FAO and the GEF

Partnering for Sustainable Agriculture and the Environment

Emine, Francisco, and Andrey are winning the battle against land degradation

Land degradation affects almost 2 billion hectares of land that 1.5 billion people worldwide call home, representing an economic loss in the order of 10% of annual global gross product. The challenges grow greater as populations grows bigger, wealthier and more urban. Increasing demand for food to feed growing populations is leading to more intensive use of land resources that are already stretched thin. However, there are effective nature-based solutions that governments and communities can apply to produce more food, feed, and fibre while conserving land for the next generations.

As COVID-19 disrupts economies and magnifies vulnerabilities in our food systems, it becomes especially important to bolster farmers’ abilities to maintain food sources and their incomes while safeguarding the health of land resources. FAO projects supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) are leading the fight against land degradation by employing an arsenal of sustainable land use and management practices that empower people to protect their land, water, and heritage while improving productivity.

On this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, we look at how three different people in three different countries are enhancing their livelihoods while winning the battle against land degradation with support from FAO and the GEF.

Farmer Field Schools for irrigation in Turkey

Emine Akkaş has been farming for 20 years with her husband, growing feed for their livestock and beans for themselves. She lives in the Konya Closed Basin, a semi-arid region of Turkey that is larger than many countries in the world. It’s known as the breadbasket of Turkey, but it’s also one of the driest regions of Turkey with limited rainfall throughout the year. Farming communities have been putting extra pressure on the land to increase agricultural production, digging deeper to find water resources and rapidly depleting precious groundwater, which increases the risk and rate of soil erosion and desertification. The impacts of drier land and less water year after year affected the productivity of Emine’s farm, as well as her ability to feed her family of six and the livestock they depend on.

At a Farmer Field School demonstration, Emine Akkas (center) is equipped with better ways to grow more food using less water in one of the driest areas in Turkey. Photo: ©FAO/Erdal Baydaş

Through the Sustainable Land Management and Climate Friendly Agriculture project, implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture with the support of FAO and the GEF, Emine has been learning ways to improve the yield of her crops without degrading land, wasting water, and increasing risks of desertification. Through Farmer Field Schools, she learned sustainable and conservation agriculture practices such as no till farming, which helps retain plant residues on soil surface to prevent erosion, and improving pasture management. These trainings were complemented with demonstrations to promote irrigation practices that improve water use efficiency and productivity while reducing production costs.

Farmer Field Schools are demonstrating new techniques in conservation agriculture to help farmers improve production while reducing water and energy use. Photo: ©FAO/Orçun Yalçın

“We have implemented what has been shown in these trainings before, but with the experiences in the demonstration site, we believe we will get much better efficiency,” says Emine.

In irrigation demonstration plots, assessments recorded savings of 25.8% in water and 26.6% in energy while achieving an increase of 25.9% in production. With high demand for Farmer Field School trainings and demonstrations, 1 000 farms have adopted conservation agriculture techniques to improve productivity and combat desertification across over 58 000 hectares of land in the Konya Closed Basin region. As of 2019, the project has helped to rehabilitate over 30 000 hectares of degraded forest land and over 21 000 ha of pastureland, achieving an overall carbon sequestration of 3.1 million tons of CO2-equivalent (CO2-e).

Battling back invasive species in Argentina

Francisco Estive knows firsthand the value of water for life and agriculture. His childhood was spent in close contact with nature in Mendoza, and his family relied on wetland cattle ranches for their livelihoods. Francisco joined the ranger team in the Llancanelo Wetland Provincial Reserve (LWPR), a desert wetland system fed by meltwater from mountain glaciers nearly 100 kilometers away. Glacial  melt is a source of water for livestock pastures in the region and the LWPR, which shelters over 150 threatened migratory bird species, such as the black-necked swan and Chilean flamingo. However, in combination with the impacts of climate change, invasive alien species are affecting the flow and salinity of water and threatening both the livelihoods and the precious biodiversity in the region.

Salt cedar, an invasive species in Argentina, consumes huge amounts of water, degrades land, and threatens native species in one of the driest areas of the country. Photo: © Evangelina Natale

One invasive species is the salt cedar, a European and Asian plant introduced in the arid and semi-arid regions of Argentina. The salt cedar can spread spontaneously and extracts huge amounts of water from the edges of rivers and wetlands, which salts the topsoil and degrades land, impacting the growth of native plants and affecting nesting sites of birds.

