“Mending a crack in the sky”: communities, women, youth leading restoration of Africa’s drylands

Day 2 wrap-up of the Global Landscapes Forum: Restoring Africa’s Drylands

A family watches over their sheep at sunset in the Somali region of Ethiopia. USAID Ethiopia
3 June 2021
3 June 2021

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Read the wrap-up of day 1 of the event here, focused on narrative, food and agriculture, and intergenerational exchange of Africa’s drylands.

In 1980, there was an average density of four trees per hectare on farms in Niger. A decade later, tree density on farms in the country’s Maradi district had increased to 40 trees per hectare, in thanks to a restoration method called farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), which increased crop yields and water despite times of famine and drought. Two decades later, the approach had spread across 5 million hectares of the country, largely through farmer-to-farmer sharing and with almost no governmental, financial or external support.

“If there is a danger in going too quickly [in restoration], it is governments not being able to respond fast enough,” said Tony Rinaudo, a principal natural resources advisor at World Vision, at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) digital conference GLF Africa: Restoring Africa’s Drylands on 2–3 June. “Because this is community driven, and the benefits are direct – more food, more fodder, more fuel – I can’t really see the danger in going too fast.”

FMNR is one of the many methods that are successfully restoring livelihoods and ecosystems in African drylands – and dismantling the common narrative that these landscapes are doomed to crumble in the face of water scarcity, land degradation, biodiversity loss and human conflict spurred by intensifying climate change.

The GLF Africa event dedicated two days to raising awareness about these drylands, which cover almost half the continent and give home to almost half its population. The prevailing message put forth by more than 200 speakers – from ministers to scientists to musicians – was that reversing degradation and ushering in a prosperous future for these landscapes is being driven by local communities, who are updating ancient land-sharing relationships between farmers, pastoralists and the ecosystems to reflect the new climate context.

“All restoration projects need to be led by people,” said Seyni Nafo, technical coordinator of the Africa Adaptation Initiative. “From the highest level of government down to the rural areas, projects have to be led and driven by those on the ground.”

The conference showcased the latest drylands research and science in 47 different sessions, informed policymakers through 12 white papers published by participating organizations, trained and informed more than 50 African journalists, and fostered dialogue between thousands of participants from 51 African countries attending online across multiple streaming platforms. The information shared in the event has been broadcast on a radio station in Benin, in Nigeria’s largest newspaper and in Africa’s foremost farming magazine, among others.

Major new initiatives used the event as a stage for their unveiling. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) launched its new Dryland Sustainable Landscapes Program, including announcing major investment in dryland countries in Africa and Central Asia.

The Government of Luxembourg announced its partnership with the GLF on the new Finance for Nature Platform, which aims to massively grow investment into climate and sustainable land use, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. The GLF also solidified that it will lead knowledge-sharing efforts to mainstream good practices for zero-deforestation in the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) impact program funded by the GEF and led by the World Bank.

The GLF also used the event to open applications for five new GLFx chapters – locally-led GLF groups implementing self-started environmental initiatives – across the greater Sahel region. The Robert Bosch Foundation has partnered with the GLF to give each of the new chapters seed funding of EUR 5,000 to channel toward restoring their Sahel landscapes.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) released its Framework for Ecosystem Restoration Monitoring (FERM), which comes in time for the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration that begins 5 June and was a focus of the event.

“All our speakers shared the simple message: we can do this, but we must act urgently, now and together,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the International Center for Forestry Research (CIFOR). He then quoted the Somalian proverb, “If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky.”

A mapping workshop in a Ghanaian community. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
A mapping workshop in a Ghanaian community. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

Restoration starts with communities

“Transformation starts with the local community,” said Charles Karangwa, who leads the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Forests, Landscapes and Livelihoods Programme in East Africa.

As local communities’ lives depend upon their immediate land resources, they have the largest stake in restoring degraded landscapes. However, speakers stressed that communities should not only be involved in implementing new land-management and restoration practices but also in developing them.

The Regreening Africa app, for example, was created by scientists from World Agroforestry (ICRAF) as a tool that smallholder farmers implementing agroforestry methods can download on their smartphones and simultaneously access and upload new information. With the app, farmers can map and upload their fields’ boundaries, recording details down to the detail of species’ placement, services and survival rate. Coupled with ICRAF’s systematic data collection of the same landscapes, a comprehensive knowledge base of ‘what works best where’ is then put in the hands of the farmers.

“Very often, we develop tools, and then we expect them to be taken up by the people who need them,” said Tor-Gunnar Vågen, a senior scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF. “But often that doesn’t happen. It’s really important to involve stakeholders in that process from the beginning, also so they understand the information and make decisions at different scales.”

