By Karina Boeckmann
BERLIN, Jun 4, 2012 (IPS) – Land degradation poses a threat to all life on Earth including humanity. To stop the enormous loss of life-giving land, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is pushing for a sustainable development goal of Zero Net Land Degradation (ZNLD) to be adopted at the upcoming Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, in Brazil.
“We should not dry up the future we want,” UNCCD General Secretary, Luc Gnacadja, told a press briefing in Berlin last week, referring to “The Future We Want” conference that will take place in Rio de Janeiro from Jun. 20-22, two decades after the first Earth Summit in the same Brazilian town.
According to Gnacadja, agreeing on a sustainable development goal on land-use at Rio+20 is a prerequisite for ensuring future water, food and energy security.
Addressing journalists in the German capital on May 23, Beninâs former minister of environment, housing and urban development presented an UNCCD policy brief, which called on Rio+20 to adopt a “stand-alone goal on sustainable land and water use for all and by all (in agriculture, forestry, energy and urbanisation) through commitment to a land- degradation neutral world.”
“We need to focus on two dimensions of land â in the degraded and non-degraded areas. In the non- degraded areas, we need to avoid land degradation. In the already degraded lands, soil fertility and land productivity should be restored. In other words, zero net land degradation (ZNLD) can be achieved when, over a given period of time, land degradation is either avoided or offset by land restoration,” the paper stated.
UNCCD also warned, “We must bring productive land to life. Land is our natural ally, but its patience is not eternal.”
Causes and consequences
“Human beings have multiple and growing demands on land,” Gnacadja observed. “There is a need for food, fodder and fuels. Land is requested for human settlements and infrastructure, for environmental services, carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation as well as for metals and minerals.”
But at present 12 million hectares of land are lost annually due to land degradation and desertification.
According to experts, food production is the single largest stress factor behind the loss of land; in fact, we might require three planet Earths to meet the demands of human consumption by 2050.
By 2030, nine billion people will need 120 million hectares more land to produce 50 percent more food, Gnacadja said. The demand on energy and on water in agriculture will increase by 40 and 30 percent respectively.
According to the brief, factors weakening the Earthâs land, water and nutrient-constrained systems include population growth, land degradation and desertification, climate change, water and nutrient depletion as well as increasing living standards, changing diets, urbanisation, supply chain waste and losses and globalised trade.
Every minute, the human population increases by 150 people, the paper stated. Twenty-five and 10 hectares respectively are lost to tropic deforestation and soil degradation, while urbanisation swallows up 5.5 hectares of land per minute.
Worldwide, 25 percent of land is already highly degraded, affecting 1.5 billion people.
Land degradation is contributing to food insecurity, hunger, migration, deforestation, political instability and civil strife; and it is conducive to the phenomenon of land grabbing â the disputed investment in foreign land for food and biofuel production, Gnacadja said.
“Asian countries will make up 60 percent of the world’s population in 2050. It is no surprise then that Indians and Chinese are investing in Africa’s land,” the UNCCD policy paper warned.
Sustainable development goals
The UNCCD head believes, “Time is ripe for the international community to commit itself to a land degradation neutral world.”
The world should aim for achieving zero net land degradation by 2030; zero net forest degradation by 2030; and implementing drought preparedness policies in all drought-prone countries by 2020.
“It’s possible to reach this goal, and we know how to do it,” Gnacadja, an architect by profession, explained. In fact, in many parts of the world, especially in drylands, local communities achieved land recovery by planting fertiliser trees, he added.
The UNCCD policy brief bolstered his optimistic view with hard figures: “More than two billion hectares of land worldwide are suitable for rehabilitation of which 1.5 billion hectares would be best suited to ‘mosaic restorationâ, where forests and trees are combined with other land uses, including agroforestry and smallholder agriculture.”
According to UNCCD, achieving ZNLD by 2030 requires “the commitment, the support and the active investment of all public and private sector actors, and all parts of the supply and value chain related to land use, as well as local community stakeholders.”
Gnacadja also urged the establishment of an Intergovernmental Panel on Land and Soil as a global authority on scientific and technical knowledge on land and soil degradation and called for a comprehensive assessment of the economics of land degradation.
Global efforts to combat land degradation will bear fruit in a number of sectors, Gnacadja said, pointing to a study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). ‘Economics of Land Degradationâ analyses the costs of land degradation prevention methods versus the projected costs of inaction in several countries, including India, Kenya, Niger, and Peru.
Niger alone loses about eight percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) due to overgrazing, salinity in irrigated rice and soil nutrient depletion by sorghum and millet.
“The cost of preventing salinity in irrigated rice is only about 10 percent of the cost of not preventing it per hectare, and the cost of preventing overgrazing is just 20 percent of the cost of allowing overgrazing to continue”, according to the comprehensive study.
According to Project Catalyst, a San Francisco-based initiative of the ClimateWorks Foundation that focuses on policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improved management of the worldâs land will represent one half of the climate solution in 2020. This includes both maintaining the carbon in forests, grasslands and peatlands, and restoring natural systems.
An ancient native American proverb tells us, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”. It is with this truth in mind that the UNCCD is urging immediate action on land degradation.