“When land degradation reaches a level where it seriously threatens people’s livelihoods, it can turn into a security issue. Data from 2007 shows that 80 per cent of major armed conflicts affecting society occurred in vulnerable dry ecosystems,” said Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, at the global observance of the World Day to Combat Desertification at the EXPO Milano, in Italy on the 17th June. Noting that land degradation is a driver of migration in the Sahel and that the radicalisation of youth in areas with severely degraded land is not a coincidence, she called for concerted international action to strengthen food security and create youth employment.
Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary General, also stressed the link between land degradation and insecurity, noting that it undercuts human rights, including the rights to food and water. “We need to change course and start securing every hectare of land that can provide food or freshwater. Land is a renewable resource, but only if we invest in land degradation neutrality, which has been proposed by United Nations Member States for the post-2015 development agenda. We must avoid degrading more land and, at the same time, rehabilitate all the degraded land that we can. Then, we will also be able to make rapid steps towards controlling climate change,” Ban stressed.
The global dimension
Globally, only 7.8 billion hectares of land is suitable for food production. About two billion hectares is already degraded, and of this, 500 million hectares has been totally abandoned. These lands could be restored to fertility for future use. Between 1983 and 2005, for instance, only 16 per cent of the degrading land was being rehabilitated, mostly in the Sahel region.
The effects of land degradation are not unique to Africa. In Mexico, for instance, more than 700,000 people migrate from the drylands each year. Land degradation may lead to the migration of 135 million people by 2045, according to a recent study by the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
Yet migrants can be part of the solution, especially when their efforts are invested in improving the lands a majority of their families rely on for food, water and jobs. Migrants in France who left the drought-struck Senegal River Valley in the 1970s have invested their remittances in more than 200 development projects in their communities – schools, health care centres, water and even roads. In fact, all the water projects in the Valley have benefited from migrant remittances.
Not a dead-end
The health and social benefits of these investments have been significant. What’s more, the cost of rehabilitating degrading land is much lower than the cost we are currently paying to police migrants fleeing resource-driven conflicts. For example, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a mechanised technology inspired from traditional practices, known as the Vallerani system, has helped to restore more than 50,000 hectares of Acacia-based agro-sylvopastoral systems in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Niger. Crop, gum, resin and fodder produce have increased.
The government of Niger has also developed Pastoral Modernisation Zones that build on the idea of semi-pastoralism. As a result, pastoral areas have been utilised in a more balanced manner, and overgrazing has fallen by 30-45 per cent since 1990. Neither of these high-impact land projects came at a high cost.
"Such successes show that the challenges related to land degradation and desertification are not insurmountable,” said Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), adding that FAO had recently stepped up action against desertification with partners like the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States. “Bold action and investment in sustainable land management can boost food security, improve livelihoods and help people adapt to climate change," she stressed.
The rehabilitation of China’s Loess Plateau is one of the World Bank’s most celebrated projects. It lifted 2.5 million people out of poverty and restored over 50,000 hectares of degraded land. “The World Bank is engaged in concerted efforts around the world to prevent further loss and protect the livelihoods of those most dependent on natural resources for jobs and sustenance,” said Paola Agostini, Global Lead for Landscapes and TerrAfrica Coordinator at the World Bank.
Agostini drew attention to the New Climate Economy Report, which estimates that restoring just 350 million hectares of degraded lands could provide agricultural produce and land resources worth 170 billion US dollars each year, while helping to mitigate climate change.
To celebrate the World Day, Monique Barbut called on countries to put land and its sustainable management at the forefront of their national priorities. She said the Convention is “developing the goal of land degradation neutrality to promote actions that will enable us all, as a global community, to get to the point where we are not losing more fertile land than we are reclaiming.”
World Day to Combat Desertification is a UN day to raise awareness about the problems and solutions to land degradation – termed ‘desertification’ when it occurs in the world’s vulnerable dry areas. The observance event at EXPO Milan was attended by government officials, heads of International organisations and the public. It was jointly organised by the Government of Italy, the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD, the UNCCD Secretariat and World Bank/TerrAfrica, with the support of the UN EXPO team.
For more information contact: Wagaki Wischnewski