A way of life is feeling the heat

19 June 2008 | News story
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International development policies are undermining the long term survival of some of the globe's poorest communities, argues Masego Madzwamuse, IUCN's regional programme development officer and focal person for southern African drylands. She says the skills and knowledge needed to survive in the world's harsh drylands are being sacrificed in the name of progress.

The world's poorest of the poor live in the toughest areas of the planet - the drylands.

These areas all have key factors in common: water is scarce, and rainfall is unpredictable - or it rains only during a very short period every year.

Drylands cover more than 40% of the Earth's surface and are home to more than two billion people.
These areas are also home to a disproportionate number of people without secure access to food.
Why are 43% of the world's cultivated lands found in dry areas? And why have decades of development not led to significant improvements?

Rather than improving, it would appear that the situation is getting worse, with more frequent droughts, such as those in Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. Another important issue that strikes me about drylands is that these areas have been completely neglected despite being the world's home of the poor.

While one international agreement - the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) - has been dedicated solely to the drylands of this world, little attention has been paid by the media, development or conservation organisations, or the international donor community.

The only time attention is paid is when droughts (a regular climatic phenomenon in such lands) are allowed to proceed to famine, which in this day and age can only be the result of political failure.
Humanitarian and food relief follow the TV headlines, creating more dependencies rather than developing viable and sustainable economies.

Dry heat

It is expected that these areas will be hardest hit by climate change in the future. The influential Stern Review noted that a 3C (5.4F) increase in global temperature was likely to result in an extra 150-550m people becoming exposed to the risk of hunger.

The review also said that climate change was likely to result in up to four billion people suffering water shortages. The world's drylands are likely to bear the brunt of this gloomy prognosis.

In my opinion, the world will only successfully fight poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) if we pay more attention to these unique ecosystems and learn from the mistakes of the past. This means moving away from a colonially biased view of drylands.

It is unfortunately still common to equate drylands with deserts and wastelands, as these areas might not look at first sight very productive, especially during a period of drought. So, what are the ingredients for success in developing the poorest regions of this world?

First of all, development interventions need to be adapted to the realities of drylands. Crop production, whether rain-fed or irrigated, will always be a limited opportunity. Yet the major effort in "development" is a green revolution for the desert.

Has half a century of development not taught us the reality for cultivation in the drylands? Livestock is much more suitable to arid environments and more likely to support rural livelihoods in arid regions.
For instance, Turkana pastoralists of Kenya know that livestock is their mainstay, even though they have some of the fastest maturing varieties of sorghum in the world.

Secondly, we should work with the knowledge and institutional systems of the people who have lived there for centuries. We need to understand why they have complex common property systems for land and resource management that may span and cover very large territories, and guarantee that a variety of stakeholders can use these scarce resources and survive.

It is important to also understand why they place more emphasis on livestock than crops. Livestock is a better converter of biomass in such harsh lands. We must not sweep aside this knowledge and experience. Instead, we should build on those systems and support them with so-called "modern and scientific knowledge" to improve productivity and create market opportunities.

Yet we ignore their complex risk management and resilience enhancement strategies. One classical example has been the numerous efforts to use inappropriate policies to settle nomadic people and restrict their movements.

Nomadic livestock herding has been a key sustainable survival strategy in the more arid areas. Once grass and water become scarce, these communities move with their animals to the next area. Thus, they are able to use resources sustainably without leaving themselves exposed to the effects of droughts.

While livestock farming in drylands contributes significantly to national economies, most subsidies go to unsustainable ranching projects rather than the small livestock holders.

National treasures

Pastoralism is one of the few land use systems that can be compatible with wildlife conservation.
Yet where are many of the world's national parks? More than 70% of Kenya's are in drylands, which includes a number of important dry season grazing areas for pastoralists.

Dryland peoples depend on the surrounding environment, and they should be able to benefit from conservation through community conserved areas and tourism, rather than having their best lands taken away from them in the name of conservation.

Thirdly, nature's contribution to the survival of the poor needs to be recognised as an important asset. It is nature that provides food, fodder for livestock, construction material for shelter, medicinal plants, emergency food and climate regulation (shade is highly valued in 40C).

Opportunities for sustainable development exist

Sudan is the world's largest producer of gum arabic, a principal ingredient of colas and chewing gum, which stems from a 2,000-year agroforestry tradition. And the arid lands of the Horn of Africa produce the highest quality frankincense and myrrh in the world.

In one district in Botswana that has an average annual rainfall of just 200mm, dryland ecosystem services contributed $190,000 (£95,000) to the national income. Almost 50% of this came from wild plants such as the medicinal devil's claw.

Instead of building on this natural capital, development and government interventions tend to replace and disregard them. Even worse, they are not reflected in the national GDP figures. As a consequence, most policy frameworks provide incentives for their exploitation rather than their sustainable use.

We cannot continue to let the world's poor dryland dwellers down. Panaceas, history tells us, don't work. Instead, we need to invest in the innovative and sustainable use of natural assets.

This article first appeared on the BBC's Green Room. Visit http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/sci_tech/green_room/default.stm


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