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African practitioners show how sustainable land management creates healthy land, water and lives

Results from Kagera Basin show real success in tackling land degradation and climate change

29 June 2017 – Knowledge is the basis for sustainable development, but successful implementation depends on understanding what works in the field and where to improve lives and the environment.

This is why a new FAO book released today in Rome – Sustainable Land Management in the Kagera Basin – presents sustainable land management techniques and approaches that have been tested and adapted by local practitioners in 26 districts of the Kagera basin, which is shared by Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Over 40 practitioners share their own learning experiences and results: rehabilitated lands, restored water flow in dried-up streams, higher crop and livestock yields, and fewer resource conflicts between the different groups who depend on natural resources.

“Smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa are struggling with land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, which all contribute to food insecurity, poverty and out migration,” said Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division.

“An integrated ecosystems approach to managing land resources brings many benefits, but the only way to know if an approach works is to test it and then listen to the voices of those who implemented it. This is what makes this research so exciting: it lets us build understanding of how we can transform lives.”

The book presents the results of the five-year Transboundary Agro-ecosystem Management Project for the Kagera River Basin, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), in the words of those who carried out the work on the ground.

In the Kagera basin, smallholder farmers depend almost entirely on natural resources for their livelihoods: besides growing crops they are also livestock keepers and, where they are close to Lake Victoria or other surface water resources, they may also supplement their diet through fishing and gathering wild products.  

The project used an integrated ecosystems approach to managing land resources at landscape scale, backed up by learning through Farmer Field Schools and catchment committees and plans. The process empowered land users to combine locally adapted practices and plan and manage their territories to achieve local benefits and a range of improved ecosystem services.

What made a difference 

FAO built the capacity of local service providers in the use of LADA-WOCAT tools (which assess land degradation and sustainable and management) to identify and map existing best practices in sustainable land management and document, peer review and share their experiences. 

Governments worked with FAO to address these trends through mapping and analysis of land degradation and management practices in land-use systems at both country and local level. This laid the basis for assisting smallholder farmers and service providers in the 21 districts in the basin to identify and scale up the most successful sustainable land management practices to meet local needs. 

Communities and districts also received support to develop catchment or micro-watershed management plans and to identify and address conflicts over natural resources through dialogue and problem solving and improved local governance over land resources. 

What changed 

Improved practices at farm and catchment scales demonstrated multiple benefits: enhanced soil health and soil organic matter, effective use of rainwater and restored water flow in streams, increased, diversified and more reliable yields, and more-resilient ecosystems and livelihoods.

One example shows how the introduction of selected pasture species rehabilitated more than 70 hectares of grassland in the project area, and how introducing pasture technologies to rehabilitate degraded land improved carrying capacity. 

In Katera village (Karagwe District Uganda), deferred grazing restricted degraded land grazing. This increased carrying capacity from 5 to 0.4 hectares per Tropical Livestock Unit (TLU) and forage biomass yield from 570 to 7,050 kg DM per hectare in one year.

Micro-catchments demonstrated an increase in surface vegetative cover from less than 40 percent to about 95 percent in some areas, and thus a significant reduction in bare surfaces vulnerable to high runoff rates and soil erosion. Moreover, land conflicts in some areas dropped by 75 percent after mediation on boundary disputes.

This shows that SLM techniques do have multiple benefits. When carried out at scale across the globe, these techniques can secure viable livelihoods for rural communities while restoring the resource base for future generations.

Why and how to scale up 

Such a transition is essential given the scale of the problem. Land degradation, water shortages and drought are increasing pressures on limited resources. These problems cost about $490 billion per year, much higher than the cost of action to prevent them. 

Roughly 40 percent of the world’s degraded land occurs in areas with the highest incidence of poverty. It directly affects the health and livelihoods of more than 1.5 billion people. But it affects all rural and urban areas, as unsustainable land management exacerbates drought, flood, food insecurity, poverty and is a key driver of migration. 

The book aims to stimulate – in Kagera and elsewhere – a communications strategy and investment in knowledge management on the win-win-wins of SLM, and to show that business-as-usual is no longer an option. For this universities, technical colleges, extension agents, private sector and policy makers need to be motivated to make a difference. 

It also aims to mobilize the expansion and use of the wealth of knowledge on sustainable land management that is available in the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies database of sustainable land management technologies and approaches. This provides high quality information in many languages and is the preferred database of UNCCD for sharing best practices across the globe.

The project was one of 36 under the TerrAfrica Strategic Investment Programme, aimed at scaling up sustainable land resources management across sub-Saharan Africa. More information is available on the project website and the UNCCD-WOCAT global database that shares sustainable land management technologies and approaches worldwide.

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