Why better soil could mean peace and prosperity for African farmers

Land degradation is a prominent problem in Senegal ©IFPRI/Milo Mitchell

Food assistance needs in 2017 are unprecedented, say FEWS-Net, an early warning system pioneered by the US government.

Famine threatens South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. Ethiopia is also included within the top 5 areas of highest concern. An estimated 42 million people are currently food insecure in the Sahel – a situation that is expected to further deteriorate to 53 million during the lean season from June to August.

In Somalia and Ethiopia, hunger is largely the outcome of failed rains and a crippling drought linked to climate change. Elsewhere, hunger and famine have been caused by conflict. In South Sudan, farmers have been displaced by conflict, abandoning their land to escape the violence. In Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s presence has displaced large numbers of people, disrupting livelihoods and markets. Protracted conflicts in Somalia have eliminated the infrastructure required to take produce to markets. Conflict also disrupts trade and humanitarian access. Blockades of ports and airports in Yemen has directly impacted the amount of humanitarian aid available to people.

In some cases, such as in South Sudan, conflict and drought combined to create the perfect storm.

It is no secret that conflicts are complex and building peace requires addressing their root causes. A less explored root cause is one that links food insecurity, livelihoods and migration: land degradation.

The knock-on effects of land degradation

Land degradation is at the nexus of the world’s food, poverty, migration, water, climate, and security crisis and lies at the root of many conflicts. As droughts become more frequent and more intense, the resilience of farmers and pastoralists has been eroded. Droughts are particularly damaging to soil health, especially in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. Every year, 12 million hectares of topsoil – equivalent to the size of Switzerland, is being either blown or washed away.

This is not good news for climate change, since warming soils release more carbon. The world’s soils have lost between 50-70% of their original carbon stock, releasing 98 billion tonnes of carbon in 2008 alone, compounding the effects of climate change. Droughts also increase salinity and destroy the capacity for soils to hold nutrients required for healthy yields.

When soil becomes less fertile, yields fall and farmers seek alternative livelihoods, either in more fertile regions or urban areas. 60 million people are expected to migrate out of Sub-Saharan Africa towards northern Africa and Europe within the next 20 years.

While most migration tends to be temporary and peaceful, recent examples show that added pressure on resources can lead to conflict. Some scientists argue that the Syrian war was aggravated by a long and intense drought (combined with poor land management policies), which displaced Syrian farmers from the rural areas into the cities. Similar connections are being made between climate change, drought, land degradation, migration and conflicts in several other regions including Darfur in Sudan and the Lake Chad Basin region.

Land restoration projects can help but they require public investment

Soil restoration offers opportunities for ecosystem restoration, improved environmental governance, climate resilience, enhanced food and water security, and economic growth through employment. But as delegates at the fifth annual Caux Dialogue on Land and Security established, implementing and scaling up land restoration work requires difficult conversations about investment, land governance and policy.

The technical aspects of land restoration, while highly context-specific, are relatively simple. But, investments are dependent on land tenure and access, long-term commitment from smallholder farmers, community engagement and political will. Weak land tenure rights mean farmers are unable to access finance and insurance to invest in inputs and improve soil health. Establishing land security for long-term restoration programmes was a repeated call from farmers, youth representatives and investors. In cases where farmers are displaced by conflict it is imperative that tenure systems cope with their return, and include strong dispute resolution processes.

Scaling up small and successful interventions is key. But there is a gap in funding available for land restoration projects, despite the creation of the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund by UNCCD. Public finance can plug some of this, by rewarding small-scale farmers for investing in soil health, offering financial safety nets as they transition into sustainable land management programmes, or by subsidising input costs.

Ecosystems take a long-time to repair and rejuvenate, but investors prefer short and predictable return timeframes. Public funds can attract more private investment by guaranteeing a timely return to investors. Public finance could also be used to overcome prohibitive transaction and administrative costs which make it financially unviable for investors to invest in small-scale projects.

Restoring the world’s degraded lands to improve food and human security will require comprehensive policies involving representatives from climate, agriculture, water, land and finance sectors and therefore the dialogue must continue.

The annual Caux Dialogue on Land & Security is organised by Initiatives for Land, Lives and Peace, with support from UNCCD, IUCN and Caux-IofC Foundation. A Policymakers Roundtable took place alongside the Dialogue. Read the communique here.

By Meera Shah, Project Administrator at Imperial College London working on the WINnERS project and supporting the MaMo Panel.

This article was originally published by the  Malabo Montpellier Panel

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