Greening Africa's Desert Margins
Nairobi, 11 November 2002 - A pioneering new project to heal dying and degraded lands fringing Africa's mighty deserts was launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
The project, marking a new phase of the five year-old Desert Margins Programme, has numerous aims including conserving the rich and unique plant life that has evolved to survive in these dry and arid lands.
Experts believe the genetic diversity remaining in these desert margins could be a veritable treasure trove harbouring potentially promising drugs and products for 21st century agriculture and industry.
Under the scheme, key dryland areas and sites have been pin-pointed in each of the nine countries involved. These range from the Acacia Savanna of Matebeleland in Zimbawbe and the Sudano-Sahelian Zone of Senegal to the Dwarf Shrub Savanna of southern Namibia and the denuded lands of the Kargi settlement in northeastern Kenya.
It is planned to unravel the key causes of land degradation and damage in each of these land areas before drawing up action plans for arresting and reversing the decline. The action plans will be blue prints for land recovery and wildlife conservation projects in similar kinds of desert margin areas elsewhere in Africa.
Crucial to the success of the $50 million scheme, which is being backed by governments and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), will be the gathering and sharing of traditional, indigenous, knowledge and marrying this with modern, land management techniques.
Local people and tribes have, for millennia, developed strategies and methods for surviving in these harsh, low rainfall, areas. These have allowed them to grow crops and graze livestock without sacrificing the fertility and stability of the land.
The Turkana of Northern Kenya traditionally plan crop planting around an intimate knowledge of the behaviour of frogs and birds, such as the ground hornbill, green wood hoopoe, spotted eagle owl and nightjar, which are revered as "prophets of rain".
The Buganda, whose present-day descendants live in southern Uganda, believed in the sanctity of nature developing sacred, protected, forest sites, strict codes on hunting including a taboo on killing young or pregnant animals and strict rules on the extraction of clay.
But the rising populations, witnessed across Africa in the past few decades, allied to a gradual erosion of traditional values and cultivation methods in favour of Western or Northern-style systems has intensified pressure on these desert-fringed lands and their biodiversity.
Some experts also point to the impacts of the globalization of trade which had led to unstable and often rock bottom prices for such commodity crops as coffee and tea. Poor farmers have been forced into increasingly fragile lands, such as Africa's desert margin areas, to cultivate higher and higher volumes in an attempt to compensate for the price falls.
Developing alternative livelihoods will be a key part of the project. A pilot study in Bamako, Mali, has shown that planting banks of trees for fodder, close to the city, has cut pressure on nearby forests while boosting incomes. The fodder "banks" are producing 4.5 tonnes per hectare giving an income of $630 a year in a country where the average annual wage is $270.
The project is also aimed at offsetting some of the worst impacts of global warming, which according to scientists with the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, is already underway.
Climate change is set to aggravate the plight of the peoples and the lands of the desert margins, making it even tougher for them to cope in traditional ways with droughts, unless urgent action is taken.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: " This new phase of the Desert Margins Programme, with crucial support from the GEF, is in line with the poverty reduction aims of the Plan of Implementation agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) just over a month ago. Land degradation, desertification and drought has also been identified as a first priority for the environment component of the New Partnership for Africa's Development. It cannot have come a moment too soon".
"UNEP's latest Africa Environment Outlook says that some 66 per cent of Africa is classified as desert or drylands and currently 46 per cent of Africa's land area is vulnerable to desertification, with more than 50 per cent of that under high or very high risk," he said.
Desertification is defined as an extreme form of dryland degradation triggered by climatic and poor land management practices which means the land is no longer productive.
"Surveys show that the most vulnerable areas are along desert margins. These account for about five per cent of the land area and are home to an estimated 22 million people. There is no single cause behind land degradation and desertification in these drylands and there is no silver bullet able to solve these complex social, climatic and poverty-related problems. However solve them we must for the sake of the people living there and for the sake of these often hauntingly beautiful landscapes that play their own special role in the web of life," said Mr Toepfer.
The new phase of the Desert Margins Programme involves nine sub-Saharan African countries:Botswana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Dr Saidou Koala, global coordinator of the Programme who is based at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Niamey, Niger, said it will build on over five years worth of pilot work. This has already unraveled some of the clues to the causes of land degradation and desertification in these sensitive areas. The work has also identified solutions able to drive local and National Action Plans.
Ahmed Djoghlaf, Director of the Department of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), said: " The new project is the largest ever undertaken by the GEF in the area of land degradation and meets the very pressing needs and objectives of the Convention to Combat Desertification".
Kargi in Marsabit District in the northeast has been one such pilot site. It began to be settled in 1949. Average annual rainfall is just 200 mm a year. There has been severe loss of forest and land degradation as a result of over exploitation of trees and plants for fodder, fuelwood, construction and livestock enclosures.
Human and livestock impacts have left the soils hard and compact leading to rapid run off of rain water with little penetrating down to deliver moisture below.
Surveys of the people living there indicate that the loss of the traditional, herding or nomadic life, has played a key role harming the land. The move to permanent settlements has resulted in over-grazing and deforestation. Insecurity and fear of livestock raiding has led to people clustering together in areas around permanent water points, again degrading these valuable grazing sites.
Traditional strategies for coping include drinking blood, mixed with animal fats; eating wild tubers and fruits; borrowing camels for milk and trading cattle for food.
It was found that the local people harboured a great deal of knowledge on the uses of local herbs, trees and other plants for treating livestock diseases.
Dr Henry Cheruiyot, Assistant Director in charge of Range and Arid Lands at the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, said:" The people use many different plants and plant parts such as bark, dried leaves and seeds to treat their livestock".
He said studies were underway to compare these natural treatments with conventional veterinary drugs with emerging evidence that the natural ones can out perform conventional drugs. Eventually it may be possible to isolate promising compounds from the plants and turn these into a new generation of veterinary products with profits returned to the people living at Kargi who have been the custodians of the indigenous knowledge.
An Environment Management Committee has been set up to help guide restoration of the land. Actions include the establishment of a community tree nursery to produce trees for animal fodder, for medicines, human food and for the making of small domestic tools. A larger number of water holes have been dug to reduce degradation and erosion around existing ones.
Surveys in dryland areas there have identified 15 traditional methods used now, or in the past, to manage the land sustainably.
These include bans on cutting or harvesting plants and tree from key areas, the use of thorny plants, tree trunks, cereal stalks and rocks to reduce erosion in gullies and ravines and the planting of Acacia trees and other plants as wind breaks to cut soil and water erosion.
Tests showed that up to two centimetres of sand can, over several months, become trapped behind these wind breaks indicating that planting rows of these on farm land can act to trap soil and improve its fertility.
Another method, which could be applicable to other dry areas, are the digging of so-called Zai holes in which millet and sorghum yields can be as high as 1,631 kilogrammes per hectare. Such holes, up to 15,000 of which can be dug over one hectare of land, allied to improved termite activity also boosts the productivity of the entire field, tests show.
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UNEP News Release nr2002/80