The Quiet Crisis: Lost Foodlands Cover Area Larger Than Canada and China Combined – Two Billion People Affected

12 Million Hectares Lost Every Year to Desertification

Dealing with desertification has a long history of failure.

By Stephen Leahy

CHANGWON, South Korea, Oct 13, 2011 (IPS)

Degradation of land is the world’s quiet crisis, undercutting food production, increasing water scarcity, impoverishing hundreds of millions of people and affecting two billion overall. Nearly 20 million square kilometres of the earth’s arable lands – an area twice the size of Canada – have already been degraded.

Each year, 12 million hectares of land, where 20 million tons of grain could have been grown, are lost to desertification. Unless this trend is reversed soon, feeding the world’s growing population will be impossible, experts say. However, the global community has failed for over two decades to address this serious challenge.

Now, delegates from 193 countries are meeting in South Korea under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to review progress on a ten-year plan to reverse the ongoing decline in the quality and quantity of land in food-producing regions.

During the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10) under the UNCCD, delegates will also consider creating a scientific body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to serve as the global authority on desertification and land degradation.

“The UNCCD will take bold steps towards delivering critical services to the two billion people that face negative impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought,” Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UNCCD, told delegates during the opening session of COP 10 that began Oct. 10 and concludes Oct. 21.

Land degradation is mainly the consequence of poor land management in conjunction with changes in rainfall. Erosion and degradation most often result from ploughing fields, removing crop residues after harvest and overgrazing. It is akin to tire wear on cars – a gradual, less noticeable process with potentially catastrophic consequences if ignored for too long.

“People do not notice land degradation until there is a crisis,” said Pier Paolo Roggero, a scientist at University of Sassari in Italy.

“It is relatively easy to deal with erosion from a technical point of view,” Roggero told IPS. “We know what to do in most cases in terms of prevention and restoration.”

The major challenge is at the institutional and policy levels, where economic and governance issues are often at odds with good long-term land management, he said.

Making an economic case for long-term prevention of erosion is currently difficult. As a result, other mechanisms will have to ensure proper care of the land, Roggero said. “Sadly, it is not easy to find real success stories,” he noted.

Farmers and pastoralists often face so many short-term challenges that investing in long-term soil protection becomes difficult. Social and economic pressures, along with poor government policies, force many to overwork the land until it becomes unusable.

Governments force pastoralists into settlements, encourage private land ownership and create borders, actions that prevent herders from using the land sustainably, said Pablo Manzano, global coordinator of the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism.

“Pastoralists know how to protect the land but often don’t have the power to do so or face government policies and economic pressures that don’t encourage long-term management,” Manzano told IPS.

Short-term economic decisions are very often the main driver of land degradation, he said. Even in developed countries, high costs of fuel and fertiliser force many farmers to ‘mine their soil’ for maximum short-term gain to cover those costs.

As a result, nearly all governments have failed to stem the ongoing loss of arable lands. Only three percent of the planet is suitable for growing crops and grazing, and 24 percent of that has already been degraded.

Dealing with desertification has a long history of failure. In 1977, the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD), the precursor to UNCCD, was formed to prevent land degradation.

By 1991, it was declared a failure, and in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, nations agreed to create a new U.N. body to deal with the problem as they had done for climate change and biodiversity. The first COP was held in 1997.

Unlike the better-known climate change negotiations, or the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is no international agreement or treaty being negotiated here in Changwon. The UNCCD focus is on the world’s drylands – the arid and semi-arid regions that make up 41 percent of the world’s land area and are the most at risk.

Its primary purpose is to develop guidelines, best practices and indicators for monitoring and assessment that will assist national governments in the creation of national and regional action programmes to combat desertification, land degradation and drought.

Despite its 14-year history, the UNCCD has achieved little on the ground, said Kwon Byong Hyon, chairman of Future Forest, a Korean NGO, and chair of the nearly one hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) registered for the COP.

“Civil society has made remarkable achievements working with local communities in combating desertification. But governments have not,” Kwon, the former South Korean ambassador to China, told IPS. Kwon is best known for pioneering the “Great Green Wall” project in China’s Kubuqi desert to stop desert encroachment by planting millions of trees and shrubs.

“Governments make declarations but achieve little on the ground,” said Kwon, who was one of Korea’s most distinguished diplomats.

Despite its increasing global importance, civil society is being marginalized by some members of the UNCCD, he said. “We are in the back seat.” Kwon pointed to the fact that there is only one official (speaking) seat (amongst a row of seats for CSOs) in the main plenary hall and it is indeed at the back.

CSOs represent the local people directly affected by land degradation. Governments have their own priorities, such as economic development, that are often at odds with sustainable land management, he said.

Kwon has raised this issue with delegates, many of whom agreed that CSOs need to be more involved. However, some delegates expressed the view that CSOs must work under the direction of their national governments. “They seem to want to substitute themselves for governments,” cautioned one African delegate.

CSOs have made clear they cannot be effective if they report only to their national governments because in some countries, their reports and recommendations are rejected for political reasons. CSOs need to act as “watchdogs” to call attention to poor government policies and practices, said Kwon.

For these reasons, CSOs need to report their findings to both the UNCCD secretariat and their respective national governments, an issue that needs to acknowledged at this COP.

“We cannot wait for more hollow debates here,” said Kwon. “If this process continues to be meaningless, CSOs will not be idle.”

First published as Conference Renews Eroded Efforts to Combat Desertification – IPS

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