Dryland Forestry

Presumed Drylands: A first assessment of challenges and opportunities in moving towards land degradation neutrality


The drylands have been defined as all land for which the aridity index – that is, the ratio between average annual precipitation and potential evapotranspiration – lies below 0.65. However, considerable stretches of land, over 1 000 million ha, with aridity indices equal to or above this strict definition likewise exhibit seasonal water shortages. They further face similar challenges as ‘official’ drylands, including the unsustainable use of land resources through processes such as deforestation or overgrazing. As a result, these ‘presumed’ drylands, too, are in need of attention with regards to improving land management approaches, so as to ensure the continued provision of ecosystem services and livelihoods to their inhabitants. 

This is why, building on FAO’s Global Drylands Assessment (2019), the Forestry Division’s Dryland Forestry Team led by Fidaa Haddad is working on an assessment of these dryland-like regions, to be published during the final quarter of this year. More specifically, the characteristics and challenges of three presumed dryland zones are being examined. Many presumed dryland regions contain highly biodiverse environments and are home to a large number of people reliant on agriculture and other ecosystem services provided by the land for their livelihoodsIn particular, forests, other wooded land and trees outside of forests are present on a large area of presumed drylands, providing opportunities for developing agrosilvopastoral systems and applying sustainable practices in support of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN). 

What is more, the report includes two case studies in which an economic assessment regarding the value of certain presumed drylands areas was undertaken. This economic assessment highlights the necessity of investing in more sustainable land management approaches now rather than later, when a greater proportion of land still will have been degraded. However, it likewise highlights the importance of national and supra-national institutional aspects such as policies and trade dynamics where some changes will be required to create an environment conducive to channelling investments into more sustainable activities. 

The quality of the economic assessment was strengthened by an in-house consultation which was conducted with national and regional dryland consultants as well as FAO economic experts on 30 April. Participants in the event, too, highlighted the importance of the larger-scale institutional and policy context in which land users find themselves: For example, incentives and subsidies as well as global prices for certain cash crops may currently be greater than any existing payment schemes in which farmers would be paid to protect stretches of native vegetation. In some places, it is cheaper to expand onto this native land than to expand over already used, somewhat degraded land. 

The assessment closes with recommendations to policymakers and other stakeholders for halting the loss of this valuable land. For example, many localities show a great potential for the adoption of agroforestry approaches including silvopastoral systems so as to improve the conditions in which livestock are reared whilst delivering additional benefits such as the provision of fruits and timber as well as carbon sequestration. In more severely degraded regions where livelihoods are predominantly based on livestock rearing, different, more sustainable pasture management approaches must be explored, including the reduction of grazing animals and grazing rotation schemes that do not overtax the grazing area’s capacity. What is more, both local and national policy and institutional factors will be key to the success of any initiatives aimed at managing, protecting, and restoring the presumed drylands’ land resources. 

As stated in the Global Drylands Assessment, “monitoring is vital to evaluate the impact of climate change and human activities, the results of adaptation and mitigation measures and progress towards meeting regional targets for land degradation neutrality”. The Presumed Drylands Report underway will add to the necessary knowledge base for building more effective systems which improve the livelihoods and resilience of the people in these valuable landscapes threatened by land degradation.