“Nothing for us, without us” – A model for Reversing Desertification in Iran

Apr 22, 2015

  CSP was initiated in 2003 with Iran’s Forest, Range and Watershed Organization (FRWO) and the UN Development Programme. This was the start of an enduring partnership to help “green” the rangelands

By: Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator – Islamic Republic of Iran

In keeping with current climate change trends, Iran can expect a hotter and drier future that could dramatically affect hundreds of thousands of people, if action isn’t taken immediately.

According to national statistics, Iran’s land area is 165 million hectares, 32 million of which is desert.  No reliable statistics are available on how much Iran has become desertified in the past half century.  But the effects are apparent: water shortages, encroachment by deserts on rangelands and urban settlements, and dust storms.

If no remedial action is taken, Iran’s deserts will expand significantly in the future and threaten sustainable livelihoods for citizens everywhere, especially people living on rangelands.

Once famed for their natural beauty, rangeland plains across Iran have now become severely degraded through unsustainable use and drought.  The causes include: cattle farming that has led to over-grazing, harvesting of trees for fuelwood, and the erosion of vulnerable shrubbery.  Many rangelands have actually been transformed into hostile environments, where local people face an unpromising future, where they cannot easily make a living, and are therefore forced to leave.

Already, many rangeland dwellers have left, migrating across the country in search of jobs.  If desertification is not stopped, more migration and displacement – with its inherent problems – will happen.

  “Involving communities is essential to give them a sense of ownership,” said Dr. Budhathoki, Chief Technical Advisor to the United Nations’ Carbon Sequestration Project

Yet, there is hope and evidence that if we act now and work with local communities, we can reverse the tide of desertification and restore the beauty of Iran’s rangelands, as well as the livelihoods of its inhabitants.

“Involving communities is essential to give them a sense of ownership,” said Dr. Budhathoki, Chief Technical Advisor to the United Nations’ Carbon Sequestration Project (CSP).  “It makes them feel like they can take their destiny into their own hands.”

Dr. Budhathoki spoke these words more than a decade ago, when setting up the CSP in 2003 with Iran’s Forest, Range and Watershed Organization (FRWO) and the UN Development Programme.  This was the start of an enduring partnership to help “green” the rangelands. 

In those days, the focus was on South Khorasan Province, an area devastated by deforestation.  But, because of the project’s success, the Government of Iran has replicated it across more than half of the country’s 31 provinces.

It was dubbed CSP because one of the project’s by-products is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it in vegetation and trees.  The CSP uses trees and plants selected specifically for their capacity to slow – and reverse – encroachment by the desert.  The project works with affected local communities to help them help themselves to promote sustainable development and create livelihoods.

To date, the project has taken initial steps towards reversing desertification in about 1.2 million hectares of the country, recovering depleted land for greening and livestock use. 

The evidence from the CSP project in South Khorasan Province shows that CSP has had an impact on the lives of nearly 7,000 rural dwellers.  At a cost of about $1.8 million – with funding from the Global Environment Facility and UNDP – the project has re-greened and secured up to 20,000 hectares.

The project’s success has turned CSP into a national model for sustainable development and inclusive growth.  In 2012, the CSP started to be replicated in 18 other provinces.  It is expected that – by the end of 2016 – a total of 1,232,360 hectares will have been covered by the CSP, funded mostly by the Government of Iran.

  The project’s success has turned CSP into a national model for sustainable development and inclusive growth. In 2012, the CSP started to be replicated in 18 other provinces

Rangeland rehabilitation by involving local communities has an additional benefit.  It comes at the cost of only half of the conventional contractor-based approach.  In 2012, for example, the cost of rangeland rehabilitation through conventional approaches, in different areas, varied between 7 million Rials per hectare to 12 million Rials.  CSP has shown that local inhabitants can do this work for much less.

This development model goes beyond the mere planting of trees and bushes to create sustainable income-generation schemes.   Through a combination of social mobilization as well as micro-credit and participatory rangeland management methods, the chances of improved sustainable livelihoods are increased.

Following the philosophy of “nothing for us, without us,” local community groups from each district have shown that through collaboration with the government and the United Nations, they can achieve higher-than-average productivity and increase their incomes. 

This type of social capital development has been promoted through Village Development Groups (VDGs).  With the help of the CSP, members of extremely poor village communities have been encouraged to cooperate in local development groups.  The village groups can then collectively borrow funds to procure the needed equipment for restoration, and take control of planting and irrigation of saplings and shrubs.

By networking with each other, VDGs have developed marketing channels for locally-produced goods, become involved in environmentally friendly animal husbandry, and generated additional income through making handicrafts.

“My family was about to migrate to the city nearby in search of a living,” says Mrs. Zari Sa’adati, from Hassan Kolangi village in South Khorassan.  “But this small herbal extract workshop that I started with the help of the project’s microcredit system has contributed to our family income.  We are now busy enough to stay in our own village.” 

What started as a pilot project with 63 village groups will grow to 349 by the end of 2015, all cooperating to increase livelihoods by caring for their own environment.

Climate change affects us all, but the lessons learned in Iran show that by working with local communities we can blunt its effects and reverse desertification.

Box 1: Location of the Carbon Sequestration Project across Iran

Row Province

Project target area

(Hectares)

Number of villages in target area Number of Target Villages
1 Alborz 37,827 14 8
2 Bushehr 61,087 27 5
3 Golestan 48,329 8 8
4 Ilam 44,000 17 4
5 Isfahan 72,750 7 7
6 Kerman 138,000 52 6
7 Kerman (South) 56,574 21 5
8 Khorasan Razavi 202,000 12 8
9 Markazi 50,000 8 8
10 North Khorasan 126,000 28 6
11 Qom 36,372 8 7
12 Semnan 53,000 11 7
13 South Khorasan 98,000 16 5
14 Tehran 70,065 52 14
15 West Azerbaijan 68,356 32 4
16 Yazd 70,000 12 4
17 Fars TBD - -
18 Sistan and Baluchestan TBD - -
  Total 1,232,360 308 106

Box 2: The Carbon Sequestration Project’s accomplishments to date:

  • Demonstrating that desertified rangelands can be cost-effectively reclaimed by and for the benefit of the local people – reducing cost up to a third of norm.
  • Improving the productivity of semi-arid areas – once rangelands are rehabilitated a variety of other productive work also becomes possible.
  • Mobilization of local communities and governance systems towards participatory and integrated approaches to planning – through range management plans and local governance involvement in local participation.
  • Demonstrating the strength of “social mobilization and micro-credit” as a technique for area-based development, including for natural resources management. 
  • Raising of the local Human Development Index (HDI) in South Khorasan pilot site – from 0.44 HDI to 0.55 HDI between 2006 and 2012 (double the growth rate of the local district HDI).
  • Identifying methods to absorb atmospheric carbon – resulting in a steep rise from 60 kilograms per hectare (in South Khorasan) in 2006 to 1500 kg per hectare by 2012.

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