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Environment

Opinion: Drylands remain undervalued as resource for the future

Climate politics has begun to establish the economic value of ecosystems and biodiversity. But the approach also needs to be applied to drylands, say this week's columnists Steffen Bauer, Philipp Buß and Levke Sörensen.

A man in Kenya leads his cattle alongside a road

Traditional knowledge about surviving in drylands has unrealized potential

The earth's drylands remain a fringe issue of international environmental and development politics. The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, which has been celebrated annually since the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was adopted, will hardly change this. Quite the contrary, the UNCCD appears more than ever in the shadow of its two big sisters: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

United Nations International Year of Biodiversity logo

2010 is the United Nations' International Year of Biodiversity

2010 was declared to be the International Year of Biodiversity and besides the preparations of the CBD's tenth Conference of the Parties, which is due to take place in October in Nagoya, Japan, international environmental politics are currently primarily occupied with the revitalization of the international climate negotiations, which have been deadlocked since the failed Copenhagen climate change conference.

Drylands valuable for learning

In hardly any ecosystem other than drylands – which cover roughly 40% of the earth's landmass – are the interactions between the challenges of climate change and the conservation of biodiversity so closely linked with the key development policy issues of food security and the fight against poverty. The development chances of the more than 2 billion people living in drylands depend largely on efficient water management, adapted land use, conservation of traditional crop and animal varieties and general ecosystem services.

Sustainable resource management in the drylands of the developing counties of Africa, Asia and Latin America can make important contributions to the conservation of biodiversity, the adaptation to climate change and poverty reduction. The safeguarding of ecosystem services requires especially sustainable land use practices. The significance of this goes beyond the protection of species. These are not only highly relevant for local food security, but also for agricultural, medical and biotechnological research.

Agro-biodiversity – meaning biological diversity in agriculture – demonstrates this. For rural populations and poor smallholders in particular, the conservation of plant and animal genetic diversity is essential to preserve their own adaptability. In view of the adverse climatic conditions existing in the drylands anyway, this applies irrespective of their awareness of the challenges future impacts of climate change will pose. Fully functional ecosystems, which also depend on agrobiodiversity, are simply indispensable for local food security.

Traditional knowledge can lead the way

This particularly applies to the availability of drought-resistant seeds. Varieties with a short cultivation cycle are increasingly important, since the variability of scarce rainfalls will probably increase as a result of climate change. Traditional local knowledge is paramount in the selection of suitable varieties and the further development of available seeds. For instance, Indian smallholders in the Deccan Highlands were able to cope well with drought periods by cultivating drought-resistant foxtail millet and thus ensure the survival of humans and livestock in spite of scarce precipitation.

A farmer during a drought

Global food security will increasingly depend on cultivation in drylands

The situation is similar with pasture management, where for example the composition of managed livestock is decisive for the extent of soil degradation. Pastoralism has proven itself to be the form of animal husbandry best adapted to dry environments worldwide. In East Africa, for example, sophisticated land use systems have been developed over generations in order to use the scarce resources of soil, vegetation and water sustainably. This knowledge is central to the conservation of dryland ecosystems with their unique plant and animal species and corresponding genetic resources. The directly related intellectual property issues are of great importance, both economically as well as politically. A case in point, Kenyan Massai sheep are also suitable for industrial use. An equitable benefit sharing is necessary to honor the contribution of traditional resource users to the long-term conservation of agrobiodiversity.

So far, the economics of conserving drought resistant varieties has seemed rather uninteresting. The necessity to adapt to more frequent and longer drought events in the future as a result of climate change seems likely to fundamentally change this. As the basis of sustainable land use in drylands and their significance for global food security, agrobiodiversity will also receive greater attention.

Drylands need more attention

Sir Nicholas Stern's widely noted 2006 review The Economics of Climate Change has demonstrated how important it is for decision-makers to grasp the economic dimension of global environmental challenges and to be able to assign “price tags” to them. Last year's report on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) followed this example and has again attracted great interest in environmental and development politics. Regarding the value of soils, especially in drylands, and the costs of inaction in the efforts to combat desertification, there has so far been a lack of comparable expertise.

An economic assessment of soils and sustainable land use appears long overdue, ongoing debates about the significance of the figures calculated by environmental economists notwithstanding. This could help to increase political attention for the general problems of development in the earth's arid regions. It could also facilitate the translation of general political objectives into specific policies that also provide links to the policy areas of biodiversity and climate change.

The decision of the last UNCCD Conference of the Parties of September 2009 to initiate a corresponding scientific process responds to this. It will still take some time before tangible figures can be assigned to the economic value of drylands and their varied ecosystems. Yet, the intersection between the forms of agriculture that contribute to sustainable land use, the conservation of biodiversity and the adaptation to climate change in drylands is obvious. Hence, there is much to be said for paying more attention to the supposedly dry matter of fighting against desertification even today. The interactions of land use, biodiversity and climate change in drylands finally need to be taken seriously.

Authors: Steffen Bauer/ Philipp Buß/ Levke Sörensen

Steffen Bauer

Steffen Bauer is a researcher for “Environmental Policy and Management of Natural Resources” at the German Development Institute in Bonn.

Philipp Buß and Levke Sörensen are researchers with the Convention Project to Combat Desertification (CCD Project) at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH.

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