“It is really the farmers and herders that are the custodians of the land,” said Bernard Crabbé, European Commission’s head of environment mainstreaming and circular economy sector. “It is really them, the driving force of all these endeavors.”

Broadening out to policy, an FAO study presented at the event on stakeholder needs in African drylands found that, at all levels of governance, participants cited a need for more policy and policy recommendations on African landscape restoration. Two of the top needs of land users and local community groups, meanwhile, were land-use conflict mediation and appropriate interventions that consider the realities of their culture and ways of life.

“For policy to be effective, it has to be applicable,” said Adjany Costa, the 30-year-old former minister and environmental advisor to the president of Angola. “What has worked in the U.S., what has worked in Europe, most definitely will not be applicable in Africa… When you have plans that are forged elsewhere with a very different cultural-economic-social background, it is very difficult to apply.”

A women's cooperative in Niger that has turned arid land into fertile farms. World Bank Photo Collection
A women’s cooperative in Niger that has turned arid land into fertile farms. World Bank Photo Collection

Changing tides for women and youth

Speakers repeated that policy is crucially needed in mitigating conflicts between migratory pastoralists and sedentary farmers, whose historic land-sharing practices that once harmonized grazing rights and soil fertilization are now strained due to resource scarcity and tenure issues.

Even more emphasis however was placed on the need for strong policy for women and youth, who often face similar risks and challenges – policy that is sensitive to societal traditions while cementing equitable land rights and inclusion in decision-making processes. “Every policy we make must have women and youth at the front of it,” said Nigeria’s Federal Minister of State for Environment Sharon Ikeazor, noting that women are responsible for up to 80 percent of food production in developing countries. Sixty percent of the African population is under the age of 25.

“For me, the policy should turn to securing tenure,” echoed Cécile Bibiane Ndjebet, president of REFACOF, an African organization focused on women’s rights. “If you want to plant trees, you need secure tenure. If you want to do anything in the field, you need secure tenure.”

Alternative solutions must also be developed for when policy cannot overcome familial and cultural traditions in local communities, speakers said. In a powerful narrative, June Jerop Kimaiyo, an intern at the Youth in Landscapes Initiative, shared how she has had to fight older male members of her family to have access to her inherited land. “The law of Kenya says that land should be equally divided among heirs, regardless of gender,” she said. “Yet, this is not recognized in my culture. And while the situation varies across countries in Africa, I know that women and young people like me are facing similar challenges.”

A local shop-owner in Ethiopia. Access to micro-finance allowed her to grow her streetside stall into a storefront. USAID, Flickr
A local shop-owner in Ethiopia. Access to micro-finance allowed her to grow her streetside stall into a storefront. USAID, Flickr

Financing a new future

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), almost USD 7 trillion is needed until 2030 to meet climate change and development goals. Yet actual investment in landscape restoration pales in comparison. According to a study by the Luxembourg Green Exchange and the GLF, only 3 percent of green bonds went toward biodiversity and sustainable land-use sectors.

“While nature can give more than 20 percent of the solutions needed to address climate change mitigation goals, sustainable land-use sectors are still underfunded,” said Carole Dieschbourg, Luxembourg’s Minister for the Environment, Climate and Sustainable Development while announcing her government’s partnership with the GLF. “Until recently, the finance sector has been slow to realize the threat that unsustainable land use poses for us.”

In Africa, improved investment is needed at all levels. The Great Green Wall, a monumental initiative that seeks to restore and regreen the Sahel to prevent the southern spread of the Sahara, received investment of USD 14 billion earlier this year – regarded by many of the events speakers as a beacon of hope.

But getting finance of any kind down to the smallholders and community members who make up the majority of Africa’s private sector remains a struggle. In an audience poll, 39 percent of listeners said that what’s needed most in African restoration is investment in locally-led initiatives.

“One of our challenges and goals is to bring financial tools and financial access to smallholder farmers, because they have difficulties accessing loans and guarantees,” said Mamadou Moussa Diakhité, a senior manager at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). “We must move from just restoration to business restoration, inclusive of women and youth.”

A close-of-event session hosted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) looked at specific organizations and businesses models that are running successful restoration models. Rather than starting new projects, global tree-planting organization One Tree Planted emphasized that it seeks out existing initiatives – many in Africa – that are implementing proper restoration practices and channels funds to support their work.

Komaza, a company that seeks to achieve sustainability in Africa’s wood value chains through commercial tree-growth on smallholder farms, said that it’s similarly focused on investing in technology, such as smartphone measurement tools, that support bringing local good practices to scale.

“Doing the right thing at scale is nothing different from doing the right planting in general,” said Tomo Kumahira, Komaza’s vice president of corporate finance and strategy. “We are only investing in enabling technologies. It’s about how can we make sure each and every step of these processes are well-managed and done well.”


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