A global agricultural research-for-development partnership against desertification

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The eight Centers that are partners in Oasis each have over two decades of experience across the developing world of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Below is a just a sample of a much longer list of accomplishments.

Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT)

Applying normal doses of fertilizer is too expensive for most farmers in the Sahel. The use of organic matter, in the form of livestock manure and crop residues, is effective, but supplies of these materials are limited. A more economical alternative is to apply small quantities of inorganic fertilizers in the hole where seed is sown, a practice called “micro-dosing.” Practiced by thousands of farmers in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Zimbabwe, micro-dosing helps crops mature more rapidly, yield 50-100% more grain, and escape the worst effects of drought. This and other soil fertility enhancement options are the focus of collaborative research among CIAT, ICRISAT and IFPRI.

Many weather, soil, genetic and management factors affect the way a crop will respond to irrigation, fertilizer and other management practices. Determining appropriate crop management strategies under these uncertainties has major economic and environmental implications. CIAT has helped national research programs across dryland Africa gain skills in a computer-model 'decision support system' known as DSSAT (Decision Support System for Agrotechnology Transfer). This will accelerate research progress and improve advice given to farmers.

Also towards strengthening national capacities, CIAT-TSBF has catalyzed and coordinates the African Network for Soil Biology and Fertility (AfNet). Its main goal is to strengthen national capacity to generate, share, and apply knowledge and skills in soil fertility and biology management to contribute to the welfare of farming communities. AfNet members test and exchange experiences related to four research themes: managing ecosystem services, managing nutrient cycles, managing below-ground biodiversity, and empowering farmers.

Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

CIFOR has stimulated policy debates (using its Nature, Wealth and Power approach) and convened forums of experts to derive principles for policy development to better manage dry forests for sustainable livelihoods in dryland Africa using the Nature, Wealth and Power analysis framework.

To build sustainable, prosperous livelihoods from savannas and woodlands, CIFOR has advanced the understanding and deployment of a number of enterprises suitable for poor land users. In Namibia CIFOR worked with People and Plants International, Phytotrade and local partners, on the sustainable harvest of natural products for the international pharmacological market including enterprise development to encourage product processing, diversification and market access.

To enhance the capacity of institutions to prevent and mitigate forest-related conflicts and better manage woodland and savanna resources, CIFOR has fostered more inclusive and adaptive approaches. For example it has assisted Botswana to develop community-based management of wildlife, resulting in an African overview on lessons for community based management. The project so far has succeeded in creating several platforms for policy debate on rural development and dependence on nature resources in wealth creation and national economic development. It has also led to a sharper policy focus on the role of dry forests in providing livelihood options such as managing woodlands for honey, gums, and many other forest products.

International Maize and Wheat Center (CIMMYT)

Drought and low-nutrient tolerant maize varieties are now grown in 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa on 250,000 hectares, yielding 30% more than existing varieties under these stresses, including in the dry subhumid areas.

The offspring of crosses between durum wheat and wild grasses are also yielding 30% more than commercial varieties under drought stress. Progress in conservation agriculture and raised-bed wheat farming is improving water use efficiency as well.

CIMMYT researchers are also well on their way towards genetically-engineering a new type of drought resistance based on a gene called 'DREB' transferred from the plant species Arabidopsis thaliana. The gene may also convey resistance to salinity and cold—all major problems in the drylands.

International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA)

In a major effort known as the Mashreq/Maghreb Project convened by ICARDA, eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa empowered local land-users to co-manage their lands with the central government in ways that harmonized their livelihood needs with the desire to improve long-term sustainability.

Degraded rangelands can be rehabilitated by planting productive plant species that are nutritious and palatable to livestock. Spineless cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica), saltbushes (Atriplex), and wattles (Acacia) have been successfully introduced in Algeria and Tunisia; the higher water content of cactus appeals to sheep, and aids digestion.

Hungry animals and land shortages lead to over-grazing. Meanwhile, agricultural waste products such as straw, rice bran, date pulp, whey, brewer's grain, wheat bran, corn gluten and others create a waste disposal problem at food and feed processing plants. A promising option is to recycle these cheap agricultural wastes as feed. The Mashreq & Maghreb project devised ways to compact these wastes into nutritious, inexpensive ‘feed blocks’. Now being tested in Iraq and Jordan, feed blocks improve sheep weight gain, fertility and lambing rates while taking pressure off the rangelands.

