Making soil erosion understandable and governable at the river basin scale for food, water and hydropower sustainability in Latin America

Lead Research Organisation: University of Plymouth
Department Name: Sch of Geog Earth & Environ Sciences


Soil is a fundamental resource yet every year some 10 million ha of cropland are lost to soil erosion, mostly due to unsustainable agricultural and forestry practices. Erosion impacts overall sustainability in two ways: (a) reduction in farmland for food production, and (b) discharge of sediments and associated contaminants into water courses polluting water supply, fisheries and aquaculture, and reducing hydropower capacity due to reservoir siltation. Soil erosion and its environmental impacts sit centrally within the Energy-Food-Water-Environment Nexus.

New approaches to land management change are required to reduce socio-economic impacts of soil erosion but in spite of its significance, soil erosion is insufficiently understood in its social dimensions, and is almost non-governed in Latin American DAC countries. Two factors may explain this: (a) erosion is often slow and "invisible", or accepted as the norm, and (b) erosion is highly complex, emerging from interaction of socio-economic and natural processes, with interconnected feedbacks between external and internal drivers. Working in collaboration with researchers from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, the Chile-UK partnership aims to develop a new integrated approach for understanding and governing soil erosion at the river basin scale. Our multidisciplinary team combines innovative scientific measuring methods and advanced Latin American approaches for socio-cultural intervention to provide a new framework within which soil erosion challenges in Latin America can be addressed.

Planned Impact

This project is conceived and designed as the starting point for a deep transformation at the Latin American then global scale for reversing soil erosion in developing countries, aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We propose a plausible pathway for the project's impact over the short term (grant period), medium term (one year afterwards) and long term.

Short term: Model of intervention at river basin scale developed and validated

This project will bring together knowledge from social, biological and physical-chemical sciences, into an integrated model of intervention at the river basin scale. This intervention model will be fully implemented in the Rapel River basin in Chile by a multi-disciplinary action-research team, while multi-disciplinary teams from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico will closely observe, follow and review this intervention exercise through an integrated learning process. Team members from all four countries will participate in a training course with two sessions (in years 1 and 2) dealing with the intervention principles and methods. The results of this initial, two-year intervention, along with a preliminary proposal for disseminating the model at the global scale, will be presented and submitted to discussion and criticism, from scientific and political perspectives, at two international events: (1) a Latin American workshop at FAO Regional Office for Latin America in Santiago, and (2) a global-scale workshop to be held in the UK. The final project report will describe the intervention model and will present a detailed design for a Global Alliance for Soil Erosion Control, which could actually bring the model to practice.

Medium term: Global Alliance for Soil Erosion Control established and starting work

The scientific, institutional and other networks to be established throughout the grant period will be mobilised over the following year, in a broad endeavour to establish the proposed Global Alliance for Soil Erosion Control. This is necessary, because the only existing global facility -FAO's Global Soil Partnership- is voluntary and does not have sufficient capacity to lead and to implement the required, transformative process to reverse soil erosion at the global scale. It is expected that the Global Alliance's membership will include FAO, UNEP, IAEA and other relevant UN agencies; bilateral and multilateral donors to provide funding; global associations related to water supply, hydropower, irrigation, fisheries, aquaculture and related activities currently damaged by soil erosion; research, development, business and other innovation actors involved in sustainable agro-forestry; civil society organisations and political movements that advocate sustainable development; and other relevant actors.

Long term: A growing network of socio-technical interventions reversing soil erosion

The work to be carried out by the Global Alliance for Soil Erosion Control is expected to have the following components, which will carry out their activities in an integrated way in all developing regions:
-Promotion through preliminary assessments of soil erosion's damage in specific river basins, and of its potential for reversal through integrated action.
-Training multi-disciplinary teams and provision of methodological support:
-Knowledge management and networking
-Scientific and economic assessment
-Funding of interventions
This integrated and comprehensive endeavour should lead to establishing a growing network of socio-technical interventions at the global scale, which should yield concrete and measurable impacts upon the current condition of soils, and should reverse the negative consequences of soil erosion upon the economies and the social and environmental conditions of most developing countries.


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Title Animated infographic on water-food-energy-environment nexus 
Description Narrated animation illustrating the core concepts behind the interdisciplinary research goals 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact Raised profile of project in professional social media arena - ongoing and yet to be released by institution. 
Description To date our interdisciplinary partnership has achieved a first milestone in convening a group of central stakeholders in the study area. These stakeholders have worked together to identify priority areas for intervention using the project Participatory Innovation Praxis approach. Next steps are to integrate these ambitions with scientific evidence of the problems to develop a unified research-led outcome.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services