To address these problems, we cannot pursue the same ways of thinking that have led to this situation. We need to take a different perspective – which is already presenting itself.
The UN estimates that billions of people around the world are directly affected by land degradation, while every year 12 million hectares of land become unproductive through desertification. The effects are worsened by climate change. Pastures are scorched, crops and livestock often do not survive.
The impact can be devastating. For example, impoverished dryland communities in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa are experiencing high levels of chronic malnutrition, hunger, child mortality and migration, in an environment that is at risk of being degraded beyond repair. Humanitarian aid to cope with each new crisis costs over a billion dollars each time, and leaves many new problems in its wake.
Land degradation is not just the result of natural disasters. It is also the outcome of long-term over exploitation of natural resources and ecosystems, generated by the dominating approach to agricultural development. However, promising initiatives demonstrate that a new paradigm is emerging.
Each year, the world loses 12 million hectares of land — enough to produce 20 million tonnes of foodgrains — due to overexploitation and climatic variations. Since intense modern agricultural practices have become the vogue, humankind has lost 2,000 million hectares of productive land.
It is said that the degradation of land and marine ecosystems affects the well-being of 3.2 billion people globally and costs nearly 10 per cent of the annual global gross product in loss of species and ecosystem services. Averting further land degradation and reversing a part of it that has already happened helps not only global food security, but also aids in combating many other environmental issues, including deforestation, water and air pollution, and even climate change.
A recent study has shown that if about 350 million hectares of degraded land — nearly a sixth of what is lost due to degradation — is restored between now and 2030, the global community can generate $9 trillion in ecosystem services and take an additional 13-26 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Many of the problems that we see today can be directly attributed to land degradation, be it poverty, increasing incidence of extreme weather events, forced migration or loss of biodiversity. According to UNCCD, because land is fixed in quantity, there is ever-increasing competition to control land resources and capitalise on the flows of goods and services from the land. This has the potential to cause social and political instability, fuelling poverty, conflict and migration. Consequently, the UNCCD CoP-12, held in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, in 2015, decided to push for what UNCCD coined as land degradation neutrality (LDN).
In the past, land degradation was addressed by attempting to fix it wherever it had happened. But realising that it was not humanly possible to fix past degradation on the scale it occurred, the global community decided to take a holistic approach to the problem. LDN — defined as counterbalancing all new degradation that for whatever reasons cannot be avoided through the reversal of an equal or greater amount of land that was degraded in the past by 2030 — is an attempt in that direction, said Barron Joseph Orr, Lead Scientist at UNCCD.
As of now, 122 countries in the world have committed to setting LDN targets for themselves. While two-thirds of them have already announced their LDN goals, others are in the process of doing so. In fact, India recently stated that it would try to restore as much as 13 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, as part of its LDN goal. LDN in one way helps address many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 global goals set by the UN General Assembly in 2015 that need to be achieved by 2030. SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.
A Guest Editorial