A focus on communities and how they can better manage their natural resources has paved the way for land restoration activities that improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and pastoralists.
Traditional community by-laws that once governed non-destructive use of common resources such as water bodies and grazing lands are often displaced and distorted by market pressures, demographic shifts, socioeconomic instability and climate variability. Top-down approaches to restore increasingly depleted soils and water resources have had limited success because of a mismatch between the landscapes and recommended solutions, a lack of monitoring and maintenance and, crucially, poor adoption by communities lacking training or institutional support.
WLE-supported work has focused on understanding and engaging communities to obtain their buy-in. By demonstrating to communities the potential economic benefits, and securing their agreement and material contribution, restoration activities have been successfully implemented, including:
- Landscape restoration and water harvesting practices such as check dams, deep trenches, percolation pits and terracing in Ethiopia.
- Contour bunds to conserve water and reduce soil erosion in Mali.
- Rehabilitation of traditional water tanks in India to better access surface water.
- Mechanized micro-water harvesting packages supported by a methodology to assess suitability in the drylands of Jordan.
- Weirs to capture nutrients and improve agricultural productivity in Ethiopia.
Innovative approaches such as game theory have been deployed within communities to support system understanding, encourage debate about water conflicts, facilitate adaptation of local rules and eventually change water management behavior. To rejuvenate the social structures that sustainably managed such resources, research has also examined patterns from the past to guide interventions in the present.
The impact of WLE-supported projects has been wide-ranging and well-documented. This is particularly evident in the ‘greening’ of whole landscapes such as the Aba Gerima watershed in Ethiopia, where soil erosion and water run-off have been reduced dramatically, increasing the quantity as well as diversity of crop produce. There are clear benefits to community-driven restoration activities without even considering the more intangible rewards of people working together for mutual benefit.
Often the challenge lies in securing buy-in from communities on the appropriateness of restoration actions and material investments. Strengthening community ownership can lead to overall benefits, but at the expense of ‘free riders’ who may resist change.
Linking up multiple levels of governance, where there is usually a disconnect between moribund community structures and top-down government, is part of the challenge, too: the state has to be convinced that it’s not just infrastructure that needs investment, but communities.
Restoration activities across landscapes are complex affairs, and even proven technologies at the local level may prove difficult to replicate in other contexts or scale up across regions. This is especially the case with climate variability, population growth and increasing demand for agricultural land. Learning sites, integrated into national and regional research agendas, and innovation platforms that bring stakeholders together could play a role in widening restoration efforts across agro-ecologies.
Integrated management that considers whole landscapes can boost the resilience and livelihood benefits of smallholder farming communities. Multi-disciplinary approaches are essential across governance levels involving diverse interest groups, and interventions should be designed considering the agro-ecological, socio-economic and institutional conditions that apply in each context. Both opportunities and tradeoffs for vulnerable groups such as women need to be taken account of.
Watershed management, in particular, needs to consider the tradeoffs that may be incurred by communities living downstream and outside of the boundaries of the watershed. Future research could consider ways to address these tradeoffs.