Creating a Global Partnership to Tackle Desertification: An Interview with William Dar

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By Supriya Kumar

Name: William Dar

Affiliation: Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), India

Location: Andhra Pradesh, India

Bio: Dar has had a long and distinguished career as an educationist, agricultural scientist, administrator, and humanitarian in his native Philippines and abroad in the Asia Pacific region and sub-Saharan Africa. He holds the distinction of being the first Filipino and Asian to be Director General of ICRISAT. He was Chair of the Committee on Science and Technology (CST) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) from 2007 to 2009 and a member of the UN Millennium Task Force on Hunger. Prior to joining ICRISAT, he served as Presidential Adviser for Rural Development in the Philippines, Executive Director of the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD), Director of the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) of the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) and Professor of Benguet State University (BSU), Philippines.

Photo credit: ICRISAT

In a recent article in The Guardian, you stated that a “global partnership” was needed to tackle the problem of desertification. What will this partnership look like and how can we encourage countries to get on board?

For many years, desertification is spreading in many parts of the world, threatening more and more people. In sub-Saharan African countries, we are at a critical stage and global warming will worsen the degradation of land. On the positive side, some of our research projects are showing successful ways to tackle land degradation locally and reverse the desertification process before it is too late.

In The Guardian article, I was asking for a global partnership between governments, experts, civil society and local population to scale up successful projects. For instance, the approach of bioreclamation of degraded lands (BDL) mentioned in the article shows farming techniques adapted to arid climate and degraded lands to transform a poor communal wasteland plot into a productive garden. Other approaches have also been successful, such as zai pits to conserve water at the root of the plants, application of small doses of fertilizer (a technique known as microdosing) to correct the poor soil fertility using small specific quantities of fertilizer making it affordable for poor farmers as well as better for the environment, intercropping with drought-tolerant legumes such as pigeonpea and planting drought-tolerant nutritious fruit trees such as Pomme de Sahel.

But if we want successful initiatives such as the BDL farming system to be adopted by many farmer groups, we need to train them and so we need governments and NGOs delivering the right extension services. We also need to make the necessary inputs available, such as small packets of fertilizers or seeds and saplings of drought-tolerant trees, in appropriate quantities and prices adapted to poor smallholder farmers. And farmers should have access to credit to start off with and better access to markets to improve their incomes. So we are talking about a balance between livelihood development and sustainable natural resources management.

But we also need to encourage public–private partnerships so that the private sector is encouraged to develop rural retail networks with affordable inputs. Donors and governments should support such initiatives to “incubate” this new rural economy and initiate the virtuous cycle of local development. And we will need independent monitoring by agricultural experts to check the progress of scaled up strategies and identify potential drawbacks.

There are many intricate reasons for desertification, and governments, civil society and the international community have to work together before it is too late. We need to have the enabling policy environment and the right financial support to help farming communities in this battle against the desert. Desertification has to be discussed in an integrated way, at a local scale and a “consortium” approach between the different groups must be encouraged to find the sustainable solutions.

You are currently attending the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in South Korea. What outcomes are you hoping will come out of this meeting? Do you think a global partnership as the one mentioned above can be one of those outcomes?

During the panel discussion on the importance of tapping scientific knowledge, the three panellists including myself advocated the setting up of an independent science panel on desertification. This was further supported by the majority of the delegates from the 193 countries that are party to the UNCCD. While there was a majority support of the idea, the political decision has yet to be decided upon by UNCCD COP 10 which had their closing ceremony yesterday. They have agreed to create a solid scientific foundation so we just need to monitor this for further detail.

The panel discussion highlighted the need to scale up research results that have made some proof of concept and initial indications of success to create greater impacts on the ground. There has already been an agreement to monitor progress through national reports of parties at earlier UNCCD conferences, and UNCCD’s Committee of Science and Technology will see whether progress shall has been made.

The major outcomes of COP 10 include: the creation of a solid scientific foundation within UNCCD, high-level political support, including the Changwon Initiative which aims to provide resources to reduce desertifiation, and sending a strong message on combating land degradation to next year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also called Rio+20, that will be held in Brazil next June.

What are some ways that farmers can actively protect soil, without reducing their yields?

Innovations have to be affordable and adapted to smallholder farmers, using local resources. Innovations that help maintain soil fertility, conserve and save water and cultivate plants and trees that are adapted to arid conditions are just some of the solutions.

ICRISAT’s watershed projects train farmers in sustainable water and soil management. For instance, farmers are shown the importance of balanced soil fertility in macro and micro nutrients. They are trained to test the soil’s conditions in their fields. Micro nutrient deficiencies, such as zinc and boron deficiencies, are identified and compensated by the right fertilization application so that the soil recovers before it’s too late. It boosts yields and farmers are getting better and more nutritious harvests.

Many women in developing countries have limited access to land. How can involving more women in the agricultural sector in these countries help to reduce further land degradation?

In the BDL approach in sub-Saharan Africa, we showed that it is possible to transform barren communal lands into productive lands, stopping land degradation. We were able to convince the traditional village chiefs to give women’s groups the right to use these communal ‘wastelands’. Through the project, these women gained economic autonomy and their status improved in the village. Women are more prone to experimentation and can act as change agents in rural communities. And they usually use their increased wealth towards children’s nutrition and education and have an entrepreneurial spirit to grow their business. By forming a women’s association, these women’s new land rights were protected as the access belonged to the group and not to individuals. This avoids the problems often encountered of men taking over their wife’s land once it becomes productive. In sub-Saharan Africa it is estimated that over 60 percent of the agricultural workforce are women—yet in many countries their role is minimized or denied in official statistics and policies. As for any agricultural development policies, gender has to be considered when designing land reclamation programs.

Click here to read more about the recent UNCCD meeting in South Korea.

To read more about ICRISAT’s work with farmers, see: Climate Conversations – Small seed packets, big policies tackle Horn of Africa drought, Improving Food Security and Raising Incomes through Innovative Intercropping: An Interview with Dov Pasternak, and Africa Market Garden: A Smarter Approach to Agriculture.

Supriya Kumar is a research fellow with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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