Sunset in the arid, mountainous region of Damaraland, Namibia. Eelco Böhtlingk, Unsplash

Taking in the big picture of land restoration

Q&A with Tony Simons alongside the UNCCD “land” COP

In recent years, the acronym ‘COP’ – Conference of the Parties – has gained ground in the public lexicon. It is the semi-annual governing “party” of inter-governmental conventions attended by nation states and their invited observers. The COP tied to the theme of climate change has historically been the biggest “party,” the most recent one in Glasgow last November attracting big-name actors such as David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and Barack Obama and garnering many international news headlines.

But wait: another COP just happened on 9 to 20 May, and it went largely unnoticed.

While the aforementioned splashy COPs are spearheaded by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose mission speaks for itself, the COP that just convened in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire was the conference of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which bears a unique mandate whose foothold has long been in a singular, often overlooked part of the world.

However, according to Tony Simons, director general of World Agroforestry (ICRAF) and executive director of its partnership with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR-ICRAF), this is changing. These UNCCD conferences, of which this was the fifteenth (UNCCD COP15), are going through a makeover and becoming more important than ever before. Here, he explains.

Tony Simons, second from left, speaks on 'Food Day' of the UNCCD COP15. Matthew TenBruggencate, IISD/ENB
Tony Simons, second from left, speaks on ‘Food Day’ of the UNCCD COP15. Matthew TenBruggencate, IISD/ENB

What is different about this UNCCD COP from others in the past?

UNCCD COPs have struggled because they seemed to be largely contextualized inside the Sahel – very focused on halting the march of the desert through actions that were particularly politically grounded in the Sahelian countries. And yet, it’s worth noting that four of the 26 COPs for climate have been held in Africa whereas none of the past 14 COPs for desertification have been held in Africa.

I think what UNCCD member states and the secretariat realized is that they have to reposition themselves beyond the original narrow focus. They have to be seen in a wider context. This started a few years ago with the global mechanism and with the land degradation neutrality goal, which are great. But here, I think, for the first time, this COP is branching out and saying, “We are the land COP.”

What we’re hoping comes out of this COP is much greater attention on land as the organizing framework, and the different systems – food, water, social, financial, energy – operating inside that bigger land-use, land-management framework.

Aside from “land,” what other new language is relevant for the mandate of the UNCCD?

“Convergence.” See, let’s take food systems. Since 2015, there have been more than 32 major publications that have put forth a visualization of the food system. Of the 32, only a few mention land as an element – which makes them overly food-production oriented. Food systems have got to be not only about feeding humans but also about feeding ecosystems, feeding biodiversity, feeding the landscape. For example, one tonne of artificial nitrogen fertilizer takes eight megawatts of energy to produce, and then we often put it on land with too little life in it to use it and keep the soil’s natural carbon-nitrogen balance. It’s a waste: typically, don’t put fertilizer on land with less than 0.75 percent soil organic carbon. So as we see, we need to converge actors and ideas. We need to make sure land approaches doesn’t become further fragmented.

Dignitaries attend the Gender Caucus on the opening day of UNCCD COP15, an international summit on land restoration. Kiara Worth, IISD/ENB
Dignitaries attend the Gender Caucus on the opening day of UNCCD COP15, 9 May 2022. Kiara Worth, IISD/ENB

The Great Green Wall has been a hallmark project of the UNCCD, aiming to stop the southern spread of the Sahara Desert by re-greening the Sahel. What’s happening with the Great Green Wall now?

It is still needed. It is still alive. But it has somewhat morphed into multiple entities. There appear to be competing political entities, institutional entities and geographic foci. And now some are seeing it simply as an investment vehicle. We need to rather get it to be a showcase example of green infrastructure, of how to really build back with vegetation – not through either conditional cash transfers or unconditional cash transfers but through employment. When we wanted great, big physical infrastructure of buildings, roads and bridges, we hired engineers, bricklayers, carpenters and others. So now we’ve got to hire the equivalent: local groups and communities. Let’s enlist and remunerate and engage with those people so that they understand it and have a stake in it as well. It’s about mobilizing natural capital opportunities and social capital together.

Another piece of literature that’s been the foundation of this COP is the Global Land Outlook 2, a recently released report that found that 40 percent of non-ice lands are degraded. Did that fact surprise you?

No. It’s because we haven’t done a good job of measuring and monitoring land up to date. This has been going on for decades. So far, we’ve looked at land and said, “Okay, it’s neutral. It doesn’t appreciate or depreciate on the balance sheet.” But on nature’s balance sheet, it does.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is one initiative that’s looking at full-cost accounting of land. So let’s say you and I bought a piece of coastland, and we decide we’re going to go into shrimp farming. We have to cut down all of the mangroves, hiring laborers to do that. And then we have to hire other laborers to build ponds for the shrimps, and we have to buy the shrimp food, a cold-chain facility… and finally we figure out the revenue that we’ll get after all these expenses.

What we don’t do is say, “Well, now we’ve lost the coastal habitats and the fishing grounds. And now we’ve lost the breeding grounds for the ocean catch. And now we’ve degraded the tsunami protection.” That partial accounting is where TEEB has shined the strongest spotlights, really bringing in the need for economics and full-cost accounting, which must happen in order to properly monitor land.

Land tenure is a key focus of this COP. What progress have you seen?

There is progress for tenure and a broadening of the very term. Seventy-five percent of forest land in Africa is owned by the state, and governments are often reluctant to relinquish that ownership or are  not ready to hand it over to people. What they sometimes are willing to do, such as here in Côte d’Ivoire – and we [at CIFOR-ICRAF] helped rewrite the forest code in 2019 – is to give conditional leases. So a community can have an area of land on a 30-year conditional lease, provided they don’t hunt bushmeat, keep 30 percent tree cover, form an association, have an agreement with an off-taker, biometrically register, form boundaries, etc. Such approaches can even be used for local remuneration for ecosystem services, even in countries like Papua New Guinea where forest and land ownership by Indigenous communities is above 90 percent, as has been showcased at this COP with the Managalas Project.

I think it’s important that we don’t go for the big land distribution in an unplanned or hurried way. The work that TMG Think Tank has been doing – pairing human rights with land rights – is really good. There are going to be intermediate and learning events, such as making sure that land is also equitably shared with women and youth groups. If it goes only to the elites or male members, it won’t get sustained international support. It’s sometimes too slow, but all this work is promising.



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