Dispelling the myth

01 October 2011 | Article

Dr Jonathan Davies is charged with coordinating IUCN’s efforts to secure a future for the world’s drylands—no mean feat considering that drylands cover more than 40% of the earth’s land surface.

A major challenge Jonathan and his colleagues face is overturning the widely-held belief that drylands are wastelands and not worth investing in. They are working to prove that conserving these areas is critical to improving the lives of millions of people, safeguarding biodiversity and tackling climate change.

Drylands in some parts of the world are quite badly degraded and are home to unacceptable levels of poverty says Jonathan. They are areas that most people in the world don’t take seriously, and will not allocate resources to, which is why they are one of the world’s biggest problems.

At the same time, he says, when people do pay attention to drylands they continue to make the same mistakes. Poverty and degradation in most drylands are directly attributable to misguided investments to overcome poverty and degradation. The resistance of decision makers to simple facts, and the political nature of their decision making, is a major obstacle.

But there has been some progress in changing attitudes, Jonathan explains:

“Although dryland peoples have every right to feel let down by governments and international development organisations, in recent years there have been some notable steps forward. The knee-jerk reaction that dryland dwellers are the cause of degradation is now less entrenched and there is much wider realisation that the opposite is in fact true. As a result there are a growing number of success stories where communities are achieving tremendous conservation outcomes and strengthening their economy in the process.”

Jonathan became involved in conservation when he joined IUCN in 2006 to coordinate the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism.

“At that point my experience with conservationists had typically been when I was arguing against their efforts to annex pastoral rangelands to create protected areas. I pointed this out at my IUCN interview and it is credit to IUCN’s progressive approach to conservation that I still got offered the job. I have since learned a great deal about how conservation can benefit the lives of natural resource users, particularly in dry areas where I work. Coming from an agricultural development background I think the area where I contribute most is integrating environmental concerns in development, and improving understanding of and respect for sustainability.”

As part of his masters degree, Jonathan studied rangeland ecology in Andalusia, Spain and then went on to work in the organic farming sector. Time spent working in agriculture, specifically livestock development, led him to Africa where he worked with nomadic pastoralists.

“This is where I began to learn about the rich indigenous knowledge that such people have and how they use it to manage their resources. I also discovered the extent to which development interventions and government policies restrict the ability of local natural resource managers to use their knowledge effectively.”

Jonathan’s doctorate in agricultural economics, with a focus on anthropology, gave him a free rein to learn about how communities interact with their environment. His research was carried out with the Afar in north-eastern Ethiopia, with whom he lived for three years. He learned a lot from the Afar about their intimate relationship with their environment and the importance of biodiversity for their survival.

“IUCN’s recent progress in developing its work in drylands comes at an important time. It has been a great pleasure to be closely involved in establishing IUCN’s Drylands Initiative, first in Eastern and Southern Africa and now globally. There is a great deal more work to be done to strengthen our engagement in drylands across the board, from species conservation to promoting nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation, but right now it feels as if we are headed in the right direction.”

“I am enjoying seeing dryland peoples engaging more and more in dialogue with their governments and changing the way public funds are invested. I hope to see much more of this in the coming years. In particular I hope to see the few remaining countries that remain opposed to mobile pastoralism in drylands come to realise that their misunderstanding is the cause of poverty and degradation. There is a lot of injustice in the drylands and I hope that I can contribute something to supporting dryland people to challenge this.”
 

Jonathan Davies can be contacted at: jonathan.davies@iucn.org