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Redressing the land degradation scar through restoration

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Restoring Landscapes.

Getting the basics right

Considering the issues of land degradation and what might fit the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems theme NOW, it is evidently clear that emphasis and priority should be given to 'getting the basics right'. This will lay the foundation for managing land degradation through sustainable land management and restoration.

Unless clear indicators and thresholds are established, it will not only be difficult to communicate objectively about the severity of land degradation to NGOs, planners, decision makers, and other relevant stakeholders, but it will also be difficult to monitor trends and design problem-oriented, site-specific management options. Below we highlight some of the fundamental issues that need to be addressed and established to tackle land degradation, restore degraded areas and sustainably manage our resources.

Land degradation and its level of destruction. Photo Credit: Kifle W. Aregay/Mekelle University, Ethiopia Land degradation and its level of destruction. Photo: Kifle W. Aregay/Mekelle Univ., Ethiopia

The trace of pressure on resources can be dated back to the beginning of civilization. When society started cultivating crops and rearing animals thousands of years ago, it effectively amplified its pressure on planet earth, its ecosystems and functions. When trying to manage productivity decline through chemical fertilizers and insecticides, society adds further pressure that can affect the resistance of land to external forces and, unless properly managed, can speed up degradation. With more mouths to feed under declining land quality, society’s increasing desire to eat better, dress well and its ability to invent and deploy sophisticated technologies increases the pressure on already constrained resources.

As recently as a century ago, resources were relatively ample and with the ‘luxury’ of space, farmers abandoned degraded areas enabling them to recover. Over the past decades, however, land degradation accelerated over 36 times its historical rate.

Currently the cost of land degradation reaches about US$490 billion per year, much higher than the cost of action to prevent it.

To rectify this we should first get the basics right: credible quantitative information about current status, drivers, indicators, thresholds, and spatial variability.

The Degradation Diagnosis

Land degradation is generally defined as a ‘persistent decline’ in the provision of goods and services that an ecosystem provides. To facilitate a diagnosis of the severity of the problem and the necessary action to remedy it, it is crucial to explicitly state the level beyond which a certain process or condition is considered degrading or degraded.

Clarifying the definition and scope of land degradation requires defining and quantifying appropriate, objective thresholds that can signal whether land degradation is occurring. This requires developing context specific indicators, such as the ‘tolerable soil erosion rate’, that can help assess the condition and estimate the severity based on key forms of land degradation.

As Vlek stated in The Creeping Disaster of Land Degradation, urgent efforts are necessary to develop threshold limits or symptoms of change that can serve as a wake-up call and provoke measures to amend the on-going land use practices.  The goal is to arrest the process before it intensifies and wreaks havoc.

Indicators for degradation should be widely applicable, assess the present status and trend, distinguish change due to natural cycles as opposed to anthropogenic interventions, and be relevant to ecologically significant phenomena. Setting up an international task force comprised of professionals from different disciplines can facilitate the identification of key indicators and define their respective thresholds.

Establishing benchmarks

After defining sound indicators and thresholds, it is important to conduct detailed ‘measurements’ of the existing status to establish quantitative baselines against which future trends can be compared. Though various estimates are made about the severity and spatial distribution of land degradation, most are location specific, inconsistent or not standardized to draw comparison.

As a result we still use the expert assessment of land degradation (GLASOD), which is already over 20 years old and greatly biased. Some of the recent efforts by Nemani et al. (2003); Vlek et al. (2008, 2009, 2010); Bai et al. (2008), Hellden and Tottrup (2008), de Jong et al. (2011) and others that attempted to provide quantitative expression of land degradation and mapping hotspot areas are credible efforts, but their approaches should be harmonised to provide consistent and standardized results. With standardized quantitative information and land degradation hotspot maps, it will be possible to design long-term monitoring plans, quantitatively track environmental conditions and plan appropriate interventions.

Since land degradation is a complex process, it will be necessary to develop multi-scale approaches targeting processes, interactions, and feedbacks at global, regional, and local scales. To achieve this, we should consider forming an ‘institute’ with the proposed name: Land Degradation-Restoration Observatory and Monitoring System.

Sustainable Land Management and Restoration

The recent concept of “zero net land degradation” (ZNLD), which implies that equivalent areas of land need to be ‘restored’ for areas degraded, brings another challenge. With ZNLD, questions can arise:

  • Where do we restore land so that the social benefits are enjoyed by those that suffered?
  • How close ecologically should the two sites be for losses due to degradation to be compensated by gains at the restored site?
  • How should conflicts and trade-offs be handled?

In addition, ZNLD tends to be reactive than proactive. It is therefore essential to aspire to more progressive and proactive concepts such as sustainable land management and restoration (SLM-R) as our objective benchmarks. SLM prevents (avoids) land degradation now and aims to maintain the system for the future while restoration helps recover situations affected by mismanagement.

Generally, the severity of land degradation is such that it warrants greater international attention by monitoring what is happening to our land analogously to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does with regards to climate (Vlek, 2005).

The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) is best placed to work closely with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification towards coordinating efforts related to land degradation including development of suitable indicators, modelling and monitoring tools as well as the establishment and/or strengthening of an International Panel on Land Degradation. Unless such efforts are made soon, the severity of land degradation will be overwhelming with population increasing and climate change, which can ultimately compromise all our aspirations.

To tackle land degradation, we need to get the basics right.  WLE has the opportunity to play a large role in sustainable land management – by helping establish clear indicators and thresholds and designing problem-oriented, site-specific sustainable land management options.


Thanks for the post! You really bring to light how with a little elbow grease the land can be rehabilitated.

Yes, great post! I like how you think big! A Land Degradation-Restoration Observatory and Monitoring System would be a wonderful new initiative.

Many times it seems that we carry on without good indicators and monitoring or 'getting the basics right' when it comes to land and soil degradation not because we don't all agree that it is important but because it is simply too hard. I agree with Dr. Vlek and Dr. Tamene, that now is the time to propose a major new effort. We have many new tools, and the global agenda for ZNLD is very supportive. We will need indicators also for SDG's.

A major challenge is that scientists tend to spend years arguing about the best methods and indicators, leaving the political decision makers and managers still without tools in hand.