A new vision for drylands

Dr Mike Mortimore, a member of IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management, outlines his vision for the world’s drylands and what’s needed to achieve it.


Drylands, far from being remote and uninhabited, occupy huge areas of the world’s land surface. They contain major cities and produce vital food commodities, livestock, and other ecosystem services.

We have an opportunity to reduce widespread poverty and achieve sustainable ecosystems in our drylands, by better supporting dryland peoples to manage them sustainably. If we fail to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in the drylands, because of their great extent and population, we shall fail globally.

Drylands provide soils, nutrients and plants needed to support agriculture and livestock-keeping as well as a range of secondary products such as timber, fish, medicine and raw materials which are commercially valuable. These commodities can be further developed to enhance rural incomes, benefiting poor peoples’ livelihoods, provided that access to them is not impeded. But governments commonly fail to fully recognize the contribution made by drylands to national economies.

Governments also need to face the fact that climate change will not affect all drylands equally and may have both negative and positive impacts. Drylands have always had to adapt to uncertainty and variability over time.

Dry forests, grasslands and intensive cultivation sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon given the enormous areas of dryland in the global ecosystem. Under the Kyoto Protocol the North, through its carbon markets, can pay dryland right-holders for sequestration services, but such payments may have profound and little known side-effects.

Better-off rather than poor people may benefit more as they can more easily acquire additional land, even under legislation that overrides customary tenure.

Secondly, empowerment, not dependency is generally agreed to be the prime goal for smallholders in natural resource management policy. To exchange a farming or stock-raising enterprise that is autonomous – though poor – for a pattern of dependency on external credits or subsidies is inconsistent with this.

Thirdly, the snares that await the administration of such schemes including transaction costs, corruption and control issues, have scarcely been explored.

In the arid subzone between the farming regions and the desert, pastoralism has been shown to be the most rational, efficient and sustainable land use system. Yet some governments continue perversely to frown on the mobile lifestyle of nomadic groups. A polarization between pastoralists and their advocates on the one hand and policy makers set on sedentarization on the other is counterproductive and a fresh approach is needed.

My vision for the future is that the marginalization that has befallen drylands and their peoples will be reversed in favour of increased economic opportunity, strengthened autonomy and empowerment in natural resources management, supported by the best knowledge that science, in partnership with indigenous capabilities, can provide. Drylands will be better integrated into national economies and access of dryland peoples to employment, education, health, and financial resources will not be impeded.

Dr Mortimore is a geographer and taught at universities in the north of Nigeria before undertaking research consultancies including for IUCN.

Work area: 
Social Policy
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