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A Systems Approach For Reversing Land Degradation

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UNCCD 3rd Scientific Conference, Opening Session. Photo Credit: IISD Reporting Service

Dryland Systems influences debate on land degradation issues discussed at the UNCCD 3rd Scientific Conference

 Breakthroughs will not come from single discipline science alone; they will come through inter-disciplinary collaboration between scientists and a host of other actors, if we are to formulate appropriate responses to deal with urgent issues of climate change, food security and land degradation”. Richard Thomas, Director, CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

Cancun, Mexico, 9-12 March 2015: The CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems played an active part in influencing the debate at the 4th Special Session of the Committee on Science and Technology (CST S-4) of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the UNCCD 3rd Scientific Conference that convened recently in Mexico.

Participants were charged by the UNCCD Conference of the Parties (COP) with addressing the issue of “Combating Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought for Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development: the Contribution of Science, Technology, Traditional Knowledge and Practices” on the basis of a recently issued UNCCD Impulse Report on Climate Change and Desertification.

Richard Thomas, Director of Dryland Systems delivered a keynote address on ways to enhance responses through collaboration, highlighting the need to concentrate on reducing poverty and increasing food security through the identification and application of sustainable land management (SLM) practices.

He urged participants to consider a “systems thinking approach” - much like that inherent in the nature of the research conducted by the Dryland Systems program - to ensure a comprehensive understanding of constraints, costs, opportunities and appropriate decision-making processes that will allow the scientific community to transition into a truly research-for-development community to help solve both drylands and global challenges.

Using examples from different agro-ecosystems across the world and the research experience of Dryland Systems, Thomas appealed for better inclusion of the private sector in the process. “Companies' success must be linked with social improvement and development. We have to encourage the kind of public-private collaborations that enhance private sector competitiveness, whilst advancing the socio-economic conditions of communities where companies are based.”

The advantages of the systems approach are often manifest in an improved understanding of place-based social, financial, technical and environmental contexts; strengthened science-policy interfaces; and diversified opportunities for the agricultural sector to reverse lack of investment in drylands.

During the ensuing discussion, participants raised questions and commented on several issues, such as:

  • role of governments in enabling the different research phases
  • linkages between research in the farming and market systems
  • ways to influence government policies to improve land use management
  • quality training of researchers, and
  • lack of human resources in developing nations.

The message of Dryland Systems Director was echoed in several of the conference conclusions, such as these listed below.

On collaboration:

 “Many research and development institutions can to varying degrees identify and promote response options at different scales and for different settings. But because response options are site-specific and demand-driven, mechanisms must be sought that allow scientists and stakeholders to co-evaluate and jointly communicate success.”

Better knowledge management approaches would also help develop improved methodologies for assessing adaptive capacity or the ability of local communities and societies to generate genuine resources from their interaction with their environment. This is true especially for pastoral systems. Integrated and multidisciplinary studies on the links between climate change and land degradation processes are essential.”

On systems analysis:

“Systems analysis, including value chain and market analyses, is needed to identify incentives and barriers to sustainable responses, including lacks of traditional and local knowledge, poor access to capital or technology, language barriers, gender inequities, property rights structures and policy environments. Regional cooperation and communication will be needed to address the links between land degradation and natural disasters such as flooding and landslides”.

Capacity to Innovate is Critical to Reversing Land Degradation


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Dryland Systems Side-Event on How to Encourage Innovative Capacities to Achieve Land Degradation Neutrality. Photo Credit: Dryland Systems

Dryland Systems recognizes that it is critical to encourage innovation through multi-stakeholder and interdisciplinary partnerships in order to meet many of the dryland grand challenges, including land degradation. Therefore, on the first day of the conference, the program organized a side-event on the subject of How to Encourage Innovative Capacities to Achieve Land Degradation Neutrality in order to: 

  • Identify and illustrate promising examples of partnerships that build capacity to innovate in agro-ecosystems critical for rural livelihoods;
  • Identify and probe key challenges to building inclusive innovation in these systems;
  • Debate implications for the Sustainable Development Goals and actions needed by governments, development agencies, and the UN system to support inclusive innovation.

Participants were first invited to provide their own definitions of “innovation” and compare and contrast these with the case study examples presented and discussed by the five panelists, who represented Dryland Systems, the Global Environmental Facility at the World Bank, The Global Mechanism of the UNCCD, the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative and the United Nations University - Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Several remarked on the novel approach to event moderation and the ensuing healthy exchange of ideas, where innovation was discussed and defined from multiple perspectives as: new technology, new research-in-development approach, the application of traditional knowledge to a modern context, as public-private partnership, as learning alliance, as community participation in research and development, and so forth.

Furthermore, several Dryland Systems scientists working at the program’s lead center, ICARDA served as moderators and rapporteurs for various workshops organized during the three main conference sessions on Diagnosis of Constraints, Responses, and Monitoring and Assessment. They also presented a variety of research papers and posters on notable subjects such as: remote sensing and mapping, agroecosystems, knowledge and knowledge transfers, innovation platforms, etc. Various research publications and communication materials were displayed and disseminated to hundreds of visitors who stopped by the Dryland Systems Exhibition Booth. For more detailed information on the research presented, check out the UNCCD Book of Abstracts

About 300 people attended the 3rd UNCCD Scientific Conference with half of them being researchers from scientific institutions, while the other half representing various country governments, civil society organization, and intergovernmental and UN agencies and institutions. In the context of several multilateral environmental agreements, the format of the UNCCD scientific conference presents indeed a unique process for bringing around the same table scientists and policy makers to tackle pressing development and environmental issues of global importance. 

About the author

Tana Lala-Pritchard is the Communications Program Coordinator for the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.