By Lowana Veal
REYKJAVIK (IDN) – Back in 1907, at a time in which Iceland was already faced with severe land degradation problems caused mainly by overgrazing and logging for firewood, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland (SCSI) was set up as a governmental agency with the mission of preventing soil erosion and reclaiming eroded land.
Much has been learned in the intervening years and keen to pass on its expertise, SCSI – in collaboration with the Agricultural University of Iceland (AUI) – is now running a United Nations University (UNU) training programme targeting participants from developing countries.
The programme, officially known as the United Nations University Land Restoration Training Programme (UNU-LRT), is one of four UNU training programmes based in Iceland. The other three cover Fisheries, Geothermal Energy and Gender Equality.
Funded mainly by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and various international development agencies, UNU-LRT was started in 2007 and ran on an experimental basis for its first three years, but has since become permanent.
Students, or fellows as they are called in the programme, are recruited from developing countries, mostly from Ghana, Uganda, Mongolia, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Malawi, Niger and Namibia.
Aged 25-40, those selected are already working in their field in a partner university, government department or local research institute, and are proposed for the training by their institution after which they are interviewed by UNU-LRT staff.
After completing the training, they then return to their former workplace where they share their newly gained expertise with their co-workers. Around 12-15 fellows attend the training each year.
“The main issues facing many developing countries in regard to land degradation are overgrazing, deforestation, unsustainable land use, climate change and natural hazards,” programme director Hafdis Hanna Aegisdottir told IDN.
Even though programme participants come from Africa and Central Asia, Aegisdottir said that the problems are actually remarkably similar worldwide, so students learn techniques, methods and theories which they can then apply in their own countries.
“Of course, we cannot tell them which plants to use to restore land as that will vary from place to place, but we can tell them about the pros and cons of using such plants, and the problems incurred by invasive species,” she added.
According to Aegisdottir, land degradation is closely linked to climate change as it releases carbon from soil and vegetation which subsequently ends up in the atmosphere. “But the good news is that the carbon can be returned back to the ecosystems by land restoration,” she explained.
During the annual six-month training offered by UNU-LRT, fellows learn about land degradation processes and land assessment methods; restoration ecology; land use and restoration planning; sustainable grazing management (open land, rangelands); soil erosion and soil conservation.
Gender equality plays an integral part in UNU-LRT. Besides having a gender balance on the course, fellows are expected to have developed equality perspectives in the field of land restoration and sustainable land management, because unequal access to power and decision-making is considered to undermine all efforts at addressing environmental issues, including land restoration.
A key part of the training involves a research project carried out by each fellow, using either data from their homeland or data gathered during research in Iceland. “Fellows are very pleased with this part of the training, as with other parts,” said Aegisdottir.
One former fellow, Azamat Isakov, has become director of the CAMP Alatoo Foundation since participating in the training programme in 2013 and has subsequently published the research on grazing problems in Kyrgyzstan that he and his supervisor carried out as part of UNU-LRT.
Another former fellow, Esther Ekua Amoako from northern Ghana, had been wanting to take part in some kind of environmental literacy programme for children for a long time. She was torn between doing community education and using radio but at the same time was aware of the time and cost involved in mobilising communities.
In 2012 she was invited to participate in the land restoration training course in Iceland and that was a turning point, she says. “The courses on environmental literacy linking knowledge to practice … learning from the success stories of involving children in restoration in Iceland … Junior Land Care clubs gave me the insight and direction,” she explains.
“I then decided in Iceland to come back home and put this knowledge into practice. I found the approach to educating children to be very affordable, reliable, cheaper and making a great impact,” she says.
Amoako started with five clubs in three schools. She teaches at least 40 pupils in the larger schools and 25 in the smaller ones. “I had support from the regional Environmental Protection Agency and my faculty (Natural Resource and Environment, University for Development Studies) to form Environmental Literacy clubs in selected schools. Currently, the faculty has agreed to adopt the clubs and hopes to extend to other schools,” says Amoako.
Chantsaa Jamsranjav from Mongolia, who attended the training in 2010 and has since completed a PhD in the United States, says that “the findings of my LRT project work were very useful for my work as a community development specialist on the Green Gold Project [of the Mongolian Society for Range Management] at that time after I returned to Mongolia. I shared my project findings during several trainings conducted in the field and it was also useful to get feedback from local people for the further improvement of the idea.”
Jamsranjav added: “Herders in community-based rangeland management herder groups became active in resting and rotating seasonal pastures as a result of greater collaboration, knowledge exchange and information access. They have started doing field vegetation monitoring, which is also a very good first step for herders to realise their rangeland condition, and has contributed to improving management.”
Jamsranjav now works for an international NGO, Mercy Corps Mongolia, as a programme performance and quality coordinator. “After I joined the Mercy Corps [in March 2016] I conducted a rural communities' resilience assessment and the findings of this assessment were used to inform a new programme called ‘Resilient Communities Programme’. The focus … is to build adaptive capacities of rural communities to overcome economic and natural disasters and stresses.”
UNU-LRT is currently extending its activities in partner countries, after Aegisdottir and her colleagues received a grant following the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris to organise short courses elsewhere. The first one will be a two-week course in Uganda later in 2017, attended by about 25 environmental officers from local government.
This project will establish an education platform to create awareness about the functioning of ecosystems and the benefits of sustainable landscape management. It will be open to all, but is particularly aimed at business and management students and professionals, along with policy and decision-makers.
Like UNU-LRT, the project will work directly towards Goal 15 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 February 2017]
Photo: Club members with some teachers from the schools and teaching assistants from my institution. Credit. Lowana Veal | IDN-INPS
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