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Brazil sets up a novel model to reverse desertification

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Valdemar Rodrigues - Picture (c) ENBProf. Dr. Valdemar Rodrigues is Director of Sustainable Rural Development of the Ministry of Environment of Brazil, National Director of the UNDP / GEF / MMA Program and National Director of the FAO / GEF / MMA Program. Prior to joining the Ministry, he was he was a Professor at the Federal University of Piauí. He is a specialist on desertification.

Brazil is synonymous with the Amazon for most people. But Brazil’s vast rainforest and wide rivers have not just captured the imagination of ordinary people. It has also captured donor finances due to the invaluable ecosystem services they provide, ranging from influencing global rainfall patterns, to stabilizing the global climate system to preserving a tremendous and unique biological diversity.

But this fight to preserve the Amazon rainforest has left the country’s other biomes, especially the Caatinga biome in the Northeast, virtually neglected. A sudden turn of fortunes changed all of this in 2016 when the government established the Recovery Units of Degraded Areas and Reduction of Climate Vulnerability (URAD) initiative to finance actions to address the main drivers of land degradation in the Caatinga biome.

URAD was granted a minimum 10 year mandate backed by a commitment of US$100 million dollars mobilized from domestic environmental fines to reverse the negative trends associated with land degradation. To set the stage for its first 2 years of operation in 2016 to 2018, URAD received USD$1 million from Brazil’s Climate Fund and US$9 million from the international community.

The dryland biome is located in Brazil’s northeastern arid and semi-arid corner, which occupies 11% of the country, which is an area about 1 million km2. It has over 34 million inhabitants and is home to 178 mammal, 591 bird, 177 reptile, 79 amphibian, 241 fish and 221 bee species.

But as with most arid and semi-arid regions of the world, the area faces the challenges of poverty, and is typically presented to the world as a drought-stricken area. But the Caatinga biome is extremely important – in fact vital – for Brazil’s adaptation to climate change because the plant and animal species living there are well adapted to higher temperatures and water stress.  

Most dryland regions of the world, including here in Brazil, are undervalued and poorly publicized because they have lacked vital public policies that could promote the environmental, social and economic actions necessary to transform degrading local environmental conditions; conditions that are directly tied to the wellbeing of local people.

The finance model is not all that is novel about URAD. The roll out is just as unique

Stable financing provides URAD with the funds and long-term vision needed to reach the entire 1 million square kilometre area of Northeast Brazil that is susceptible to desertification, either directly or indirectly. Directly, URAD is targeting the recovery of degraded areas in priority municipalities. Indirectly, it is reaching the remaining affected areas by innovating on how states and municipalities that are the entry points can become the multipliers that scale up URAD.

When a priority area to be recovered is identified, the physical boundary of that area is set by the watershed that serves it. Then the municipality within which it falls is given the resources, techniques and training to recover and restore that watershed. This is the direct approach, which makes possible a related indirect approach.

The sponsored municipality sets the example for other communities in how to overcome one of the most important barriers to success: creating an enabling environment for adoption of the URAD watershed recovery methodology into municipal public policy.  In essence, the URAD approach becomes part of the planning approach of the municipality, something that can be readily replicated in other communities. This is the indirect approach for scaling the project up and out.

The URAD project in the Caatinga Biome

Recovery and restoration of a watershed in Brazil’s Caatinga biome, as part of the URAD initiative

The results are swift

URAD community-level interventions were initially expected to take 9 months, but all the URAD projects in progress have taken just 4 months to complete. Although it is too early to measure the targeted long-term transformational change, what has been achieved so far in these initial municipalities has led to noticeable attitude and behavior changes in the population.

In the past, the population was suspicious of government projects. The results obtained from the implementation of URAD have not only changed this view. Communities are starting to regain the value and respect they had in their environment.

The key is to target three intervention areas at once

Land degradation in the dry regions reduces the availability of ecosystem services. It increases food insecurity and poverty which, in turn, generate social, environmental and economic tensions. These three challenges were often addressed independently the past. The URAD project is set up to cover the environmental, social and economic legs in an integrated way.