ICARDA maintains strong breeding and germplasm conservation programs for the key crops of the dryland poor in non-tropical zones: barley, wheat, chickpea, lentil, faba beans, peas and forage legumes. Improved, drought-resistant, higher-yielding, disease and insect-resistant varieties are now widespread across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. ICARDA also plays a lead role in the CGIAR Consortium to help rebuild Afghanistan after decades of conflict. The assistance includes crop improvement, cropping systems and helping restore the country's damaged agro-biodiversity.

World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)

Difficulties in measuring land degradation are one of the prime obstacles in the UNCCD's work. Without accurate measurements, Parties to the Convention are not sure whether their efforts to combat desertification are having the desired effect or not.

Land degradation surveillance methods developed by ICRAF are being applied in a World Bank-GEF project, led by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, which is believed to be the most comprehensive research and development program ever to tackle land degradation problems in the watersheds that feed Lake Victoria. The $7.6 million initiative is making use of new diagnostic tools to provide extremely accurate data on soil fertility, erosion risks and soil hydraulics.

The surveillance methods are also being applied in a UNEP project covering five West African dryland countries to guide strategies for land restoration. The land degradation surveillance approach uses regional-scale remote sensing methods to strategically locate 'sentinel sites', which consist of 10-by-10-km blocks that are used for ground sampling, calibration of remote sensing images and monitoring. The methods provide accurate information on where land degradation is taking place, the extent of the problem, and on what sort of intervention strategies are required to prevent or reverse degradation. The sentinel blocks are also used for assessing project impacts after several years.

International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)

ICRISAT's crop breeding research has led to one million hectares across Africa grown each year to varieties derived from its partnerships with national research systems across the continent. For example, rosette virus-resistant groundnuts (peanuts) and fungal wilt-resistant pigeonpeas have made the difference between bounty and desperation for thousands of farmers, and are making more nutritious food available to consumers. Earlier-maturing sorghum and millet varieties help farmers escape drought and capture higher market prices.

In Asia, impacts have also been impressive, such as high income-earning kabuli chickpea varieties in Andhra Pradesh State, as well as in Bangladesh. ICRISAT created the first hybrid legume food crop variety anywhere in the world, in pigeonpeas that yield about 35% more than their predecessors. ICRISAT research on mildew resistance saved India's millet farming system from collapse in the 1980s/90s.  Earlier-maturing and wilt-resistant pigeonpeas also protect farmers from crop failure and add millions of dollars to Asian smallholder incomes every year—protecting livelihoods that are under threat from desertification.

In addition to breeding, research to better manage soil fertility and water is helping the drylands get more from less, such as fertilizer microdosing in the Sahel and in southern Africa, and integrated watershed management in Asia.

Investing in improving soils can also help reduce global warming by taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. Experiments ongoing since 1976 at ICRISAT's Patancheru, India campus (near Hyderabad) on Vertisols (heavy black clay soils) revealed that improved management practices have sequestered an average of 335 extra kilograms of carbon per hectare per year over the 24-year period, compared to traditional practices. If such practices were engaged over the entire Vertisol area of the semi-arid tropics, an eventual carbon market might have a value somewhere between US$ 10-15 billion, a boon to small farmers.

The war against desertification will not be won unless poverty is reduced, because it is one of the central causes. Dryland farmers can grow their way out of poverty if they can sell into high-value urban and export markets. But in Malawi they were held back by aflatoxin contamination of their groundnut (peanut) crop. Aflatoxin is a toxic poison unacceptable in even minute quantities for export. ICRISAT developed inexpensive, accurate test kits that have been pivotal in helping identify aflatoxin-contaminated grain lots. Having passed the test, the first shipment of high-quality groundnuts was accepted by UK and South African buyers over the past year. This success has led to repeat orders from the overseas buyers, triggering increased demand from Malawian farmers for improved seed.

Combining market orientation with soil rehabilitation, ICRISAT has developed a radical new dryland farming system dubbed the ‘Sahelian Eco-farm’, which can multiply dryland farmers’ net income by a factor of six. Special drought-tolerant, nitrogen-fixing trees such as Acacia species are planted to rebuild the soil, and high-value fruit trees, vegetables and herbal crops are intersown in the field. The leaf litter as well as decaying roots add organic matter to the soil and also reduce wind erosion and increase water infiltration. Small amounts of fertilizer complement the organic matter, and crop yields are boosted substantially.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

IFPRI studied policies in the Middle East that inadvertently reward land users for over-burdening the drylands by providing them relief aid following droughts. The largest land users benefit the most, because aid is issued according to numbers of animals lost, or hectares sown.

