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James Hutton Institute to investigate links between soil degradation and poverty

Building check dams down a major gulley (c) IWMI/Simon Langan
This initiative aims to demonstrate how improved knowledge about soil degradation can be used to address poverty issues.

The James Hutton Institute has won a £1.9 million government-funded research project which will investigate the opportunities in tackling soil degradation to alleviate poverty in rural communities in Africa where millions of people are dependent on farming, forestry, hunting or fishing for their livelihoods.

The ALTER project (Alternative Carbon Investments in Ecosystems for Poverty Alleviation) is a three year international research initiative led by the James Hutton Institute with partners from Ethiopia and Uganda, including Hawassa University, the Ethiopian Government's Southern Agricultural Research Institute and the Carbon Foundation for East Africa (Uganda) as well as CGIAR, International Water Management Institute and the University of Aberdeen.

The funding forms part of the seven year ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) programme, which is jointly funded by the Department for International Development (DfID), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The project will focus its research on two areas: the Ethiopian Southern Rift Valley and Western Uganda, both of which are under intense agricultural and population pressure; acute soil degradation; falling agricultural productivity; and pollution of lakes with consequent detrimental effects on the biodiversity and aquatic livelihoods.

Helaina Black, soil scientist at the James Hutton Institute and leader of the ALTER project, said: "This initiative aims to demonstrate how improved knowledge about soil degradation can be used to address poverty issues. We want to be able to provide innovative yet practical information to governments in Africa on how to make effective use of existing and new soil data. 

"Solutions to soil degradation are not simple and require a much better understanding of how people benefit from soils, what they stand to gain if they can improve the condition of the soils that they manage, what they would need to do to accomplish this and what barriers may prevent this. In parallel we need to gain better insight into the likely success of different management options and investment strategies to improve soils, and the goods and services that they supply."

UNESCO Professor of International Development and ESPA Programme Director, Paul van Gardingen, commented: "In the UK and other developed countries the globalised economy has broken the link between human survival and local environments, yet in the world’s poorest nations many millions are still utterly reliant on their surroundings. This close relationship is true for most of the vulnerable people of the world, but it is the connection between livelihoods and nature that offers us an unrivalled opportunity to combat poverty."

The latest round of projects supported by ESPA include £10 million of new research to investigate the links between poverty and the environment in ten of the world’s poorest nations, including study sites in Peru, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and a host of African countries.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.