Land is the most cherished and vital asset for many rural communities that live on the frontlines of climate change. However, degradation affects more than 65 percent of land in Africa. Consider the numbers: annually, about 3 percent of GDP is lost because of soil and nutrient depletion in croplands, and nearly 3 million hectares of forests are destroyed.

The effect is an increase in food and water insecurity, which diminishes the livelihoods of millions of herders, farmers, and other resource-dependent people, locking them into chronic poverty. These threats are exacerbated by climate change, which eventually could force affected people to migrate.

Climate change concerns prompt land restoration initiatives

Concerns about climate change effects in Africa have reignited the interest of African governments in land restoration, both to protect vulnerable livelihoods and to enhance nature-based adaptation to the changes. Under the auspices of the African Union, African governments launched the AFR100 initiative, through which at least 30 countries across the Sahel and Eastern and Southern Africa committed to a country-led effort to restore 126 million hectares. AFR100 builds on existing initiatives for ecosystem restoration, such as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel—initially conceived as a plan to plant a barrier of trees across 12 countries along the barren southern edge of the Sahara, from Senegal on the Atlantic Ocean to Djibouti on the Red Sea.

While the metaphorical “green wall” galvanized interest in trees and vegetation cover, today it is conceived more broadly as sustainable land-use practices that can strengthen local resilience to land degradation and climate change and also reestablish and transform livelihoods. The World Bank Group’s Sahel and West Africa Program, in partnership with the Global Environment Facility, invested $1.1 billion to support the Great Green Wall initiative.

Restoration of affected landscapes requires long-term, sustained effort

IEG recently evaluated the performance of one of the Sahel and West Africa Program initiatives, the Ethiopia Sustainable Land Management program (SLMP), designed to reduce land degradation and improve land productivity in selected highly degraded watersheds. (Evaluation results for the initiatives in other Sahelian countries are summarized in a recent IEG blog about the Great Green Wall.)

The first phase of the Ethiopia program introduced improved management practices in 45 critically degraded watershed landscapes. The second phase expanded the practices to 135 watersheds, addressing poor farmland management, rapid depletion of vegetation cover, unsustainable livestock grazing, and land tenure insecurity.

IEG’s evaluation revealed that long-term sustained effort is required to restore agricultural lands in degraded watershed landscapes and to transform livelihoods.

  • Land productivity. The SLMP brought more than 860,000 hectares of degraded landscapes under improved management, accounting for about half of the 1.6 million hectares brought under improved management through the entire Sahel and West Africa Program. However, it took more than five to seven years for program investments to arrest the degradation and improve land productivity. These accomplishments also required improving land governance (including tenure rights), strengthening institutions for collective management of common-pool resources, and improving market access by investing in rural feeder roads. These changes cannot be achieved in a single project cycle of 3 to 4 years.
  • Livelihoods. SLMP demonstrated that success in biophysical land restoration does not immediately lead to restoring livelihoods—a lagging indicator that depends on several factors, including water security and access to markets that increase incomes and improve food security.
Rebu Watershed, Ethiopia, Oct 2019. Photo Credit: Bekele Shiferew
The IEG mission visited and conducted detailed site-level studies at the 22 microwatersheds, including Rebu, pictured above.


Upfront benefits, incentives, and inclusivity are required for success

The evaluation also identified several lessons for ensuring local communities both benefit from and are committed to land restoration projects:

Effective demonstrations of upfront economic and livelihood benefits are needed to persuade land users to adopt and maintain improved land restoration practices. Many smallholder farmers and herders in the drier areas are unable to forgo immediate livelihood benefits to secure long-term sustainability gains. The SLMP overcame some of these challenges by supporting diversification of income beyond traditional cropping and livestock production, in part through beekeeping, agroforestry, and poultry farming.

Incentives are needed for local communities when land restoration restricts access and resource use, for example, when communal grazing lands are closed to allow for natural regeneration. Some communities that initially agreed to enforce the closures would not implement them unless alternative sources of livestock fodder and fuelwood were available. Controlled harvesting of livestock feed and beekeeping activities within the closed areas eased the pressure. In some areas, private sector investors (for example, a brewery) agreed to pay farmers for protection of critical watershed services that ensured a sustainable supply of clean water.  

Access to water and small-scale irrigation was the most cherished component of the SLMP program in drier areas. Where the SLMP supported water harvesting and invested in small irrigation works, this offered communities protection against chronic droughts and allowed families to grow fruits and vegetables year-round. This both diversified diets and generated additional income and employment, thereby reducing the pressure for youth and others to migrate from the village.

Building local institutional and communal capacity is needed for continued local governance and financing of infrastructure and practices. The SLMP provided technical assistance and participatory land-use planning at the local watershed level to help communities develop capacity and norms for resource governance. However, communities lacked the means to invest in continued maintenance of the high-cost infrastructure needed for erosion control or water conservation. Future interventions may need to strengthen and formalize public or private local watershed management institutions, including identifying sources of revenue (such as payments for ecosystem services).

Inclusive approaches that increase income or access to land can help mitigate the tradeoffs of restoration for the landless, youth, and women. The SLMP promoted equitable sharing of grass and biomass from restored communal lands that benefitted the poor and landless. Support for the keeping of small ruminant livestock, poultry, and bees helped both women and youth. Reallocation of communal land, through land certification in exchange for restoration, helped some youth access productive land. Some area closures forced women to travel long distances for fuelwood, but this was mitigated through agroforestry and controlled harvesting of biomass in closed areas.

These approaches can be further adapted to local conditions to support inclusive and sustainable landscape restoration that also restores people’s livelihoods.

Read IEG’s Evaluation of the Ethiopia Sustainable Land Management Program


Pictured above: IEG visit to Weinalem Watershed in Raya Azebo, Tigray Regional State, Ethiopia, Oct 2019, Photo credit: Bekele Shiferaw

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