A process for effective desertification mitigation

G. Schwilch

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


in these ecosystems can easily result in widespread and severe land degradation and thus desertification.
Combined with global issues such as climate change, economic disparities, migration, and competing claims
on land, this often leads to a vicious cycle of aridity, land degradation, and productivity loss. In addition to
the harsh environmental conditions limiting land productivity, the socio-economic situation in drylands can
pose challenges as well, given that these regions are often characterised by remoteness, marginality, lowproductivity
farming, weak institutions, and even conflict. Managing land sustainably under such conditions
is a challenge which concerns land users and other stakeholders, policymakers, and researchers alike.
Desertification research has traditionally focused on degradation assessments, whereas prevention and
mitigation strategies have not sufficiently been emphasised, although the concept of sustainable land
management (SLM) is increasingly being acknowledged (Chapter 1).
The present research was embedded in the EU FP6 research project DESIRE (Desertification
Mitigation and Remediation of Land – a Global Approach for Local Solutions; 2007–2012). DESIRE aimed to
establish promising alternative land use and management strategies in 17 areas affected by land
degradation and desertification around the world. Project work was based on close collaboration of
scientists with local stakeholder groups. The study sites served as a global laboratory for developing and
applying new methods of science – stakeholder collaboration and trialling traditional and innovative
approaches to combating desertification.
Chapter 2 offers a compilation and review of a number of methodological approaches to monitoring
and assessing SLM which to date have been little reported in the literature. Lessons are drawn from these
experiences, and common elements and future pathways are identified as a basis for a global approach.
The local-level methods of the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT)
framework serve to catalogue SLM technologies and approaches as case studies. This tool was included in
the local-level Land Degradation Assessment in Drylands (LADA) as well as in the DESIRE project.
Complementary site-based approaches can enhance an ecological process-based understanding of SLM
variation. At national and sub-national levels, a joint WOCAT/LADA/DESIRE spatial assessment based on
land use systems can be used to identify the status and trends of degradation and SLM, including causes,
drivers, and impacts on ecosystem services. Expert consultation is combined with scientific evidence and,
where necessary, enhanced with secondary data and indicator databases. Key lessons learnt include the
need for a multi-scale approach, for using common indicators, and for drawing on a variety of information
sources, including scientific data and local knowledge, by means of participatory methods. Methodological
consistency allows for cross-scale analyses, and findings can be analysed and documented for use by
decision-makers at various levels. Effective monitoring and assessment of SLM (e.g. for the United Nations
Convention to Combat Desertification, UNCCD) requires a comprehensive methodological framework
agreed upon and adopted by the major players.
Although a variety of conservation measures are already applied at the local level, they are not
adequately recognised, evaluated, and shared by land users, technicians, researchers, and policymakers.
Likewise, collaboration between researchers and implementers is often insufficient. Chapter 3 presents a
new methodological framework for a participatory process of appraising and selecting desertification
mitigation strategies, and outlines first experiences from its application in the DESIRE project. The
methodology – a key product developed within this PhD study – combines a collective learning and
decision-making approach with the use of evaluated global best practices. It moves through a concise
process in three parts, starting out with the identification of land degradation and locally applied solutions
in a stakeholder workshop, followed by an assessment of local solutions using a standardised evaluation
tool, and ending with the joint selection of promising strategies for implementation with the help of a
decision support tool. A preliminary analysis of the application of the first part of the methodology showed
that the initial stakeholder workshop resulted in a good basis for stakeholder cooperation and yielded
promising land conservation practices for further assessment. Study site research teams appreciated the
results, which they considered particularly valuable because urgent issues and promising options had
emerged from joint reflection. The methodology was found to be suitable for initiating mutual learning
among different stakeholder groups, as well as for integrating local and scientific knowledge.
The thus identified SLM practices were then documented and evaluated by local researchers in
collaboration with land users and using the internationally recognised and standardised WOCAT
questionnaires. These in-depth assessments of 30 technologies and 8 approaches are analysed and
compared across the DESIRE study sites in Chapter 4, highlighting key issues of SLM in drylands. Careful
attention is paid to features which specifically characterise SLM in drylands and make SLM practices
especially useful regarding the identified threats. Among the achievements attributed to the documented
technologies, those mentioned most were diversified and enhanced production, as well as better
management of water and soil degradation, whether by means of water harvesting, by improving soil
moisture, or by reducing runoff. Demonstrating a favourable local-scale cost–benefit relationship was
found to be crucial to improving people’s livelihoods and preventing further outmigration. However, it was
also found that more research is needed to support the case study authors’ assessments of SLM impacts as
well as to provide a solid rationale for investments in SLM.
There are many and often competing options for SLM, and each must be assessed – and sometimes
negotiated – prior to implementation. This makes SLM a classic multi-stakeholder issue which concerns
individual and community land users, agricultural advisors, natural resource managers, government
authorities, civil society, and researchers alike. Selecting appropriate SLM technologies for implementation