To fight back against desertification and its impact on biodiversity in the Llancanelo wetlands, Francisco and his team removed 180 hectares of salt cedar and promoted natural restoration of native vegetation, piloting a protocol to help conserve water in arid and semi-arid regions of Argentina. As part of a FAO-GEF project implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the protocol elaborated the National Strategy for Invasive Exotic Species and serves as an example of strategies to contain other invasive species that threaten water resources and biodiversity in Argentina.

Francisco Estive, a park ranger at the Llancanelo Wetland Provincial Reserve, helps conserve land and water resources by managing the spread of invasive species and protecting native plants. Photo: © Evangelina Natale

Along with the strategy and his work as a park ranger, Francisco is sharing his knowledge and passion for nature to the next generation to ensure his work in conserving biodiversity continues. “In 2019, we worked with students from a rural primary and secondary school close to the Reserve. We identified native flora with the students, prepared a therapeutic cream based on plants like jarilla, and designed signs showing the medicinal and cultural uses of many native plants.” Although his lessons are on pause due to COVID-19, Francisco remains committed to environmental education and stewarding the next generation of conservationists.

Agroforestry and conservation agriculture in Ukraine

In the steppes of Ukraine, shelterbelts are considered the green necklaces of fields. Rows of trees or shrubs protect crops from soil-eroding wind and sandstorms, serving as a nature-based solution to improve agriculture productivity, ecosystem development, social welfare, and climate change resilience.

Shelterbelts – the green necklaces of the fields – are a nature-based solution to protect productive farmland from erosive wind and dust storms. Photo: ©FAO/Latifundist

In Ukraine, 400 hectares of the forest shelterbelts protect 13 million hectares of arable land and agricultural landscapes. However, a weak policy framework leaves ownership rights ambiguous. Without clear responsibilities, the forest shelterbelts are neglected and the crops they protect are left vulnerable. In April 2019, a massive dust and sandstorm near the Oleshky Sands, one of the driest areas of Ukraine, swept past degraded shelterbelts and wiped out 350 thousand hectares of winter crops.

Andrey Schedrinov, a 45-year old farmer, has worked for 27 years in the steppes to improve land management. “I am working in extreme climate conditions, almost in the desert. The annual level of precipitation is only about 150 millimeters here.” Many other farmers have left the steppes, but Andrey hopes to restore the land and one day grow more tomatoes, corn, sunflowers, rapeseed, sorghum, peas, and winter grains.

Through the Integrated Natural Resources Management in Degraded Landscapes project, Andrey is receiving the tools and know-how to rehabilitate land and grow more diverse crops. With support from FAO and the GEF, the Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection is collaborating with leading Ukrainian experts and the Institute of Water Problem and Land Reclamation to restore the shelterbelts by developing frameworks for better land and forest management and equipping farmers with methods to sustainably boost their livelihoods.

Andrey Schedrinov has worked for over 27 years on his farm, and he remains committed to learning from the land and protecting it through sustainable agriculture. Photo: ©FAO/Latifundist

Through the project, Andrey is learning and applying new techniques in conservation agriculture, like crop rotation and drip irrigation, to grow more food while protecting the integrity of soil resources. For an additional source of income and defense against land degradation, he is creating a forest shelterbelt for his crops. The best canopy trees are left to grow for timber production while ideal conditions are developed in understory to grow high-value specialty crops.

After learning sustainable techniques for dry conditions, Andrey says “conservation agriculture is the only way of cropping.” Even with new methods, he knows that the best lessons come from the land he is committed to protecting for future generations. “If you would like to better understand what to produce in your field, you should learn from the wild nature: go to the steppe and watch.”

FAO-GEF Partnership: Combatting Land Degradation

Since 2006, FAO and GEF are supporting governments in over 30 countries to implement 71 projects that address land degradation. A growing share of FAO-GEF projects tackle multiple environmental threats, like climate change adaptation and biodiversity loss, while avoiding, reducing, and reversing land degradation. FAO-GEF projects work across all levels to combat land degradation, from influencing global frameworks down to interventions on the ground to assist people like Emine, Francisco, and Andrey.

FAO and GEF are amplifying their partnership to conserve land resources, particularly in areas that are most vulnerable to land degradation. In 2019, the GEF approved the Drylands Sustainable Impact Program to assist 11 countries located across Africa and Asia in fostering resilience of production systems in drylands, promoting restoration and rehabilitation, and improving livelihoods through a comprehensive landscape approach. The USD 104 million program, led by FAO and in partnership with the World Bank, UNEP, IUCN, and WWF-US, will scale beyond the boundaries of the 11 targeted countries, highlighting the importance of transboundary commitment towards dryland restoration, landscape management at scale, and biodiversity conservation.