Reversal of fortune

01 October 2011 | Article

To unlock the vast, untapped potential of the world’s drylands, we must learn from the people who live in them, says Dr Jonathan Davies.

Drylands are a major global biome, home to a great diversity of species and some of our most treasured natural heritage. They are also home to over 2 billion people and in the developing world in particular they are associated with poverty and social inequity. Global development and environment goals are not being met in the drylands: by 2015 many dryland regions are set to fail to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, whilst progress towards the goals and objectives of the UN environmental conventions (the Convention to Combat Desertification and the Convention on Biological Diversity in particular) is generally poor.

Recent experiences in the drylands of emerging countries, such as China and India, illustrate that economic development in drylands can outpace that in areas that are usually considered “high potential”. Although development is often associated with degradation, experiences in Sub Saharan Africa illustrate that economic development can be greatly enhanced through protection of biodiversity as a source of income. By taking an even broader, global view of drylands and examining industrialised dryland countries, it becomes clear that for every seemingly-insurmountable challenge we are able to find evidence of a viable solution somewhere in the world.

To address the challenges of the drylands, we need to understand their unique features and how these have to be managed. Perhaps the most important of these is climate unpredictability: the amount of precipitation varies enormously between areas, between seasons and between years. The sheer magnitude of this uncertainty is hard to grasp, but in many drylands the normal range of rainfall, drought-years aside, can be plus or minus 50% of the average. Yet development in many water-deficit areas continues to favour agricultural practices that expose farmers to huge risks whilst simultaneously degrading the natural resource base on which they depend.

Climate change is a cause for concern in dryland areas, but also an opportunity for new approaches and new learning that illustrate the value of dryland areas. Dryland ecosystems and people are highly adaptable and can survive in their uncertain climate.. Whether drylands become wetter or drier as a result of climate change, they will almost invariably become more unpredictable and their adaptive capacity will be vital to their future. Drylands more than any other ecosystem have the capacity to deal with that unpredictability and we have a great deal to learn from them.

Contrary to popular perception, drylands are not necessarily poverty traps. Dryland ecosystems and their goods and services already contribute significantly to national and international economies. The vibrant tourism sector in Eastern and Southern Africa relies heavily on the biodiversity of drylands. Globally-important dryland commodities include grain, meat and milk and dryland goods like Gum Arabic, Henna, Aloe, and Frankincense. Recent years have seen the commercial development of natural medicines from drylands, and untold numbers of medicinal plants remain un-researched, known only to the dryland inhabitants who have used and conserved them for centuries.

Local knowledge of the drylands is rich and is a powerful resource to be harnessed. There has been a tendency to dismiss this knowledge, because local dryland practices have been portrayed as backward or inappropriate and in need of replacing. The current emergency in the Horn of Africa graphically illustrates the outcome of this attitude: populations are exposed to insupportable risk as a result of losing their traditional strategies and being pushed into new ways of life that simply don’t work. Where people are driven towards catastrophe it is almost guaranteed that the environment will face similar consequences. Customs and cultures that are intimately connected to biodiversity become contorted into a system of pure survival where respect for the environment becomes an unaffordable luxury.

The scientific explanation of the rationale behind traditional strategies has been known for long enough to develop innovative new approaches to sustainable drylands management. Development support has to enable management of the extreme climatic uncertainty of drylands and needs to be built on understanding of the drivers of continuous change in dryland ecosystems. These are dynamic ecosystems in which adaptation and flexibility are pre-requisites for survival. We need to learn from past failures and successes and ensure that development and humanitarian interventions recognize dryland characteristics and build on local knowledge and capacity to turn the existing opportunities into equitable and sustainable wealth creation. In particular we need to generate greater awareness of the tremendous opportunities for strengthening biodiversity-based livelihoods to diversify dryland economies and strengthen resilience.

IUCN’s vision 2020 emphasizes the need to strengthen the Union’s work on conserving the diversity of life while also connecting nature conservation to wider societal objectives such as security and poverty reduction. This vision cannot be reached if we fail to understand and address the unique challenges of the drylands. IUCN, with its great diversity of members and commission members, has a vital role to play in securing effective global action to address dryland issues and in enabling dryland communities to develop their nature-based solutions to risk management and sustainable development.

Dr Jonathan Davies is Coordinator of IUCN’s Global Drylands Initiative.