Representatives from 60 countries participated in the First Global Soil Week.
Photo: P. Chiussi/IASS.


The First Global Soil Week brought together around 400 representatives of science, politics and civil society to discuss the threat to the precious resource of soil and adopt an agenda for action towards sustainable land use.

It is estimated that 24 billion tons of fertile arable land world-wide is lost through erosion each year. At the same time, urbanisation is causing the extent of arable land across the world, which accounts for a mere twelve percent of the Earth’s surface, to further decrease. But without fertile soil, neither world hunger nor climate change can be successfully combated. This is precisely the context that the First Global Soil Week sought to draw attention to. It was organised by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and held in Berlin/Germany in co-operation with several German institutions and UN organisations from the 18th to the 22nd November 2012.

The event brought together around 400 representatives of science, politics and civil society coming from 60 countries to discuss the threat to the precious resource of soil and adopt an agenda for action towards sustainable land use. The topics discussed ranged from soil contamination, soil degradation and urbanisation challenges through payments for ecosystem services and markets for soil organic carbon to soil research challenges, natural resource governance and global soil policy.

Multifunctional, non-renewable, globally in danger

Statistically, 0.22 hectares of land is available to every human being nowadays; in 1950, it was 0.5 hectares. Rainer Horn, President-Elect of the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS), pointed to the multitude of crucial functions that soils performed. Not only did they provide the basis of the production of food and other biomass, but they were also crucial to environmental interactions such as the storage, filtering and transformation of substances from water and the atmosphere (e.g. in the carbon cycle). Soils constituted a biological habitat and a gene pool as well as a source of raw material, and they were used in the construction of buildings and roads, not to mention their role as cultural heritage. It was all the more worrying that soil represented a resource that was virtually non-renewable, for it took 500 years for a 2.5 cm. layer of topsoil to form on arable land.

In the conference outcome paper, the participants drew attention to the fact that processes such as erosion, loss of soil organic matter or land and soil loss from urban expansion were affecting both the North and the South. Although soils were locally owned and managed, a global approach to soil protection was needed. Sustainable land management practices were of the utmost importance in achieving a land and soil degradation-neutral world. In his video message, Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, stressed the role of small-scale farmers in this context. However, crucial obstacles were facing the promotion of smallholders: insufficient support on the part of public policies, one-sided promotion of export-oriented agriculture, a lack of security of tenure, not enough funding for agricultural research and general prejudices against small-scale farming. Many governments were viewing the future solely in terms of large-scale industrial farming while ignoring the advantages offered by smallholder production for food security and the conservation of precious resources.

Of investments and responsibility

In Africa, 90 per cent of the food consumed in the continent was being produced by 33 million smallholders, reported Madiodio Niasse, Director of the International Land Coalition Secretariat. The sector was characterised not only by severe land degradation, poverty and hunger, and a huge generation gap, but also by an enormous investment gap. Only seven per cent of Africa’s arable land was under irrigation (20 per cent globally), while on average, African governments were spending 20 US dollars per rural inhabitant and per year. No wonder that investors were, as a rule, welcomed with open arms. However, estimates of global large-scale land deals varied considerably. While the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, 2009) was reckoning with a total of 25 million hectares world-wide, the online database Land Matrix stated an area of 50 to 80 million hectares for the past five years.

However, what was certain was that Africa accounted for 60 to 70 per cent of the land deals, with the investors having their eye on the fertile soils. Niasse noted that a number of common patterns were now becoming apparent among these deals. The countries whose land was being bought up were above all those under poor governance, with deals being secretly negotiated, only a small proportion of land developed, and deals often having adverse impacts on the people and the environment. “The deals pose a risk to food security in the targeted countries,” Niasse maintained. A major share of the land was being used for growing non-food crops, and if food was grown, then this happened above all with a view to exporting to the investor countries. Excessive water withdrawal presented a problem, too. So what could these countries do? First and foremost, Niasse recommended, they could formulate national food security strategies and step up their own investments. If foreign investments were needed, those could be given priority that would not result in any land conversion and were based on exchange agreements.

Pro-poor natural resource governance – easier said than done

Rights-based approaches are coming more and more to the fore in the debate on natural resource governance and the pro-poor effects sought in this context. However, practical implementation presents a number of obstacles. This starts with the redistribution of land also always resulting in changes within a country’s social relationships, according to Saturnino Borras of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, Netherlands. Borras maintained that a great gulf frequently existed between the desired policy and unexpected outcomes. One example here was the land reforms in the Philippines in the 1980s. Although they had fulfilled their objective of being pro-poor, they had resulted in only men and Christians being considered in the allocation of land, while women and Moslems were left out. Before the land reforms, women had formed a third of the rural labour force, while afterwards, they played hardly any role at all. Studies on land reforms in Latin America and the Caribbean had revealed that almost all measures had been anti-women.

In addition to the issue of recognising rights, examples from India and Brazil were used to discuss implementation problems: different interpretation of land reform, insufficient co-ordination or conflicts of jurisdiction between authorities involved, contradictory laws, unequal power relations between individual groups, and the question of how to handle community rights. The existence of legal frameworks will be of no use if they are not enforced, as land tenure policy in Mozambique und Cambodia has shown. Moreover, translating rights into practice in society is a tedious process. A difficult situation could arise for the social movements involved that are campaigning for the rights of marginalised sections of the population. If they ultimately fail to help their groups claim their right to land, they will lose their credibility. And last but not least, it is not easy to get local elites to push for changes in property relations. People don’t usually like to resign privileges.

More information on the Global Soil Week 2012 

Author: Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21


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