By Devinder Kumar
NEW DELHI | BEIJING (IDN) - Aware that 2.6 billion people depend directly on agriculture, but 52 per cent of the farm land is affected by soil degradation, not only UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the specialised agency UNCCD but also UNESCO have stressed the compelling need to rehabilitate every year at least 12 million hectares of degraded land.
At the same time, during the global observance of the World Day to Combat Desertification – this year in Beijing – China and the UNCCD launched the Joint Action Initiative to combat desertification, rehabilitate degraded land and mitigate the effects of drought (JAI).
The Day – which is observed annually on June 17 – is intended to promote public awareness of the issues of desertification and drought, and the implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification.
JAI is linked to the 2030 global target of achieving land degradation neutrality agreed under the Sustainable Development Goals. Through actions that promote healthy and productive land, the initiative also aims to alleviate poverty and improve the livelihoods of the people in the region.
The initiative aims to make the whole region along the ‘Silk Road’ environmentally sound and ecologically sustainable. The Silk Road Economic Belt starts from China and runs to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean via Central and West Asia, geographically linking the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe.
The critical importance of the UNCCD-China Joint Action Initiative is underlined by the fact that nearly 800 million people are chronically undernourished as a direct consequence of land degradation, declining soil, fertility, unsustainable water use, drought and biodiversity loss, requiring long-term solutions to help communities increase resilience to climate change.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a video message to the high-level gathering that was attended by China’s Vice-Premier and 11 ministers and vice-ministers from Africa, Asia and Latin America, said: “Over the next 25 years, land degradation could reduce global food productivity by as much as 12 per cent, leading to a 30 per cent increase in world food prices.”
Ban warned: “Without a long-term solution, desertification and land degradation will not only affect food supply but lead to increased migration and threaten the stability of many nations and regions. This is why world leaders made land degradation neutrality one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. That means rehabilitating at least 12 million hectares of degraded land a year.”
One important approach towards achieving that goal is sustainable, climate-smart agriculture, Ban said. That will help communities build resilience to climate change, while also supporting mitigation by taking carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back in the soil.
“The transition to sustainable agriculture will also alleviate poverty and generate employment, especially among the world's poorest. By 2050, it could create some 200 million jobs across the entire food production system,” the UN chief said.
Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, more than ninety countries have signed up to set their voluntary national targets on land degradation neutrality.
UNCCD Executive Secretary Monique Barbut lauded the Joint Action Initiative with China and pointed out that through solidarity and engagement China has brought millions of people out of poverty through massive scale land restoration efforts. She encouraged China to spearhead work in achieving land degradation neutrality and ensure it becomes humanity's defining achievement in the 21st Century, noting, “it will mark China's legacy in green development”.
More than 2 billion hectares of the terrestrial ecosystems are degraded worldwide, with nearly 170 countries affected by land degradation and drought. Scientists are also increasingly concerned about human activities such as mining, infrastructure development and drying water beds that may be contributing to sands and dust storms.
Barbut said: “Actions to avoid, halt and reverse land degradation must begin now with everyone fully engaged. If we procrastinate the prospect of land degradation neutrality grows dimmer. But it shines brighter each time a person or country joins the campaign to restore degraded land or the battle against the degradation of new land.”
The UNCCD Executive Secretary emphasized that land degradation neutrality should be a top policy goal for every nation that values freedom and choice. “Conserving land and restoring that which is degraded back to health is not a benefit that only flows to the billions of people who eke out a living directly from the land,” she said.
“It is a vote to safeguard our own freedoms of choice, and those of our children. It is also a moral standard against which we may well be judged by history,” she added.
Barbut also noted that the inclination to degrade new land instead of fixing and re-using the land that is already degraded means that future generations cannot benefit from the same resources.
“The rights we claim to enjoy these land resources come with a heavy moral obligation to manage them well. More so, as we may be, literally, the last generation that can significantly slow down the accelerated loss of the land resources left,” Barbut declared.
“This generation – our generation – has the time, human, knowledge and financial means to reverse these trends, and restore a vast amount of the degraded lands. But we must work together,” she stressed.
In another message to mark the Day, Irina Bokova, the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), underscored that desertification is a threat to both arid and non-arid regions, where land over-exploitation, including intensive farming, forest exploitation for fuel and timber and overgrazing have turned fertile soils into sterile land.
“Extreme weather events – like droughts, winds, floods and climate disruptions – are amplifying the effects and adding new causes to the degradation cycle,” said Bokova who is a candidate for the post of the UN Secretary-General when Ban’s term ends on December 31, 2016.
“The stakes are high – this is why the goal of achieving land degradation neutrality is so important. This is set out in Target 15.3 of the new Sustainable Development Goals, to maintain and even improve the amount of healthy and productive land resources,” she added.
Bukova highlighted that the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme, International Hydrological Programme and Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development are working to engage people in sustainable land management practices and agro-forestry, in developing green economies, in consuming responsibly, and in restoring ecosystems.
“Desertification is not always irreversible. Land restoration is the ultimate tool, and UNESCO is determined to do everything to restore our ecosystems, as was featured during the World Congress of Biosphere Reserves, held in Lima, in March 2016,” Bokova said.
“Desertification is a global threat that requires global action – this must start with each of us, with our deeper engagement to protecting our planet for all to share,” she added. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 June 2016]
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
Photo: Baobab tree in a degraded, arid landscape in Kenya's Eastern province. Credit: World Bank/Flore de Preneuf
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