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The grass is greener: rehabilitating the Syrian Badia

©IFAD/Sarah Morgan

After years of intensive grazing and severe drought, the Syrian steppe, or Badia, has become  badly degraded. An IFAD-supported project  is working with local communities  to regenerate and manage the rangelands  for long- term productivity. Rehabilitation has restored  vegetation  and helped reduce herders' vulnerability  to drought and the effects  of climate change. The project  has also created employment opportunities for women.

The Syrian Arab Republic's Badia stretches across 10 million hectares of the central and north-eastern part of the country. With poor soils and low rainfall, it is suitable only as grazing land. The Bedouin communities, some partially settled and some still nomadic, herd about 12 million animals, including sheep, goats and some camels, in this area.
 
The Badia has been overgrazed for many years and most of it is still in a badly degraded state. Vast areas have been reduced to bare soil scattered with sparse vegetation, which is largely unpalatable to grazing animals. For the Bedouin people who live off this land, life in the desert, always harsh, became even more difficult.

"There was nothing left for the herds to eat," says 33-year-old Abdelaziz el-Ahmed, who lives in the Tazaia area in Aleppo province. "We had to travel 400 or 500 kilometres away on a regular basis in search of fodder for the herds."

He and his brother, along with their wives and children, make up a total household of 25. They have 430 sheep. In 2007, el-Ahmed and his extended family joined the IFAD-supported Badia Rangelands Development Project. Together with other project participants who have grazing rights in the same area, they planted 400 hectares of fodder shrubs.

"When we saw how successful this was in terms of providing good fodder for our herds, we planted another 500 hectares," he says. "Now we plan to rehabilitate the whole area. The savings on fodder just over the last two months have been SYP 2,000 (US$43) net per head of sheep. If we grow enough fodder we can even invite relatives to graze their sheep on our land."

Resting, reseeding and planting

In 1995, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic imposed a ban on cultivation in the Badia to prevent the area from becoming further degraded. To support this policy, in 1998 it initiated the IFAD-supported Badia Rangelands Development Project, which aimed to reverse the degradation and introduce better resource management practices. The project covers about one third, or 3.2 million hectares, of the Badia, in the provinces of Aleppo, Dayr Az Zawr, Hamah, Hasaka, Homs, Ar Raqqah, and to a lesser extent, Dara and As Suwayda provinces to the south.

The areas rehabilitated by the project stand out in sharp contrast to the dry, bare soil that predominates in the Badia. In some cases, simply resting the land for two years has resulted in a full return of species for healthy ecosystems. Where degradation was too advanced, and resting alone was not enough to regenerate the vegetation, reseeding or planting were the only options.

The project launched a successful technical innovation that set a new precedent in large-scale reseeding. By project close in 2010, more than 225,000 hectares of land had been reseeded, while 94,000 hectares had been planted with native fodder shrubs.

Altogether more than 1.2 million hectares of rangelands have been rehabilitated, providing feed for about three million sheep and goats and several hundred camels. By the fourth or fifth year of collaboration, herders had seen the average productivity of the land increase as much as tenfold, from 50 to 500 feed units per hectare. Overall, the rangelands development techniques have brought the total forage available from developed sites to over 265,000 million feed units, worth about US$6.9 million.

Participation is key to success

"If natural resource management is to be effective  in the long term, communities need to take part in decision-making and assume full ownership of rehabilitation and management of the land," says Abdelhamid Abdouli, IFAD country programme manager for Syria. "This project pursued a rigorously participatory approach, and has been the first large-scale development project in Syria to do so."

Because so many people and animals depend on the Badia's fragile environment, restricted grazing is a necessity. The project worked closely with collaborating communities to help them organize grazing committees that would identify b oundaries according to accepted grazing rights established over many generations. Together they selected sites suitable for rehabilitation.

With their considerable local knowledge of soil conditions, vegetation and water availability, the Bedouin herders were encouraged to work with project experts to draw up viable management plans. The plans outlined where they could graze their animals, and how many heads of sheep could graze in a given area at what time, according to seasonal conditions.

The committees enforce grazing regulations, and can choose whether or not to charge a fee to enter the reserve. The funds go towards reserve management, which includes paying a guard to keep out intruders.
Protecting the land gives the community members a greater sense of control and ownership,  even if the land is government owned.

Reducing vulnerability and the effects of climate change

There is no doubt that climate change is affecting the Badia. Over the last 30 years there have been clear changes in rainfall patterns, with sequences of drought becoming more frequent and more severe. There have also been marked fluctuations in the minimum and maximum temperature.

Sandstorms are on the rise as a result of increased desertification, and these can be very damaging to vegetation.  All of these climatic changes exacerbate problems that are already acute in the Badia: water scarcity, desertification and the degradation of rangeland.

Rehabilitation, coupled with careful management to sustain productivity of the rangeland, is a significant means of enabling local people to adapt to climate change. Reintroducing native plants and restoring ecosystems, helping meet fodder requirements, stabilizing the soil and stopping the movement of sands, and preserving and improving livestock breeds that are best adapted to drought conditions – these are crucial measures needed to reinforce adaptability and reduce the vulnerability of local populations to the effects of climatic instability.

New project will continue rehabilitation

The project has shown that its methods work. The areas that were rested, reseeded or planted five to seven years ago are now well-covered with a variety of native plants, providing nutritious forage for the herds. The rehabilitated areas even withstood  the prolonged drought of 2005 to 2008.

"We've felt the drought less," says Saleh Al-Helal from Hwaiat al Debe, Hamah province. "Those outside the project have had to transport their sheep east to the Iraqi border, at a cost of about US$217 per herd of 200 sheep. Or else they resort to emergency selling, lo sing f rom 50 to 75 per cent of their flock."

The cooperatives are beginning to manage and protect their regenerated land by themselves. With productivity restored to their rangelands, herders can settle to a greater degree, moving in a smaller area rather than bearing the cost and upheaval of transporting herds. An important advantage of becoming more settled is that their children can now attend schoo l. A nd the savings in fodder have resulted in better incomes, which provide an important safety net for emergency household expenses.

It is vital that rehabilitation continues in the Badia. A new IFAD-supported project currently under design, the Integrated Livestock Development Project, includes a major subcomponent dedicated to rangelands development.