IFPRI proposes instead that regional governments consider the feasibility of ‘rainfall insurance’. Farmers and herders would pay for the amount of insurance they feel they need. If the season’s rainfall turns out to be below an amount fixed in the contract, insurance compensation would be paid (perhaps with government assistance to the insurance companies in the beginning to encourage them to offer this product). This approach would provide needed protection against drought without rewarding farmers and herders who increase the area of crops and animals on fragile drylands (they would have to buy more insurance to cover their larger operations).

IFPRI and ILRI scientists examined key policy issues in three drought-prone countries: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Niger. The study determined which forms of property rights permit the mobility required for raising livestock in drought-prone areas, and it analyzed the risks involved with these options. They found that cooperation between herders in managing natural resources can significantly reduce grazing pressure. Greater cooperation was also shown to result in smaller herds and increased mobility. These findings offer policy makers valuable insights that can help them design strategies to mitigate the impact of drought on livestock production.


International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

The great grasslands of eastern Africa, home to nomadic peoples and the greatest concentrations and diversity of large mammals on earth, are in danger of collapse. Each year more land is fenced and ploughed for cropping to feed a rapidly growing human population. Renowned game reserves such as the Maasai Mara have lost up to 40% of their wildlife populations over the last 20 years. Today, new information tools built by ILRI and partners with 25 years of research data are predicting the impacts of alternative development scenarios.

ILRI is carrying out participatory GPS/GIS mapping in a dryland/rangeland area known as Kitengela, a half-hour from Nairobi, which is a traditional pastoral Maasai area now under rapid development. This mapping has helped make possible an innovative land-lease scheme that pays Maasai tribespeople to keep their land open (unfenced) so that wild life on annual migrations from Nairobi National Park, as well as livestock can graze these grasslands.

The genetic value of the estimated 4,000 often obscure animal breeds round the world is of growing importance in fighting poverty, hunger and disease. But some 30 per cent of the world’s domesticated animals, most of which are found in poor tropical countries and have never been developed, are now threatened with extinction. ILRI is working to characterize and save the most important of these tropical livestock genetic resources. Research has discovered, for example that one of Africa’s many forgotten flocks, the Red Maasai ‘hair’ sheep, has unrivalled resistance to the billion-dollar problem of intestinal worms. Other ILRI research indicates that a wild salt-water-drinking camel discovered last year in the Gobi Desert is a new species.

Scientists at ILRI and CIAT have mapped the impacts of climate change in Africa and Latin America on maize yields five decades from now. This assessment, carried out at high resolution to disclose impacts at the household level, indicates profound changes for tens of millions of smallholder crop-and-livestock farmers who rely on rainfed maize production to feed their families and livestock. In some regions, such as eastern Brazil, maize yields are predicted to decrease moderately, up to 25%, if there are no changes in current production practices.

In the late 1970s, ILRI began to develop and promote the planting of forage legumes on smallholder farms in the countries and regions south of the Sahel. One of several forage-planting methods developed and tested was dubbed the ‘fodder bank’. This consists of a small area enclosed by a fence and planted with legumes such as Stylosanthes. A farmer uses this ‘bank’ as she would a larder or pantry, drawing on it when fresh food (green grass) is not available for her animals. A study conducted by ILRI in 1997 showed that planted-forage technologies have been diffusing for the last 25 years over the whole of the West Africa, increasing grain and stalk fodder resulting in higher milk yields, animal weights, calving rates, calf and cow survival rates, and soil fertility and structure.

For more ILRI achievements in the drylands and beyond, visit this web page.


Africa Rice Center (WARDA)

WARDA's Sahel station based in St Louis, Senegal has made significant impact through in improved irrigated rice varieties suited to the Sahelian environment. Varieties including Sahel 102, 108 and 201 are now grown on more than one million hectares in the Senegal and Niger River valleys. More recently, salt tolerant rice varieties have been developed. In addition, WARDA has developed integrated crop management technologies for arid and Sahelian conditions.

WARDA also pioneered a Task Force Approach to research, empowering national research institutions to drive the research agenda with technical assistance from the Center, instead of the other way around. This has been highly effective in building national rice research capacities across West Africa.

The role of national partners has for example been instrumental in testing and identifying superior rice lines from a novel genetic background known as NERICA, which are crosses between the African and Asian species of cultivated rice. The NERICA rices are more rugged and stress tolerant than the Asian parent and higher-yielding than the African parent. These lines are showing promise in irrigated environments such as the Sahel.


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