Improved terracing in this Kenyan field is needed to combat land degradation.

Combatting land degradation


Erosion, pollution, salinization, over-grazing and fires; these are only a few of the many causes of land degradation and desertification in the world. Land degradation costs an estimated €30 billion annually worldwide and affects more than a billion people, especially in the dry lands. Many poor people in these fragile areas are caught in a vicious cycle of land degradation, less yield, less possibilities to invest in land management, which causes more land degradation.

Because politicians are aware of the disastrous effects, 193 countries have signed the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1991. However, signing a Convention is just a start. What has to be done now is to set up sound methods, standardized tools, maps and decision models suited to land planners and other professionals that opt for alternative land management practices in the affected regions.

ISRIC assists in several of the international research programs that are set up with this goal. In these programs soil mapping, reviewing (soil) data and training in handling the world soil data are crucial. Land degradation depends from soil type and soil characteristics.

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Although there is a large body of knowledge available on soil threats in Europe, this knowledge is fragmented and incomplete, in particular regarding the complexity and functioning of soil systems and their interaction with human activities. The EU-FP7 project, called RECARE, aims to develop effective prevention, remediation and restoration measures using an innovative transdisciplinary-approach. It will actively integrate and advance knowledge of stakeholders and scientists in 17 case studies, covering a-range of soil threats in different bio-physical and socio-economic environments across Europe.

Terracing, agroforestry, dams or basins? Which of the available soil or water conservation strategies should local residents choose to combat land degradation? That’s not always clear: strategies that are successful in one region, may be unsuitable for another region. Policymakers, NGOs and research institutes, including ISRIC, have developed a roadmap, based on studies and experiences in 18 severely degraded ‘hot spots’. This has been done in the EU-program DESIRE.ISRIC´s contribution consisted of reviewing existing global literature and soil datasets.

Land management practices are needed, but who is going to finance the small farmers that have to invest? In the project GreenWaterCredits, initiated by ISRIC, researchers have conducted scenario- and pilot studies to convince potential financers of the land management credits in the Tana River Basin in South East Kenya The studies show that soil and water practices in the upper area reduces erosion and regulates river base flows in the lower area. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and private water users have set up a Green Water Fund for these upland farmers.

Deforestation, industrialization and unsustainable farming belong to the main drivers of land degradation. In their struggle against it, policymakers need to know which land use systems are destructive, and how land use systems can be changed. In the Global Land Degradation Assessment in Drylands program (GLADA), initiated by FAO in 2006, ISRIC and partners have created a basis for informed policy advice through the assessment of land degradation at different spatial and temporal scales – global, national and regional.

Land users and soil and water conservation specialists have a wealth of know how related to land management, improvement of soil fertility, and protection of soil resources. Together with FAO and the Centre for development and environment of the University of Bern, ISRIC manages the WOCAT network in which 60 institutes participate. WOCAT (World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies) has been documenting soil and land management practices for 20 years. The on line database counts 310 technologies and 170 approaches from over 50 countries.

Nobody knows how serious soil degradation is. ISRIC and PRI-WUR have developed a quantitative methodology that is more precise in relating soil degradation to biomass production and the world-wide loss of productivity. This method incorporates global patterns and trends in satellite measurement of biomass production and simulated biomass production using weather and soil data such as soil depth and soil water holding capacity. It can be applied globally with a high spatial resolution and can therefore contribute well to answer questions on interrelations between ecosystem degradation and economic development


Adapted land management practices can help to reduce net atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (credit: GCAFS)

Mitigating climate change

Soil and water conservation practices not only help to increase biodiversity and improve food security, they can also contribute to climate change mitigation. When the amount of trees, shrubs and organic matter inputs increase, more carbon can be stored in vegetation and soil organic material. And that means less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Farmers can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases by practices such as minimal ploughing, which cause less breakdown of soil organic matter. 

Call for standardized tools

Increasingly new land management projects are required to report the impact they have on greenhouse gas emissions. At the moment, however, it is difficult to compare the net C benefits of these projects. Equally, it has been difficult for sustainable land management activities to gain the financial rewards they deserve from emerging carbon-offset markets (e.g. post-Kyoto arrangements). Such requirements and arrangements call for standardized tools to assess the benefits of ´climate smart´ agriculture and land use.

Soil data related to carbon sequestration

ISRIC contributes to land management programs aimed at mitigating climate change, and it participates in international projects that develop tools to assess the benefits of such activities. Soil data are needed to run the web-based tools. How much carbon a specific soil will store depends on many factors including soil drainage, soil nutrient status, soil texture and clay type. We generate and analyse soil data related to carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas release.

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This SCOPE Rapid Assessment Project on Benefits of Soil Carbon (BSC) is a major international effort to transfer complex science evidence into new policy approaches and into new land management practices. Conserving and improving soil carbon through land management offers enormous potential to simultaneously address the major global challenges of rapid climate change, degradation of soil and water quality and urgent and growing demand for food

The web-based tools developed in the Carbon Benefits Project (GEF-CBP) will enable land users and other professionals to assess the net effects of land use change on greenhouse gases emissions and carbon stock changes. Users can enter information about the proposed management of the land (such as tillage and use of fertilizer and irrigation) and about the climate and soil type. The tools have been developed by an international consortium which is being led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) involving ColoradoState University, partners in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Kenya, China, Niger, Nigeria and the Netherlands (ISRIC).

When farmers change forests into agriculture, soil organic carbon levels normally decrease unless ‘best management’ practices are introduced. The GEF-SOC consortium, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), has developed toolsthat can quantify the potential impact of land use management and climate scenarios on sequestration of organic carbon in areas with different soils and climates. ISRIC helped to prepare soil and terrain databases for the project regions (Kenya, Jordan, Amazon Brazil, and the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India) and provided expertise on estimating national soil carbon stocks using GIS mapping approaches.

ISRIC has reviewed the most promising management practices to increase carbon sequestration in the soil at the request of the Dutch National Research Programme on Global Air Pollution and Climate Change (NRP). These practices will require evaluation and adaptation with reference to soil type and land use system, and this preferably by agro-ecological region.

Many countries including Bangladesh are trying to reverse loss of biodiversity by combating land degradation and improving the soil.

Biodiversity conservation

Land degradation is disastrous for biodiversity. A healthy soil provides nutrients to thousands of micro-organisms and plant and animal species in a region. Species will disappear as a result of soil pollution or a lack of nutrients caused by the fertile upper layer of the soil being removed . Reversing land degradation also improves food security. Many countries are now trying to reverse loss of biodiversity. To identify the most promising conservation practices, large amounts of site-specific data are needed on soil, vegetation, climate, land use and stakeholders (see also Combating land degradation). ISRIC helps to review existing information and create new (soil) data. We thereby seek improvement for farmers too. While scientific experts perceive loss of nature or landscape as a problem, farmers are more concerned about the decline in yields. Consequently, the solutions for the farmers require a different focus. For instance, when farmers build terraces for nature conservation, their efforts also need to result in more money and food. Only then can a solution work.

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Identifying most effective conservation measures for Bangladesh Deforestation is a major cause of environmental degradation including loss of nature in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh. This is a poor, ethnic diverse region characterized by poverty, soil depletion and forest degradation. To identify the most effective conservation measures, ISRIC participated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts Improved Natural Resources Management. The team developed maps of environmental constraints (erosion and land degradation), actual land cover and social constraints to land management options including forest-land status.