Promoting land restoration at a watershed scale

View from the Congo River between Kinshasa and Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard
Jack Durrell
5 March 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — A “landscape approach” – one that takes into account the whole landscape and the needs of stakeholders within it – is widely considered one of the most effective responses to land degradation at the watershed level.

Its ability to acknowledge and navigate the competing demands of different stakeholders – whether farmers, industries or fisheries – also promotes collaboration and mediates conflict.

Although its implementation is rarely easy, critically analyzing lessons learned from previous efforts is crucial to the protection and restoration of fragile lands elsewhere – providing critical insights to help overcome challenges and incentivize different stakeholders to change their behaviors and adopt new, more sustainable practices.

A session at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany – “Indicators and Scalability of Successful Land Restoration Initiatives at the Watershed Scale” – reviewed insights gained from three successful initiatives: an effort to recharge mountain springs and improve water storage facilities in Nepal; an initiative to reduce gully erosion and enhance soil management in Ethiopia; and an ambitious restoration program in Kenya’s Upper Tana Watershed.

Representatives from the World Bank and the CGIAR system of agricultural researchers discussed the answers to several relevant questions: What are the best indicators of success? How do we define success? How do we engage and involve local communities in restoration efforts? How can we provide long-term funding to ensure the sustainability of restoration efforts over time? And, how can we scale-up successful initiatives?

Scalability is achieved by never losing sight of the bigger picture: deconstructing the landscape into its component parts, understanding what practices work in these components, and then applying these practices to other areas using advanced simulation and scenario tools, according to Erick Fernandes, agricultural and rural development advisor at the World Bank.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Interventions require community involvement, though, and participants acknowledged the different approaches and contexts that define community engagement: Do you come with a solution? Do you work with communities to develop solutions jointly? Are there local “champions” already present with practical and adaptable solutions that you can build upon?

Issues of trust were noted: often people may not trust outside agencies, government officials, or even their own neighbors. Overcoming this challenge could mean working through organizations who are already known to the community, or approaching the community openly – giving them an opportunity to discuss how they are living, how they are using their resources, and how they would like to live in the future.

FINANCIAL INCENTIVES

A further obstacle is convincing farmers to take up restoration efforts when they may not see an immediate financial or production gain; even when they are told that investing the time and effort now will bring benefits in the future. In Nepal, observing the benefits of restoration efforts was enough: springs recharged, water was available for longer periods, and communities were therefore able to grow more crops and ultimately earn more money. In Ethiopia, communities were compelled by government to work on rehabilitation efforts.

But, in Kenya, the Nairobi Water Fund – financed by industries in Nairobi – paid people to work on land restoration efforts upstream. This commitment made economic sense because land restoration in the Upper Tana Watershed reduced sedimentation downstream which disrupts the generation of hydroelectric power and negatively impacts economic performance.

Without long-term financial commitments, participants agreed, implementing a landscape or watershed approach would be significantly more difficult. Initiatives need sustainable financing and business models and payments for ecosystem services. Unfortunately, these are rarely applied: “We know the different methods of landscape restoration,” said Julie van der Bliek, of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). “But how do we make restoration efforts financially sustainable?”

INTER-SECTORAL COLLABORATION

Government ministries were encouraged to work together and develop more holistic and inter-sectoral partnerships. “Creating international incentives for government agencies to work together, especially those that oversee natural resource management and the environment, could be one way to encourage enabling environments,” said Ravic Nijbroek, a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). This could mean funding initiatives at a smaller micro-watershed scale, for instance, where multiple government ministries have the potential to benefit.

SUCCESS INDICATORS

Finally, how can we define success? With difficulty – given the limited scope of indicators.

“The problem with many restoration initiatives is that their indicators are fixed and limited to monitoring water quality, sediment loads, or yields,” Nijbroek said. “We should also focus on the messy social sciences, which you can’t measure very quickly and which I don’t think indicators can be applied easily to.”

Restoration initiatives should therefore include focus group discussions, Nijbroek suggests, which provide an opportunity for communities to discuss impacts, offer their perspectives, and allow programs to observe otherwise overlooked social complexities.

A more holistic analysis might also help to identify negative trade-offs. An initiative with a narrowly-focused set of indicators might be deemed a success if those indicators are found to be positive, but this limited approach could overlook negative and less visible impacts.

Ultimately, Van der Bliek argued, success should be measured by the extent to which communities adopt restoration practices:

“Success for me means that people continue to adopt practices after an initiative has finished and those practices are then also replicated by other communities.”

These issues were discussed during a session at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. The session – ‘Indicators and scalability of successful land restoration initiatives at the watershed scale’ – was hosted by WLE, CIAT and IWMI.  

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