Sharpening the focus on CIAT’s role in the restoration of degraded lands and soils

23 June, 2015 by (comments)

Soils matter! We all agree. An important session of CIAT’s Annual Program Review celebrated the International Year of Soils (IYS) and gathered input from CIAT scientists in diverse disciplines on how to sharpen the focus of our soils research agenda.



The soils team first highlighted attractive and successful innovations in communicating soil science during IYS. These include a new website along with increased blogging, photo films, social media outreach, various episodes of the television program Shamba Shape-Up, Twitter chats, and the launch of the Tana-Nairobi Water Fund with extensive media coverage.

Then, in a session on soil and land restoration, Deborah Bossio, Director of CIAT’s Soils Research Area, and her team generated a lively discussion around two examples of this work:  (1) the Africa-focused “One World, No Hunger” initiative of the German Government (BMZ) and (2) Initiative 20X20, a country-led effort in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), which aims to get the restoration of 20 million hectares of degraded land underway by 2020.

Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) – So what?

Questioning the reach of this longstanding paradigm for soils research, Bossio elicited an immediate response.  Many participants insisted that ISFM is a very dynamic approach and that there is still more to investigate. “We still have a lot to learn, for example, about the chemical aspects of soil fertility as well as soil organic matter and micronutrient issues,” to summarize the comments of several participants. “The alternative to ISFM seems to be based on very complex concepts, which are hard to explain in simple terms,” said another participant. Finally, in a series of comments, several colleagues argued that CIAT is well positioned for new soils research focusing, for example, on biomass, crop-livestock systems, ecosystem services, and climate-smart agriculture.

Critical voices questioned the suitability of the ISFM approach for large-scale adoption. ISFM alone is not enough, many participants emphasized; the social, economic, and political drivers of soil management must also be taken into account as well as the off- and on-site benefits of land restoration. Farmers must be provided with incentives, and farming must be made more profitable to attract more attention and investment to soils.

Robin Buruchara, CIAT’s Regional Director for Africa, summed up the discussion by pointing out that, as we restore degraded lands, we must also provide shorter term solutions, since it can take many years to restore degraded soil and land. It is a good sign that partners look to us for solutions, and seek our collaboration. In response, we need to develop new strategies for accessing funds.

A business case for land restoration in LAC

The aim of Initiative 2020 is extremely ambitious. Yet, the World Resources Institute (WRI), CATIE, and CIAT have convinced countries to officially commit themselves to work toward the objective of large-scale land restoration. A discussion on CIAT’s role in this effort yielded a wide variety of ideas. First, CIAT could make a significant contribution by working on ways to identify which areas are clearly degraded and where the hotspots are. “We need to map the degraded areas, using a tool like Terra-I, which has proved successful for mapping deforestation,” said one participant. Colleagues working in Africa suggested that we can foster South-South collaboration by drawing on CIAT’s experience with mapping and monitoring land degradation hotspots. Another opportunity involves the two CIAT strategic initiatives Ecosystem Action and LivestockPlus, which can contribute significantly by bringing additional components to the science agenda. CIAT has a lot of experience, for example, with the restoration of degraded pastures.

As with the One World, No Hunger initiative, the audience reflected on the multiple dimensions of soil and land restoration, which need to be more clearly defined. One participant referred to this as a very ambitious undertaking that appeals to donors: “There is momentum and a need for robust evidence-based learning.”  Elcio Guimarães, CIAT’s regional director for LAC, supported this claim, stressing that investors want to see a clear business case together with effective tools for tracking returns from investment.


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Filed Under: Inside Africa, Inside Asia, Inside CIAT, Inside LAC