What happened at the recent workshop on land degradation?

Ten years ago LUCSUS held a series of seminars on: Seven challenges for sustainability. The series aimed to problematise emerging environmental problems of a global nature, which had largely been described by the natural sciences, in terms of the social sciences. The knowledge base in the natural sciences around problems of: land degradation, climate change, global (ill)health, overfishing, global food insecurity, biodiversity loss and deforestation, was growing rapidly but it was felt that the solutions to these problems lay largely in the realm of society, politics and economics, and thus required the input of the social sciences. Since then knowledge has grown in both the natural and social sciences with increasing interaction across disciplinary divides, not least between the natural and social sciences. The aim of this follow up series: Seven challenges for sustainability – ten years after is to assess how far we have come and what remains to be done.


On October 1st in the first of the ten years after series, after Prof. Lennart Olsson (Director of LUCSUS and LUCID) had briefly introduced its history, he moved on to the topic of the day: Land degradation. Prof. Olsson described the challenge of dealing with land degradation as a political ecological phenomenon: it take a number of physical forms from soil erosion, to salinization, over-grazing, nutrient deterioration and dust storms but is driven by dominant political and economic processes and structures. The climate in the scientific community over the past ten years has shifted to from a destructive dialogue polarized along natural and social scientific disciplinary lines to one where land degradation, though not without its contestations, is seen as a potentially manageable political ecological phenomenon. The audience were then briefly introduced to some recent initiatives in the area, including the potential of payment for ecosystems services and carbon sequestration in soils and of perennial crop replacements for the likes of wheat, rice and sorghum. Nevertheless a gap between scientific and policy-making communities, as well as the interests of the agricultural industry, make progress on promising initiatives difficult.


To give a more in depth appraisal of some recent progress on the natural scientific basis of our understanding of land degradation Dr. David Dent, one of the key scientists in the Global Assessment of Land Degradation in Drylands, presented some recent work. Due to advances in our ability to remotely monitor the earth’s surface from space in greater detail (thanks largely to workshop participant Dr. Compton Jim Tucker) Dr. Dent showed how many of our ideas about where land degradation is taking place have been misled. This had met with resistance, as old ideas die slowly. He showed how the new high detail data require that be more sophisticated in our approach to dealing with degradation both temporally and spatially.


Next Prof. Anna Tengberg crossed the natural/social science divide at the same time as bridging the science policy interface an introduced the audience to her work with the UNEP on upscaling sustainable land management, predominantly in China. Her approach involves five steps: first, is an investigation of innovative potential in technology and approach for the particular area; secondly, an assessment of ecosystem services is carried out; thirdly, integration with relevant sectors through policy dialogue is sought; the fourth task is to secure financing whether public, private, market-based or a combination; Finally knowledge management, through standardisation of tools, monitoring and dissemination is ongoing throughout the duration of the project.



After the break, LUCID graduate Dr. Yengoh Genesis Tambang was the penultimate presenter of the day providing an insight to his recent work on methodologies and tools for assessing land degradation in different contexts and at different levels of spatial scale. He focused largely on the DPSIR method, which assesses Drivers, Pressures, State, Impacts and Responses. This framework can integrate data from multiple methods from interviews to remote sensing and can be applied at any level of spatial scale.


Last speaker of the day was Dr. Compton Jim Tucker, senior hydrospheric and biospheric scientist, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington DC. He presented some of his recent, cutting edge, research from Madagascar where he and his team investigated forest degradation in an historical perspective from 600 AD to the present. Dr. Tucker explored how to make use of latest fine resolution satellite imagery in combination with remote sensing information to map degraded forest. This is a promising area of exploration but handling the huge amounts of data involved is an intimidating challenge.


It is clear that despite the challenges, not least of them political in nature, our understanding of the phenomenon of land degradation as well as what it will take to deal with it has improved over the last ten years and is indeed advancing. But not is not the time to get complacent. Next up in the series, taking place in early November, is a problem which receives a lot more attention: water scarcity.

Some recent LUCID publications on the topic:

Presentations from the day:


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