Environmental actions on their own can reduce the population's climate vulnerability. But actions to restore the environment are more likely to succeed and last when they directly take into account the economic and social aspects. This is accomplished by ensuring the effective participation of populations affected by the decisions to be made and that all project actions are implemented in a way that promotes sustainable value chains, creates employment, generates income, and promotes improvements in the quality of life.

Thus, each URAD initiative to recover a watershed is built on a fully integrated environmental, social and economic intervention. Environmental interventions aim to manage and conserve soil, recover spring water, preserve biological diversity and create the conditions that will make the area useful for food production. Some typical tasks are installing stone gabions, successive dams and recovering degraded areas. Training activities include raising awareness and seeking the commitment of the local populations to ensure the sustainability of the project interventions.

The URAD project in the Caatinga Biome

The URAD initiative in Brazil’s Caatinga biome covers the environmental, social and economic legs in an integrated way

The social interventions are mainly about water, energy and sanitary security because they are designed to lead to environmental gains. An example is the use of ecological stoves in order to reduce wood consumption or improving sanitation in order to reduce water and soil pollution.

The economic interventions are the most challenging because to succeed such interventions must match the economic potentials of the community, the land and the capacity of the rural producers. Beekeeping and integrated crop-livestock-forest systems are examples of the sustainable activities being encouraged.

The actions foreseen under URAD are expected to gain wide reach and to be applied in different areas where degradation, water scarcity and the living conditions of the population endanger environmental resources and, consequently, the ultimate viability of human activities in these areas.

The potential for rapid transformation is great considering the observable behaviour and attitude changes that are evident within a few months from just a limited range of the planned activities – the recovery of springs, containing soil erosion using successive dams, and constructing ecological stoves as well as sanitation and cisterns to store water.

The financial incentive is a strong motivator for all to act

The start-up cost per family for carrying out these recoveries is estimated at US$ 8,000. Each unit has an average of 30 to 40 families. Therefore, to recover just one watershed the municipality receives an estimated US$ 240,000, which is directed to the families that commit to the physical work involved in achieving the restoration. In order to ensure the participants witness the impact of their own efforts as early as possible, the initial activities involve highly tangible results, such as restoring a spring so that water is now available. The enthusiasm and pride that come from these initial steps is a strong motivator for further action by both families and municipalities.

URAD secretariat is the authority delegated to implement a Federal Law (13,153/2015) that established the National Policy to Combat Desertification and Mitigation of Drought Effects. It got the resources to develop on–the-ground competence to fulfil Brazil’s commitments to three international agreements: desertification and drought effects; the Nationally Determined Contributions under climate change; and the Sustainable Development Goals.

But the Federal government is expecting much more from URAD.

In the short term, URAD is expected to recover springs, contain soil erosion, reduce the degradation of Caatinga, mitigate the effects of drought and reduce soil and water pollution. In the medium-term, the productive capacity of the soil needs to recover in degraded environments, which is fundamental to Brazil’s effort to achieve what is technically known as land degradation neutrality. As conservation of the Caatinga improves, the quality of life of the local people, jobs and income from sustainable activities are also expected to improve in order to reduce the exodus of rural people searching for opportunities in big urban centers. The outcomes envisioned for the long-term are the development of technologies to help people to adapt to climate change and a reduction in people’s vulnerability.

Some qualities make the URAD approach a strong candidate for success.

First, there is active participation of different critical actors, in particular, the local community and the city, state and federal governments and agencies. It is this participation that has fuelled the scaling up and out of URAD.

Second, URAD’s strategy and approach are well-beyond the pilot phase. They are based on field actions that are thoroughly tested, and have proven successful in other projects.

Third, URAD has innovated in two areas.

For a start, the approach combines various environmental, social and economic actions that work well on their own. Integrating them enriches the longer term changes necessary for positive transformation.  This new model to combat desertification combines social inclusion and promoting local development with environmental sustainability.

The URAD model also applies the agroforestry and the integrated crop-forestry-livestock approaches in order to address multiple goals especially, diversifying and integrating different production systems.

The success of URAD, so far, is very encouraging to the communities involved, the NGOs that are helping with capacity building and the local governments committed to the approach. Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment is investing heavily in the drylands of Brazil because it expects the URAD strategy to transform local actions and reality of hundreds of thousands of families living in the areas affected by land degradation and desertification.

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