Combating land degradation through reforestation

Following from the 1992 Earth Summit, where desertification was recognised as one of the biggest environmental challenges hindering sustainable development, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was established in 1994. UNCCD, now with 197 Parties, is a legally binding international agreement that aims to bring together environmental and developmental issues with sustainable land management solutions. Marking the day of its adoption, 17th June each year is Desertification and Drought Day.

Desertification refers to the land degradation in drylands. These arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas make up 40% of global land area and support the livelihoods of two billion people worldwide, particularly in developing countries. Drylands are present in every continent and are mostly prevalent across Africa and Asia.

The degradation of drylands is caused by climatic variations and other human activities such as deforestation and unsustainable land use amongst other factors. This has severe implications, for example resulting in the loss of 24 billion tons of fertile soil per year, putting peoples’ livelihoods and lives at risk.

Restoration through reforestation

Healthy drylands bring a range of important benefits to people and planet, and so addressing desertification is paramount.  

The New Climate Economy report estimates that the restoration of 150 million hectares of agricultural land can generate over USD 30 billion extra income for smallholders, as well as food provision for 200 million more people. Restoration also brings important wider environmental benefits, such as carbon storage and the protection of biodiversity, and has a crucial role to play in a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Amongst the many ways to help restore degraded land is reforestation, including tree regeneration. This includes agroforestry – a natural resource management system where trees are grown on the same land used for agriculture. Agroforestry has the potential to address a range of important environmental, economic, and social issues, such as conserving nature whilst also responding to the ever-growing demand for food. According to the newly published UNEP report on Ecosystem Restoration, restoring degraded land through agroforestry alone can increase food security for 1.3 billion people. Further, tree plantations in agroforestry systems are habitats for species and provide a buffer zone against deforestation that allows for species migration. 

Tackling desertification, climate change, and biodiversity loss together 

Efforts to restore degraded land through reforestation and agroforestry systems highlight the interlinkages between desertification, climate change, and biodiversity loss. There are crucial areas of overlap between the UNCCD and the other two Rio Conventions, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

UNEP-WCMC Programme Officer Abisha Mapendembe addressed this topic whilst supporting sustainable development in Namibia through the synergistic implementation of the three Rio Conventions. He remarks that: 

“At this critical juncture for the global crisis of biodiversity loss, climate change, desertification and inequality - all covered under the three Rio conventions adopted in 1992- there isn’t time to address these pressing problems sequentially. We need to address these critical challenges simultaneously, seeking synergies and integrated solutions. The Sustainable Development Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals provide a ready-made set of goals and targets that reflect key development and environmental challenges, and how to address them in a coordinated manner for the benefit of people and the planet. This, however, requires joined-up government thinking and policy development and implementation.” 

One example of the efforts to address the links between these conventions is the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative. REDD+ actions tackle climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing sequestration, and also reduce forest degradation as well as support the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. 

For example, in Côte d'Ivoire, cocoa production is both the main driver of deforestation, and thus land degradation, and also supports the livelihoods of many smallholder farmers. Spatial analysis work led by UNEP-WCMC to map restoration opportunities across the country has the potential to identify places where agroforestry actions could be implemented to support more resilient agricultural ecosystems, improve food security as well mitigating climate change. This work contributes to UN-REDD Programme implementation and to the CocoaSoils collaboration. 

Saving fertile lands before 2030 

During the UNCCD COP13 in 2017, countries committed to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality by 2030, goal comprehensively addressed in the UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework. This will be supported by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which in the next 10 years will also aim to facilitate synergies between all three Rio Conventions.

With 23 % of global land area no longer productive, and 75 % of land transformed from its natural state, our planet’s ecosystems urgently require restoration. Let us mark this year’s Desertification and Drought Day as the start of an impactful decade, where we restore the over 2 billion hectares of degraded land and improve the livelihoods of more than 1.3 billion people around the world. This will require that available knowledge and tools to support sustainable land management are translated into actions at national and local scales by governments and civil society. 

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

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