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'The benefits of land restoration can accrue quickly'

June 30, 2020

Ulrich Apel in Namibia
Ulrich Apel in the Namib desert, near the Gobabeb Namib Research Institute. Photo courtesy of Ulrich Apel

As a child in East Germany, Ulrich Apel collected pictures of landscapes around the world, never expecting to spend his career working to restore and protect them. In an interview, he shared lessons from his efforts to reverse land degradation and empower local communities through the GEF’s Drylands Impact Program.

When did you start to become interested in global environmental issues?

As a boy my favorite activities were roaming around the forests of my hometown, mostly with friends, but sometimes even alone. I loved walking for hours, mushroom hunting, berry picking, observing wildlife, and building dams on small streams. We didn’t have mobile devices back then and the outdoors were our amusement parks. I always wanted my profession to be connected to my love for nature.

Apart from roaming the outdoors I read a lot and collected pictures of landscapes around the world, of Himalayan mountain ranges, Sahelian savannas, the Namib desert, Patagonian grasslands, and Indo-Malayan rainforests. That was at the time when Germany was a divided country and I was living in the communist part. So, I never imagined that I would ever have the chance to travel and to visit those far-away places. I still have my childhood landscape album and like to revisit these pictures to remind myself how lucky I am that those dreams became reality.

How did you get into this line of work?

After Germany reunited, I was able to study forestry sciences at Goettingen University. This enabled me to delve into the details of the ecology of different forest ecosystems and how they can be more sustainably managed and protected. I started to learn and understand how global environmental issues were affecting all landscapes, regardless in where they are located and under what type of governance.

My special interest was tropical and sub-tropical silviculture and I focused on this topic in my post-graduate research. Afterwards I got field work assignments as a community forest practitioner in China. This was very exciting, and I developed a great deal of respect for the stewardship of natural resources by local communities. What was also impressive was the tremendous knowledge that local people have, especially if they must make their living from the land and the natural resources available to them. And amazingly, they were willing to share not only their knowledge but also the fruits of their hard work readily. Those experiences firmed up my dedication to do my part to help local communities in their quest for sustainable land management.

The Loess Plateau, in China’s Shaanxi Province
The Loess Plateau, in China’s Shaanxi Province, where landscapes were able to recover quickly after initial restoration efforts. Photo courtesy of Ulrich Apel

What I realized from the work over the years was that many of those landscapes were degraded or in danger of becoming degraded. This was in my experience not the fault of the actual land users but due to inadequate regulatory frameworks, governance issues, or lack of support and investment. At the same time, I also learned that if such things are in place, those landscapes can be restored and sustainably managed. Restoring landscapes and providing the necessary support to enable that has since become my passion. It is a truly rewarding experience for all involved.

What does sustainable dryland management entail, and what makes it challenging?

I work in the GEF’s Land Degradation Focal Area and currently focus on a large Impact Program on Sustainable Drylands Management. Drylands are landscapes with a very high potential for restoration, especially if they have not been irreversibly degraded. At the same time, drylands face governance challenges related to their scale and relatively low population density, geographic location, social exclusion, and other factors. These challenges include low investment of public resources, weak government services, and weak land tenure and resource rights. And all this is aggravated by the exposure of drylands to extraordinarily high levels of risk, including extreme natural climatic variability.

One of the main challenges for large-scale sustainable management of dryland landscapes is getting to consensus on the optimal management of land for multiple benefits to society, and finding ways to establish institutional arrangements that encourage provision of those benefits. Drylands are extremely diverse, and context matters. The value of dryland biodiversity, and its role in determining ecosystem function, is often poorly understood. Unique features of dryland ecology, such as dependency on fire or herbivory, are still debated, and there is often disagreement on their appropriate management. Land use change in drylands is often generalized as “desertification,” which sometimes prevents a constructive dialogue on large-scale sustainable agriculture.

Is there a person you have met through your work at the GEF who has had a lasting impact on you?

I do not want to single out a specific person, as many local village leaders have impressed me with their dedication to work for the better in their communities and to take responsibility at the local level. These leaders are amazing managers: they can put things into action and the benefits are quickly apparent. That is the beauty of landscape restoration. There is a misconception that restoration processes take a long time. However, we have seen in dryland areas from the Chinese Loess Plateau to the savannas of Burkina Faso that the first benefits of restoration are very quick to accrue – within a couple of years, water streams flow again, vegetation coverage visibly increases, and native biodiversity returns.

Villagers meet in Burkina Faso
Village meeting in Burkina Faso. Photo courtesy of Ulrich Apel

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

In my work life I have worked at all levels of environmental stewardship and governance, from local, to watershed, regional, national, and global. This has taught me that no single level of management or influence can tackle environmental problems alone – all have to work in unison to make things work. That said, most global environmental benefits are created at the field level, with hoe and spade and with local communities being stewards of the land. Each and one of us who has a plot of land or garden can generate environmental benefits. Adaptation and resilience, curiosity, and the strive to come up with solutions to local problems always brings positive solutions that eventually matter on a landscape scale. And it is not only about technical solutions. Cultural aspects, societal preferences, having fun with and respecting nature, and the feeling of being part of a wider landscape, its geography and culture, all have their role to play in bringing about a more sustainable management of landscapes.

How has the coronavirus impacted drylands management?

COVID-19 may indeed disproportionally affect dryland areas and therefore has a lot of implications for the program that I am coordinating. As drylands often have weaker public services such as health care, and as food security is very fragile in those regions, the pressures from COVID-19 may be significant in these areas. Further, many migrant workers are coming back now from cities because of a lack of employment and are trying to make a living from agriculture again. Income opportunities in dryland landscapes are also breaking down. For example, in South African savannas and miombo landscapes, wildlife-based ecotourism is a big contributor to livelihoods. Ecotourism is severely affected and potential impacts are beyond quick solutions right now.

What does success in your work area look like?

We have come a long way, but success in the drylands is difficult to measure and requires long-term commitment and efforts. Of course, we can count the number of hectares under restoration, the tons of carbon sequestered, and the number of beneficiaries reached. However, success in the long term will also involve entrusting local communities and indigenous peoples with the stewardship of their lands and supporting them in those efforts. I hope by the time I retire we will have made a contribution to that.