Although drylands are widely associated with poverty, drought, famine and conflict, there is another far more positive picture. Drylands support some of the world’s biggest cities such as Mexico City and New Delhi. They provide a range of nationally- and globally-important commodities such as milk, meat, hides, Gum Arabic, Henna, Aloe, Frankincense and cashmere. More than 30% of our major food crops including wheat, barley and other cereals, as well as important livestock breeds, originate in drylands.

Recent experience in the drylands of emerging countries such as China and India, show that economic development in drylands can outstrip that of areas usually considered “high potential”.

“Experiences in Sub Saharan Africa illustrate the compatibility between some forms of agricultural land use and biodiversity conservation. Biodiversity is vital to dryland livelihoods and there is great scope to strengthen the sustainability of use and alleviate drylands poverty. If we cast our eyes around globally we find numerous industrialised dryland countries, and for every seemingly insurmountable challenge, we are able to find a viable solution somewhere in the world,” says Dr Jonathan Davies, Coordinator of IUCN’s Global Drylands Initiative.

Yet despite their size, population and importance, drylands receive scant attention on the international stage and little investment. The current famine and conflict in the Horn of Africa illustrates how a resilient culture can be weakened by political failures and poorly-planned investments.

The challenge is ever greater in the face of climate change that is having a disproportionate effect on dryland areas, contributing to desertification and increasing the vulnerability of people who live there. But drylands play a critical role in our fight against climate change, acting as huge carbon sinks through their soil and vegetation.

IUCN believes that the people who live in drylands hold the secret to managing them. But these people are often marginalized and have little right to their natural resources.

“Dryland people have developed pastoral and farming systems that are adapted to their harsh conditions and have sustained them for centuries,” says Dr Davies. “It is critical to recognize their rights and empower them to manage their natural resources if the many threats to dryland ecosystems are to be resolved.”