thus requires an approach that is capable of integrating the diverse knowledge, perceptions, and
judgements of the different stakeholders involved. Time and resource constraints often impede the
development of contextualised, targeted, and sophisticated decision support systems. The DESIRE research
project provided an excellent opportunity to develop and test a generic decision support methodology,
using it to assist the study site teams in selecting, together with stakeholders in a stakeholder workshop,
the most promising SLM option(s) for subsequent test implementation in the field (Chapter 5). Special
attention was paid to the screening of local innovations, the selection and adaptation of potential SLM
technologies, and the decision-making process determining which options are to be implemented. Chapter
5 reviews the application of the DESIRE decision support methodology in a variety of biophysical and socioeconomic
contexts, finding it to be well-structured, comprehensive, and relatively easy to apply. The builtin
global database of SLM options provided knowledge from various environments, while the use of simple
software allowed for easy calculation and visualisation of results. The scoring and negotiation of each
option’s sustainability forced stakeholders to consider and acknowledge each other’s positions and
opinions, ensuring that the final choice was well-accepted. The methodology included seeking
commitments from stakeholders to implement the selected option(s). Challenges included the complexity
of the issues at hand and the need for skilled moderators. Nonetheless, positive outcomes and user
feedback confirmed that the DESIRE decision support methodology is an easy-to-use stepwise methodology
for facilitating decision-focused participatory processes.
Participatory and multi-stakeholder approaches are increasingly motivated by social learning and
empowerment goals. Yet there remains a lack of practical tools for facilitating such processes. The research
presented here aimed to close the gap between the theory and the practice of stakeholder participation
and learning in decision-making processes concerned with SLM. Chapter 6 analyses and describes how the
3-part participatory methodology for selecting SLM options contributed to multi-stakeholder learning.
Cross-site analysis and in-depth evaluation of the Moroccan and Portuguese sites were used to evaluate
how well the proposed process facilitated stakeholder learning and the selection of appropriate SLM
options for local implementation. The structured nature of the process – starting with the joint setting of
SLM goals – was found to facilitate mutual understanding and collaboration between stakeholders. The
deliberation process led to a high degree of consensus over the outcome and, although this had not been
an initial aim, in many cases also fostered social learning. This solution-oriented methodology is applicable
in a wide range of contexts and can be implemented with limited time and resources.
Chapter 7 presents insights into the field implementation of one of the selected SLM measures in
Sehoul, Morocco. The Moroccan DESIRE study site was located near the city of Rabat, in an area where
desertification poses a threat to marginal and often stony and degraded slopes. The use of marginal and
stony land by the local population had become necessary due to increased poverty and the occupation of
the best stretches of land by new owners. The land use change from grazing to cropping caused a
deterioration of the field water balance, characterised by increased water loss through runoff, drainage,
and evaporation, and resulting in less primary production. Promising experiences with no-tillage practices
elsewhere in Morocco had motivated the Moroccan government to promote Conservation Agriculture
throughout the country. This combination of crop rotation, minimal soil disturbance, and soil cover
maintenance, however, had not yet been tested on sloping degraded land. The field trial results showed
that covering the soil with crop residues neither improved yields nor increased rainwater use efficiency,
although soil water was generally enhanced. Soil moisture measurements revealed that no-tillage was
favourable mainly at soil depths of 5 cm and in connection with low-rainfall events (< 20 mm); under these
circumstances, moisture content was generally higher under no-tillage than under conventional tillage.
Moreover, farmers in Sehoul were found to be primarily interested in animal husbandry, and both crop
residues and grains were used as feed. Chapter 7 concludes with lessons learnt from the on-farm trials in
The synthesis (Chapter 8) offers more detailed reflection on certain key aspects of the research
findings, such as the 3-part methodology, monitoring and assessment, stakeholder collaboration and
learning, decision support, and desertification mitigation by means of SLM technologies and approaches.
This is followed by a review of challenges and limitations of the proposed methodological framework and
an assessment of its overall impact. The chapter concludes with an outlook and recommendations. One
major conclusion is that research needs to move beyond simply idealising and promoting participatory
approaches and learning processes: in addition, researchers must also advocate the provision of time and
resources and the establishment of long-term partnerships by both scientific and policymaking bodies. Indepth
and long-term field-based research remains important, but it requires sufficient resources and longterm
commitment in order to provide adequate evidence. The methodology developed within this thesis is
not limited to desertification; it is appropriate and useful for tackling land degradation anywhere in the
world and for advancing towards more sustainable decisions on SLM strategies with a higher acceptance
among stakeholders. Negotiation of, and deliberation over, ecosystem services might be the key to
boosting SLM beyond the local scale, while at the same time compensating land users for their crucial
efforts to combat desertification.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Stroosnijder, Leo, Promotor
  • Hurni, H., Promotor, External person
  • de Graaff, Jan, Co-promotor
Award date4 Sep 2012
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789461732880
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • desertification
  • land management
  • sustainability
  • decision making
  • participation
  • stakeholders
  • soil conservation
  • environmental impact
  • mitigation

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