Current policy narratives limit climate resilience in world’s dry regions

Partial narratives that underpin policymaking prevent people in arid regions from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.

News, 19 April 2013
A man walks with his roaming goats.

Dryland communities have learnt how to live with and harness variable and unpredictable rainfall to support productive economies and ecosystems. Photo: Stephen Anderson

This is among the conclusions of an international study whose partners today release a series of policy briefs that identify flaws in policy narratives in the Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and global contexts.

The publications come as drylands experts from around the world meet in Bonn, Germany for the second scientific conference of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the eleventh session of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (9-19 April).

The new research, coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development with funding from the Ford Foundation, will be presented at the 7th International Conference on Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 22-25 April.

"Policymakers often dismiss the world’s drylands as fragile ecosystems where highly variable, unpredictable and scattered rainfall is seen as fundamental constraint to food production that compels local people to over-farm or over-graze their land, thereby exacerbating scarcity and degradation, further reducing productivity and inducing desertification, conflict and migration," says Ced Hesse of the International Institute for Environment and Development. "But this ignores both the dynamics of dryland ecosystems and how dryland communities have long learnt how to live with and harness this variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems."

"Narratives that underpin global policymaking on agricultural development are necessary simplifications," says Saverio Krätli, author of one of the new briefing papers: Global public policy narratives on the drylands and pastoralism.  "However, such simplifications currently hide a fundamental alternative in the way of using unpredictably variable environments for food production: one in which people operate with variability rather than against it, adapt and turn variability into a valuable resource rather than resist and suffer it as a costly disturbance. We are learning this from pastoral systems developed to operate in highly variable environments. In times of globalised weather volatility this is no lesson to be missed".

In addition to the paper by Krätli, researchers in India, China and Kenya have published country-specific papers on the following topics.

Srijit Mishra of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research says: "In India, the public policy response to address food and nutrition security has been to do more of the same. That is, to transfer to rainfed areas the input-intensive technological approaches of the Green Revolution. But these areas are home to diverse, highly integrated production systems that are better adaptable to climatic variability.

"A 'one-size fits all' policy response will not be viable," says Mishra. "Instead, we urgently need an alternative macro policy that focuses on location-specific, decentralised, integrated, and knowledge-centric approach that pro-actively exploits diversity and variability to sustain and enhance production."

Speaking about the situation in China, Wenjun Li, a professor at Peking University says: "People have developed systems of pastoralism with highly mobile livestock as a strategy to cope with variable environmental resources and climatic conditions. However, policymakers have misunderstood this. As more stakeholders begin to recognise that climate change is an important issue, we have an opportunity to reframe mainstream policy narratives that influence pastoral development policies in arid regions."

The fifth paper examines the way that media coverage of pastoralism contributes to false policy narratives: See Following the herd: why pastoralism needs better media coverage. It is supported by a more detailed study – also published today -- on the content of media articles in China, India and Kenya. See Media perceptions and portrayals of pastoralists in Kenya, India and China.

Download the papers

Global public policy narratives on the drylands and pastoralism

Rainfed agriculture: for an inclusive, sustainable and food secure India.

Pastoralism: the custodian of China’s grasslands

Moving beyond the rhetoric: the challenge of reform in Kenya’s drylands

Following the herd: why pastoralism needs better media coverage

Media perceptions and portrayals of pastoralists in Kenya, India and China