What Works: Rebuilding Degraded Ecosystems through Farming

By Matt Styslinger

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) some 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded over the past 50 years. With increasingly scarce land and water resources expected in the coming decades, as well as rising demand for food, farmers will need to find ways to produce more on the world’s remaining arable land. Without alternatives, expansion of agriculture can lead to deforestation and loss of other vital ecosystems that millions of people rely on for their livelihoods. But some innovative farmers are producing more food by using agriculture to rebuild ecosystems and turn degraded land into productive farms.

Some innovative farmers are producing more food by using agriculture to rebuild ecosystems and turn degraded land into productive farms. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Severe droughts and rapid population growth in the 1970s and 80s significantly degraded the farmland of the Sahel, a region of Africa running along the entire southern edge of the Sahara desert. Traditional management practices are now being revived to reverse the trend, including farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). By pruning shoots that periodically and naturally sprout from below-ground root webs in and around their fields, farmers promote the re-growth of trees. The trees reduce erosion, improve the ability of the soil to hold moisture, offer partial shade, and are a source of fuel, food, and animal fodder. The Web Alliance for the Re-Greening in Africa (W4RA) project is helping to create web-based information exchanges between farmers to promote awareness of FMNR. The organization SahelEco has initiated two projects—Trees Outside the Forest and the Re-Greening the Sahel Initiative—to encourage policymakers, farmers’ organizations, and government leaders to provide the support and legislation needed to put the responsibility of managing trees on agricultural land into the hands of farmers.

According to UNEP, one quarter of the planet’s land is threatened by desertification. Overgrazing and intensive farming have contributed to vast areas of desertification in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe, the Savory Institute is using a technique called holistic planned grazing to reverse land degradation and rebuild native grassland through livestock keeping—an industry usually cited as a cause of desertification rather than a solution. Farmers manage their herds to mimic the movements of natural grazing herds—such as wildebeest, buffalo, impala, and zebra. The hoof action and dung of the cattle help to aerate and fertilize the soil, stimulating re-growth of natural grasses. The grasses improve water percolation and retention in the soils, helping to restore ecosystems. Savory Institute president Allan Savory says that in addition to revitalizing grasslands, water holes and wildlife have returned to areas where they haven’t been in 100 years.

The Indonesian island of Borneo has lost an estimated 50 percent of its forest cover since the 1970s due to logging, slash and burn agriculture, and the establishment of large-scale oil palm plantations to produce biofuels. Deforestation jeopardizes the future of many rare species—including clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinos, and orangutans. The loss of trees has also impoverished rural communities who have lost important resources, such as clean water, fish, fertile soil, and forest-grown food and medicines. The Borneo Orangutan Survival’s (BOS) Samboja Lestari project has been regenerating forest by combining agriculture with forestry. The project has planted more than a million trees—including 1,000 different species—and cultivated crops like pineapple, beans, ginger, and sugar palm. The reforestation efforts have not only established a safe haven for orangutans and other wildlife, they have improved food security and incomes of the local community, stabilized the local micro-climate, increased the availability of water, and established a sustainable agroforestry system managed by local people.

We know that these are just a few examples of how agriculture—often blamed as a driver of environmental problems—can rebuild degraded ecosystems. Do you know about other agricultural projects that are improving environmental sustainability on marginal land?

To read more about ‘What Works,’ see: What Works: Innovations that protect both agriculture and wildlife, What Works: Improving Health with Agriculture, What works: Making the Most of Small Spaces, and For Sharing the Best in Agricultural Innovations, Nourishing the Planet Asks You: What Works?.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To purchase 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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