A smallholder works to restore her land in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

Why stopping land degradation is “the only right path”

Q&A with UNCCD’s Louise Baker on major new report on land

The second Global Land Outlook report (GLO2), released on 26 April 2022 by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) ahead of its 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Abidjan, outlines both ‘stark warnings and practical remedies’ for chronic land degradation. With inputs from more than 20 partner organizations and more than a thousand of the latest scientific references, the GLO2 is the most comprehensive consolidation of knowledge and information on land that UNCCD has ever assembled. We spoke to the organization’s managing director, Louise Baker, to hear more about the report’s findings – and its implications for action.

What stood out to you most about the findings of this report?

The findings really are very clear. With our management and misuse of land resources, we have already done a lot of harm. Now, we are at a crossroads. If we follow the wrong path, the future is very bleak – environmentally and in terms of climate, of course, but also economically, socially and even in terms of political stability. It is almost an existential threat at this point.

But there is an alternative path – to my mind the only right path – where we can put right what we have damaged and destroyed and stop the loss of land resources. There are a billion hectares of land already pledged for restoration out there, and lots of proven, cost-effective ways that we can do that restoration at scale. It could be a game-changer for humanity.  

What is your greatest concern regarding land degradation at present?

If I had to say just one thing, I would say the enabling environment. But that is a bit of a meaningless “catch all,” isn’t it? In practical terms, I am concerned about the economic and social drivers of land degradation. Reform is undoubtedly needed.

For example, secure access to land for those who work it is vital: tenure insecurity, especially for women, is a real bottleneck to investment and restoration. The tax and subsidy regimes that incentivize poor land management practices can be reimagined: worldwide, USD 700 billion in fossil fuel and agricultural subsidies could be redirected to kickstart a regenerative green economy. In that sense, we also need to rethink our food systems. The way we produce our food is responsible for 70 percent of freshwater use and 80 percent of deforestation.  

What makes you hopeful?

That the approach to land is changing. Land degradation and desertification used to be considered a problem only for communities in remote, dry, poor countries: a problem for the proverbial “them,” not “us”. With reports like the GLO2, it is increasingly obvious that with climate change and our own land footprints, all of us are either part of the problem or set to suffer the consequences of land degradation.

With that awareness, you can see ambitious pledges and new technologies emerging – while partnerships for financing restoration and action coalitions are forming. The G20’s Initiative on Reducing Land Degradation and Conserving Terrestrial Ecosystems, for example, is a big step forward. If the largest economies in the world recognize the challenge and the multiple benefits they will receive in getting it right, we can at least hope that decisive action will follow.

What are your main aspirations for UNCCD COP15?

I hope COP15 will be recognized as the time when the conservation and sustainable management of land and restoration of land became the ‘new normal’; when we each started to think about consumption (and more broadly how the commodities we use every day are produced) with our land footprint in mind.  

An all-of-government and an all-of-society approach to reducing land degradation and restoring land is needed – beyond ministries of environment. In every jurisdiction, the ministries of finance, of agriculture (or their equivalents) as well as local planners, the private sector and youth are among many other stakeholders that have a role to play.

If we each play our role and get restoration right, there are real opportunities. In environmental terms, those include: reducing the risk and impact of drought and sand and dust storms, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and reducing biodiversity loss. And, in social and economic terms, we can leverage this work to help build back better after COVID-19, boost food security, and bring jobs and stability to rural areas.

I guess in summary, I hope at COP15 that we take the right path.



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