A global agricultural research-for-development partnership against desertification

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Oasis is still in its early stages, so its activities are under active planning. They stem directly from the priorities identified by its research partners and stakeholders.

Intractable research questions have lingered, constraining progress against desertification because of the absence of a coordinated global scientific effort to tackle them. Oasis brings together the right mix of inter-disciplinary advanced science with on-the-ground partnerships to make major gains in these areas.
Oasis’ wide consultations have indicated that the following five high-level questions deserve priority attention:
1) How can we effectively assess and quantify dryland degradation at the landscape scale, a problem that includes subtle, long-term changes in natural resource capital and ecosystems function, involving not only biophysical measurements but valuations of ecosystems goods and services relative to the needs of both poor land users and national, regional and global societies that depend on these services?

This need was recently and strongly reiterated by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which concluded in its Desertification Synthesis (p. 19) that “without a scientifically robust and consistent baseline of desertification, identifying priorities and monitoring the consequences of actions are seriously constrained” and “understanding the impacts of desertification on human well-being requires that we improve our knowledge of the interactions between socioeconomic factors and ecosystem conditions.”
As a global partnership, Oasis brings together leading-edge land assessment technology, including the interfacing of remote sensing and GIS with agricultural systems models; socio-economic assessment techniques; and ground-truthing through partnerships and participatory analyses at benchmark sites across the drylands of the developing world. These activities will result in the development of effective, practical, accurate techniques and verifiable indicators to measure degradation and rehabilitation at landscape scales; methodologies for analyzing the interdependencies between agricultural and natural ecosystems; and methods for the valuation of ecosystem goods and services.
2) How can we quantify the landscape-scale dynamics that lead to losses of precious soil, water, nutrients, and biodiversity, and devise practical approaches to reduce those losses?

Research has shown that even in the resource-constrained drylands, there is enormous waste of scarce natural resources. Much of the water that falls on these areas runs off or drains through without being used by crops or livestock, and nutrient flushes are leached into the groundwater because crop roots are too malnourished to capture them. Over-use of rangelands degrades their productivity and biodiversity, losses that could be prevented through community-based land management based on a better scientific understanding and in synch with appropriate policies.

Most past research has been at the field and plot level, while many of these dynamics are driven at the landscape level. Landscape-level analyses have been rare because they are difficult and require an integrated, interdisciplinary approach. They must address complex and interacting hydrological, nutrient, topographical, and human land-management dynamics. Dynamic systems modeling, including interactions with climatic variability that interfaces between land degradation and climate change research (an area of study called for by both Conventions) are major research needs.

Opportunities to enhance water and nutrient supplies through tighter resource cycling, landscape management (e.g. integrated tree-crop-livestock systems) to buffer variability in natural resource flows and balances (also easing the impacts of climate variability), and the supplementation of resources through water harvesting, smallholder-appropriate irrigation, and judicious fertilizer use, are just a few avenues of opportunity to be addressed by Oasis.

3) How can policy, market and institutional dynamics that aggravate land degradation be overcome?

Inappropriate policies, market failures, and institutional deficiencies are major bottlenecks to sustainable dryland development, and prime causal factors behind desertification. Land tenure insecurity, insufficient infrastructure (from roads to information to research investment), insufficiently-developed human capacities, lack of access by the poor to financial credit and other inputs, public neglect of the drylands, unfair subsidized competition, weak market structures, and other dysfunctions are just a few of many factors creating disincentives to sustainable dryland management.

Yet these policies continue, because of a dearth of understanding, solutions, and means for enacting change within the policy-making institutions and frameworks of dryland countries. The political commitments made by nations through the UNCCD process (National Action Plans) create a new entry point for attacking these issues. The UNCCD is working with nations to ‘mainstream’ these plans into national development agendas. However, major policy and institutional changes usually invoke tradeoffs that create both benefits and costs.

Oasis will contribute policy analysis and advice to provide a stronger understanding of these tradeoffs, so that policymakers can become confident that they are making the right choices leading to more sustainable dryland management. Oasis’ unique combination of land-use science with world-leading agricultural policy analysis expertise creates a unique and much-needed resource, because policy on land degradation must meld both areas of expertise.

4) What motivates land-degrading vs. land-rehabilitating choices made by dryland users, and how can they be motivated to choose development pathways and livelihood options that lead to more sustainable, diverse, remunerative, and resilient dryland management?

Past attempts to counter land degradation largely overlooked the motivations of land users that ultimately cause, or correct land damage. Land use was too often studied from narrow sectoral perspectives (e.g. crops or livestock or forests) rather than the holistic way in which land-users themselves are affected by their environment. The challenge is to understand and ensure that the choices available to reduce land degradation are also attractive to land users, both individually and collectively, reconciling tradeoffs while rewarding more sustainable land care with increased, reliable income and other livelihood benefits that they value (employment, security, cultural values, etc).

To address the risk of location-specificity of such investigations, generating international public goods and lead to wide impact, a conceptual framework for understanding dryland development pathways is needed. To meet this challenge, Oasis will analyze the external and exogenous conditioning factors, land-user motives, and livelihood dynamics that influence livelihood change in the direction of more sustainable, less degrading land management. The framework will help guide investments that provide land-users with choices that generate greater rewards from better land care.

Additionally, the analysis of prior successes and failures will reveal lessons that are likely to be influential in similar target domains elsewhere. This development pathways framework will account for diverse options such as choices between diversification/specialization, intensification/extensification, subsistence/commercialization, rural/urban dynamics, on/off-farm activities, agricultural/environmental services, and others.

5) How can knowledge-rich land management interventions be successfully shared with disadvantaged, isolated rural communities in ways that can be effectively up-scaled for wide impact?

Natural resource management interventions are often criticized as being inherently location-specific, requiring large investments to benefit small areas. Past approaches, however tended to overlook a large and potent resource for magnifying impact — namely, the knowledge and knowledge-sharing capacities of land-users themselves.

Impressive examples of land-user innovation and large-scale impact in natural resource management have been described in all dryland regions, but rarely have scientific institutions analyzed or leveraged such mechanisms to extend their impact. Recognizing the potential in the drylands, the UNCCD within its Articles repeatedly exhorts all parties to gather and make use of local knowledge through participatory approaches.

Much needs to be learned about ways to maximize effective co-learning between a global scientific team like Oasis and widely-dispersed, poor rural dryland communities faced with limited communications or extension infrastructure. What kinds of relationships and communications channels can be devised not merely to “get the word out”, but to enable and foster rich dialogue? How can good ideas found in one location be shared and understood at the level of principles, methods and tools that can be locally customized by another community to meet their special needs and priorities? How can co-learning bridges be built between policy-makers, scientists and land users that build consensus resulting in agreement on steps to improve land care? How can such intensive co-learning be up-scaled so that substantial impacts can be achieved across regions, including the harnessing of the new possibilities of information technology? How can impacts of such diverse and widespread innovations be assessed so that evidence of gains goes beyond the merely anecdotal to the scientifically-verifiable?

Answers to these questions are vital not only for Oasis; they will have broad utility across the global sustainable development agenda.


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