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A Critical Role for Land in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon addresses plennary at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, New York, 25 September 2015. Photo: Dryland Systems

The UN General Assembly must consider the Value of Land if the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. 

At the end of September 2015, world leaders and policy makers gathered at the UN headquarters in New York for the 70th anniversary session of the General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss a full spectrum of international affairs and ratify 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Before the opening of the General Debate, Pope Francis arrived in New York to address the UN Sustainable Development Summit hosted by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, where the ambitious post-2015 development agenda was formally adopted. Building on the previous Millennium Goals, the new SDGs will serve as a set of global guidelines to improve the lives of people everywhere and to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.

The CGIAR Research Program and Dryland Systems and partners of the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative were there to present global policy makers with the scientific evidence on the critical role and value of land in shaping economic prosperity and sustainable development at national, regional, and global levels under the SDGs agenda. 

Key scientific finding and policy recommendations stemming from two recent ELD publications, The Value of Land: Prosperous lands and positive rewards through sustainable land management and Report for policy and decision makers were discussed during a special UNGA side event on Land Solutions: An Economics of Land Degradation Presentation, aiming to focus the spotlight on land as a key undervalued asset in the global economy.

The scientific evidence and policy recommendations presented in the ELD reports highlight the vast and untapped potential of sustainable land management practices in contributing towards significant improvements in people’s livelihoods, as well as reduce poverty and inequality, reverse natural resource degradation and effectively tackle climate change by 2030, " noted Mark Schauer, Coordinator of the ELD Secretariat at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

These reports represent the culmination of a massive 4-years research effort conducted jointly by research scientists, academics, development practitioners and policy makers representing over 30 different organizations worldwide. 

The Value of Land report estimates that some 52% of world agricultural land is moderately or severely degraded. Worldwide, the value of ecosystem services provided by land resources such as food, poverty reduction, clean water, climate and disease regulation and nutrients cycling, lost annually due to land degradation amounts to a staggering US $6.3 trillion to $10.6 trillion, or the equivalent of 10-17% of the global GDP. 

On the other hand, the issue of land degradation threatens to force the migration of millions of people from affected areas, notes the report. An estimated 50 million people may be forced to seek new homes and livelihoods within 10 years. That many migrants assembled would constitute the world's 28th largest country by population. Humanitarian crises can be averted in the future and up to US $75.6 trillion can be added to the annual world income if policy makers take the necessary steps to effectively address land degradation nationally and globally.

Land Solutions: An Economics of Land Degradation Presentation side event at 70th UNGA Summit, New York on 24 September 2015. Photo: UN Web Services

Scientists and policy makers agree land has a key role to play in sustainable development

Keynote speaker, Dr. Richard Thomas, Director of CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and Scientific Coordinator of the ELD initiative emphasized in his presentation at the UNGA side event, the need to focus on the most vulnerable communities, where land degradation is already a reality and poses one of the greatest threats to their livelihoods.

The concept of sustainable land management needs to be mainstreamed and institutionalized in all relevant national and global policies, by setting clear standards and indicators for measuring progress and impact… Land degradation is a complex issue linked to a host of complex sustainable development challenges. An integrated systems approach is critical and greater connectivity is required amongst all actors, at all scales, in order to achieve truly transformational changes in the way in which land is perceived and used, so that land benefits are equitably shared amongst all members of the society,” said Dr. Thomas.

Assistant Secretary General of UN, Ibrahim Thiaw echoed a similar message by discussing a specific ELD case study on Mali, where investments in sustainable land management have successfully generated benefits at the rate of 1 to 13 for every USD$ invested. Mr. Thiaw noted that with one quarter of global land being degraded – affecting the food security of 1.5 billion people – Africa is one of the most severely impacted regions in the world. The Malian case shows that it is possible to restore land and halt land degradation, and that sustainable land management is extremely profitable from an economic point of view. However, Mr. Thiaw warned:

We must focus our attention on identifying context specific solutions at local and national levels if we are to address the issue of land degradation successfully; we should also look at how sustainable land managment actions in the context of climate change adaptation could transform local governance in least developed countries. By making these scientific findings relevant to policy and decision makers, the world will gain a united view of how to address land degradation and improve human wellbeing.” Ibrahim Thiaw, Assistant Secretary General of the UN.

A similar message was reverberated by Luc Gnacadja, former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), who discussed the case of Benin and its loss of USD$ 9.5 billion or up to 18 percent of its ecosystems’ value within the past 15 years. Mr. Gnanadja called for an attitudinal shift towards the value of land in order to better understand and address the vicious cycle of development problems that are related to land, such as poverty, child mortality, food security, nutrition, food access, and environmental migration.

Klaus Rudischhauser of the European Commission stressed the timely relevance of the ELD reports to address a host of development challenges related to developing agriculture, ending poverty and hunger, curbing migration and enabling political and socio-economic stability worldwide. He outlined the links between climate change and land degradation, and recognized the importance of land in providing key ecosystem services that are vital to sustaining the livelihoods of the world’s rural poor.

The ELD reports help bring greater clarity and visibility of the indisputable socio-economic facts of the global challenges that are exacerbated by lack of stronger action on sustainable land management. If we do not mainstream land degradation issues in the broader set of policy actions, we will not be able to achieve any of the sustainable development goals.”

Many of the practitioners representing different development agencies and policy makers representing different countries at the UNGA (including Iceland, Germany, Benin, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Italy, and Australia) took turns to discuss the merits of the ELD evidence on land degradation and agreed that clear data and knowledge on the socio-economic costs and benefits of land and management choices will enable better decision making for stakeholder at different levels in the future. In particular, the scientific evidence presented in the ELD reports will be particularly relevant to the discussions of the SDG target 15.3 on land degradation neutrality next month in Ankara at the 12th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP12) to the UNCCD.

You can watch the UN TV video on the Economics of Land Degradation session below

Welcoming the new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the UNCCD Executive Secretary, Monique Barbut, said:

Literally speaking, the health and productivity of the ground that we stand on will largely determine the future prosperity and security of humankind. In launching this ambitious development agenda, we also recognize the need for immediate climate action which means that sustainable land management and restoration must be front and center on both of these global agendas.”

In November 2015, the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and the ELD initiative will organize several side events to continue shaping the debate and global policy formulations on land degradation at the UNCCD COP12 in Ankara. 

About the author: Tana Lala-Pritchard is the Communications Program Coordinator at the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.