and landscape protection at Global Soil Week and the Global Landscapes Forum, we will be bringing the discussion here, to WLE's Agriculture and Ecosystems blog.

Restoring degraded soils in Kenya.  Photo Credit: Neil Palmer Restoring degraded soils in Kenya. Photo Credit: Neil Palmer

What exactly is the problem?

Conservative estimates state that the world is losing 24 billion tons of fertile soil each year.  That’s 3.4 tons lost every year for every person on the planet. In Africa alone, land degradation affects 67% of agricultural lands, with about 490 million hectares showing erosion and declining vegetation. Left unchecked, this will have huge impact on food security and human and environmental health.

Already over the last 50 years land and soil degradation have reduced crop yields and the agricultural share of gross domestic product by 9-10%.  We mask this crisis with increasing agricultural inputs, but this can bring other problems: loss of other ecosystem services, pollution, and ever increasing energy demands to support agricultural production.

The problem isn’t going away, and many of the world’s poorest people live on degraded underperforming land. Land degradation, along with low productivity, lack of infrastructure and services, and natural hazards, is a major driver of poverty, preventing smallholder farmers from making agriculture viable and profitable.

Land degradation is no longer a local problem. Increasing land scarcity means that smallholder farmers in Africa may find themselves competing for land in a global market that has seen an exponential rise in foreign investment in soil and water or ‘land grabbing’. Conversion of new lands contributes to climate change.

So, in a world where one of the biggest development issues is how to feed a population of 9 billion, what are we doing about it?

  • How do we feed the world without wrecking the planet?
  • How do we ensure our landscapes support agriculture as a driver of increased wealth and equity in smallholder farming communities?
  • And, given the state of soils across the globe, is it acceptable to aim for zero-net land degradation, as agreed by world leaders at Rio+20 last year?
Should we be aiming higher?  Can we prevent land degradation and restore degraded lands?

At the risk of going all Barak Obama: ‘Yes we can!’ – there has never been a more exciting and enabling time for it.

For the first time, significant advances in scientific research, the evolving investment agenda among donors, governments and the private sector, and the alignment of global initiatives, mean the conditions are ripe for a coordinated effort to combat land degradation and restore degraded lands.

Restoring degraded landscapes, starting with soils and radiating through a range of ecosystem services, is a major focus of the WLE's Rainfed research portfolio.

We know that where landscapes are degraded, ecosystem services are lost. Overall biomass production is far below potential because soils no longer hold nutrients and water. Biodiversity is lost, including species that provide important support services. Pests dominate systems and  water loss is high.

The WLE program has adopted a paradigm in which agricultural development shifts from that of ‘productivity enhancement’ to sustainable intensification that enhances productivity, contributes to global sustainability and the eradication of poverty and increases resilience.  This paradigm cannot be achieved without restoring degraded landscapes.

But we need clarity on the causes and human cost of degradation. Without this, how can we guide shifts in investments, steer changes in the conditions that lead to degradation, and reverse the damage? WLE’s Rainfed research will develop strategies to restore ecosystem services in landscapes that are site specific and tailored to biophysical potential and social / political realities. After all, no one landscape has the same rainfall, soils, markets, assets, productivity and social systems.

Throughout the month-long blog focus on restoring landscapes (from 21 October to 18 November), we will debate the issues, discuss solutions, and highlight the work of WLE, its partners and others to reduce land degradation, restore soils and landscapes and promote sustainable land management.

Each blog post will relate to one of the three key enabling factors for a coordinated effort to combat land degradation and increase land restoration:

  1. On the ground: Advances in research have led to the development of new tools to diagnose and monitor degradation and include the opinions of those most affected in measuring impact and finding sustainable solutions. A new focus on social and political processes, including gender dynamics, allows us to understand and influence decision-making and adoption of sustainable land management practices.
  2. Influencing investment: Investment from donors, governments and the private sector is changing. Resilience has become a strong focus.  Research can guide effective investment in sustainable land management
  3. Global agenda: Progress is being made in the global arena to reduce land degradation such as the Global Soil Partnership and the Rio+20 agreement for zero-net land degradation. Our work on restoring landscapes can inform the evolving global agenda, and create a supportive environment for action.


Blog Posts 

Action on the ground

Drawing upon indigenous knowledge and local resources to restore degraded land by Pablo Tittonell

Sweet success? Licorice could reclaim degraded lands by Jeff Smith

Food security starts from the ground up by Fred Pearce

Debunking myths on cassava by Tin Maung Aye, Keith Fahrney, Adrian Bolliger and Rod Lefroy

Safeguarding ecosystem services in dryland landscapes by Mohamed Bakarr

Breaking baa-d habits: Sustainable management of degraded pastoral landscapes by Keyu Bai

Gender: Moving beyond the box-ticking exercise by Katherine Snyder and Beth Cullen

Bringing land back to life: Farmer Managed Natural Resource Generation by Emily Davila

The triumph of the commons in India by Emily Davila


Influencing Investment

Getting policies right for investing in African agriculture by Ademola Braimoh

Behind the locked cupboard: uncovering the truth about land grabs by Fred Pearce

Adapting the financial climate for landscapes by Abby Waldorf

How can investing in landscapes meet a banker’s bottom line? by Fred Pearce


Global Agenda

Redressing the land degradation scar through restoration by Paul Vlek and Lulseged Tamene

The governance challenge of a land degradation neutral world by Alexander Müller, Jes Weigelt, and Ivonne Lobos Alva

On Africa's farms, history doesn't have to repeat itself by Rolf Sommer

Working with nature to fight climate change and food insecurity in Africa by Richard Munang


For updates on "Restoring soils and landscapes" month, follow us with #landscapes on @WLE_CGIAR and Facebook.


Very impressed with the publication. Quite informative ,short but with content. keep it up

A very informative ,thought provoking publication,useful to me on my research on land user based land degradation /livelihood assessment and its application to sustainable management of key water towers in kenya.
Thanks for the new insights