Credit: International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNFCCC COP27 official banner

Greening the Drylands in Africa: IFAD holds a side event with RFS partners at the UNFCCC COP27

RFS is working toward dryland transformation in sub-Saharan Africa through integrated approaches that put people, land and climate resilience at the forefront. At the 27th UN Climate Change Conference, two IFAD-led country projects and a Regional Hub partner shared their experiences in greening the drylands in an interactive panel bridging science and rural development.

Africa’s drylands are home to 525 million people. They provide valuable cultural services and host unique ecosystems, despite famously being considered difficult places to live. Ultimately, drylands cover about two-thirds of the African continent and, due to low levels of primary productivity, are some of the most food-insecure regions on Earth.

The drylands in Africa are on the frontlines of climate change and steadily increasing in size, challenging the folks who live there even more.

On November 12, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) held a side event at the 27th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP27) to explore the innovative approaches to ‘greening’ the drylands in Africa through the Resilient Food Systems (RFS) programme.

Landscape ‘greening’ not only increases the productivity of landscapes but also contributes to carbon sequestration. Tree cultivation and reversing land degradation and desertification efforts often include carbon sequestration in their planning, like the Great Green Wall initiative (in which IFAD is also a partner), which is working toward restoring 100 million hectares of degraded land through growing trees and plants and sequestering 250 million tonnes of carbon in the process.

RFS is led by IFAD and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and is fostering sustainability and resilience for food security by applying an integrated programmatic approach which bridges social, environmental and economic drivers of food insecurity. The programme is implemented across 12 sub-Saharan African countries located in the drylands and we have seen considerable success in our project areas.

At RFS, our country project teams have identified methods and foci for greening their landscapes that are locally relevant. At the COP27 side event, government representatives from Eswatini and Niger joined experts from CIFOR-ICRAF and Inades-Formation International in a panel discussion to share experiences and explore ways to scale up best practices in climate and food systems resilience for large-scale landscape transformation in Africa.

Hon Moses Vilakati (Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Eswatini) and Massalatchi Mahaman Sani (Deputy Director General of Water and Forests at the Ministry of the Environment and the Fight against Desertification, Niger) were joined on the panel by Dr Leigh Ann Winowiecki (Global Research Lead for Soil and Land Health, CIFOR-ICRAF) and Sena Adessou (Executive Secretary General, Inades-Formation International, Côte d'Ivoire).

Greening on the Ground

The RFS Eswatini and Niger projects are implemented more than 4500 km away from each other and their unique contexts have unique needs when it comes to greening.

Hon Moses Vilakati shared how the Climate-Smart Agriculture for Climate-Resilient Livelihoods project pursues sustainable land and water management at multiple levels, underpinned by their objective of achieving resilient agricultural production to support rural families.

A question raised by an audience member concerned providing incentives for communities not to cut trees following re/afforestation efforts. Hon Moses Vilakati agreed that the question of “how do we ensure there is a balance between meeting needs” is one the project has considered, and that desperation is a key driver of deforestation. He also raised an excellent point, posing the question that it’s difficult to enforce policies on the ground in areas where people have little choice. For example, if there is a policy in place where if someone chops a tree, they should plant another, are we considering that it takes time to plant trees? As Hon Moses Vilakati put it, “if I need the wood right now, do I have time to plant one?

His answer to this issue is education and community involvement. Once communities can see the benefit and are supported in the transition to landscape greening, they are likely to take up the activities. He gave two examples from Eswatini: in one, vetiver grass has been planted to stabilise the landscape, and is now being sustainably harvested by local women who weave mats for sale; the other example he gave was in orchard planting which creates an attraction that brings long-term benefits. He said when he introduces the orchards to the communities, he tells them this is their “retirement bank!”

In Niger, the Family Farming Development Programme is challenged by migrating dunes and migrating people from rural to urban areas. Their approach involves fixing dunes and they have so far recovered over 30 000 ha of land and applied assisted natural regeneration across 180 000 ha.

Incentivising the communities to not only remain in the area but convincing them that they can cultivate a good livelihood in agriculture in their regions is key. During dune fixation, locals are paid by the project to conduct the labour, creating jobs and fostering ownership over the plants planted. In addition, the planting activities can provide carbon credits to markets to reinvest in the communities. “Maintaining the benefits, however, is a whole other thing”, said Massalatchi Mahaman Sani.

Sustainability mechanisms like establishing committees for managing the regenerated areas helps bridge the gap between project activities and long-term sustainability of interventions.

Sena Adessou summed the examples from Niger and Eswatini well by noting that giving normative power over the interventions to the communities helps in sustaining the benefits, and that we need integrated, systemic approaches to green the drylands for the long-term.

The Role of Research and Technology in Greening Drylands

One-third of the Earth’s surface is degraded, Dr Leigh Ann Winowiecki told the audience, and research bodies are building models and innovating methods for monitoring degradation and restoration. She stressed that “Africa is no longer data poor”, and that “these data can’t live on the shelves, because we will lose the papers.” We need to work with governments to mainstream data into informing policy, driving transformation, and supporting farmers on the ground.

Dr Winowiecki pointed to work in Eswatini with the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) which draws on citizen science and mainstreaming data collection with the help of the government. She said that stakeholders need to interact with each other to use the data, and that this process includes everyone. We need to “co-generate evidence with communities, farmers and pastoralists,” and then leverage it to inform interventions, bringing everyone together to accelerate impact.

But without the ability to read the data, they are not super helpful, so Dr Winowiecki pointed to ways in which government agents, farmers and any interested stakeholder can not only participate in collecting data on land use, change and historical data, but use them. “Not many people read my scientific papers, but they love logging in to the online dashboards,” she said. This is why tools like the LDSF are supported by dashboards that help users visualise dryland transformation.

Some Key Messages

  • We need to involve communities in transformation and ensure there is no one left behind in the process
  • Respect the traditional leadership and Indigenous people
  • Inculcate biodiversity conservation, afforestation, and livelihood activities like fruit orchards to encourage community sustainability and sustainability of results
  • Adopt a systemic approach to land and water management – everything is connected
  • Make data participatory, accessible and integrated into the greening framework

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