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Why land degradation is our greatest issue today

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Mann. Photo Credit: ILRI

Land degradation affects the livelihoods of 900 million people across 5 continents and decreases global biodiversity with a loss of 27,000 species annually. The value of the ecosystem services lost worldwide is estimated between US $6.3 - $10.6 trillion annually, which is equivalent to 10 - 17% of global GDP.

It goes without saying that the issue demands global attention. The 2016 theme of World Day to Combat Desertification for more inclusive cooperation to restore and rehabilitate degraded land and reach the Sustainable Development Goals, including target 15.3 for a Land Degradation Neutral World could not be more exigent.

There was a time when desertification conjured up the image of creeping deserts in drylands, such as the Sahara, the Kalahari, or the Sinai deserts. That concept has now expanded to acknowledge desertification as the end result of land degradation processes induced by both climate variability and human activities that turn once fertile soils into barren land due to overexploitation of land resources. These days, land degradation is being increasingly recognised as a global phenomenon extending beyond drylands, and affecting everyone and everything from the food on our plates, the clothes on our backs, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, and the things we buy. Everything is connected to land and its resources.

Efforts to combat desertification should not be reserved to one especially designated day by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which should perhaps consider updating its name also. Rather these efforts should be continuous and permeate all choices we make on a daily basis. Notwithstanding the slight incongruity of terms, the driving forces and remedies for reversing and preventing land degradation require increased collaboration amongst various actors at different levels to implement scientifically sound and large scale actions.

The global initiative on the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) is one such way of bringing various stakeholders together to develop comprehensive solutions and a shared understanding of the issue in the common language of money. Although some argue that one cannot put a dollar value on all nature, the ELD Initiative serves as a sound basis for triggering policies and action - by both the public and private sectors – and recasting the traditional narrative of land degradation in socio-economic terms.  

I take this opportunity to encourage you to explore the significant research work produced by the ELD Initiative, and most notably the well received Value of Land report. We also invited three of our scientists and partners to share with us their thoughts on the subject and tell us about some of the work on the ground:

To mark the 2016 World Day to Combat Desertification, we have also produced:

Given the complexity of the land degradation issue and the varying views on its definition, bringing people together is of paramount importance, as is overcoming science prejudices and skepticism against different sectors, in particular the private sector, community based organisations and non-governmental actors.  Action is needed on the ground by raising awareness of the problems and solutions with land users, and at the same time engaging with policy makers to ensure that sufficient resources are dedicated to preserving and maintaining the natural resource base that many agrarian societies depend on.

In collaboration with the UNCCD, our program recently brought together several of these different actors to discuss and share knowledge and lessons learned on successful case studies of sustainable land management practices and critical factors determining the success of scaling up such practices. The outcome of this workshop will be a whole chapter on Scaling Up Sustainable Land Management in the UNCCD Global Land Outlook ( GLO) report due for release in 2017. 

Land degradation mostly affects the world’s poor. We recognise desertification as the invisible frontier of poverty with potential threats to security, peace and stability in many dryland countries and beyond. These threats are reflected in growing food and water scarcity, environmentally forced migration, and manifested in unemployment, disillusionment, radicalisation, and conflict. Yet, desertification is not an irrevocable calamity as dryland populations have survived and thrived all for thousands of years.

Solutions do exist and their effective application must build on indigenous knowledge and innovation, by strengthening community participation, increasing public and private sector investments, and engaging actors from at all levels. Agriculture and productive land for employment and income generation are critical for many dryland countries of the developing world. Our efforts for sustainable development, for peace and stability in drylands and beyond must focus more and more on land.

About the author

Dr. Richard Thomas is the Director of CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and Scientific Coordinator of the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative.