Up to 1.3 billion people are now living on degraded land, at risk of food and water shortages and worsening poverty, according to a new report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
The Global Land Outlook, from the only legally binding international agreement on land issues, reports that one-third of the world’s land is now degraded, with another 15 billion trees and 24 billion tons of productive soil lost every year.
Forest loss, climate change, erosion, urbanization and, especially, intensive agriculture, all contribute to continued degradation of valuable land. Scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are conducting research into these and other aspects of land degradation, including ways to reverse it.
Forests News asked three experts – working in the fields of sustainable landscapes and food, climate and energy, and forest management and restoration – for their responses to the UNCCD report, and to share what their research recommends can be done to secure a more sustainable future.
Sunita, a woman in Nalma village, Nepal, prepares food for her family. Land degradation negatively impacts food security and nutrition, particularly for those who live directly off the land. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi
As the UNCCD report shows, evidence suggests that the current food system falls short of achieving its stated aim, that of global food security. A primary focus on generating more calories, rather than diverse and nutritious diets, has resulted in the ‘double burden of malnutrition’ – that is, the simultaneous problems of over- and under-nutrition in different sections of the population, particularly in developing countries.
Each day, the world is faced with the dichotomy of ‘feast or famine’. More than one billion people on the planet receive too many calories and are classified as obese, while almost a million people are chronically under-nourished. In the words of the Global Nutrition Report, our food system is “broken”.
Evidence suggests that the current food system falls short of achieving its stated aim, that of global food security
The assumed dilemma of prioritizing either the environment or agriculture is also problematic. While the focus has been on generating higher and higher yields and expanding yet further into forests and other lands, agricultural production has increasingly become synonymous with land degradation. Yet it is now known that the ecosystem services provided by forests and trees play an integral role in supporting food production and can, in fact, improve yields.
Diverse cropping systems, as practiced by the majority of the world’s smallholder farmers, who are estimated to contribute up to 70 percent of global food stocks, are more resilient to both economic and environmental shocks. This is especially important given an ever-changing climate, and market uncertainties.
A systems approach to future agriculture, moving away from the production of calories alone to diverse and nutritionally sensitive production systems, has been recognized by many political and institutional entities as the only means of achieving global food security and maintaining environmental sustainability.
We at CIFOR echo the call for multi-functional landscape approaches. Moving beyond sectors provides probably the greatest opportunity to address the issues that affect an unsustainable global food system, that results in both environmental degradation and a failure to achieve global food and nutritional security. The multiple use of existing land is probably the only means forward for ensuring the sustainable production of food and environmental sustainability.
The multiple use of existing land is probably the only means forward
In this regard, landscape approaches provide the greatest potential to achieve these goals. Such approaches are arguably already being practiced by millions of farmers in rural areas that are comprised of complex mosaics of differing land uses across the same landscape. Implementing this approach more broadly will entail breaking down institutional and disciplinary siloes to embrace a more integrated approach.
Such integration can be daunting given the need to bring together competing interests over land use and severely imbalanced power relations. Bringing together a broad suite of stakeholders to agree on a shared vision, within a policy framework that would mean a broader focus than forestry or agriculture alone, with the institutional support for this to take place, entails extremely effective facilitation and coordination.
To that end, although landscape approaches are a welcome departure from previous unsuccessful attempts at reconciling multiple land uses in the tropics, they remain somewhat nascent in their implementation. Shifting from concept to practice seems to be particularly challenging, but a challenge that is essential to address if we are to achieve the goals of sustainable land use and global food security.
It is important to reflect on the land, energy and climate nexus. But there is a dilemma involved here: for some, land is important for climate solutions, while for land owners and users, it is important for livelihoods, income and economic gains. Solutions will always need to involve land owners, farmers, residents and indigenous peoples.
The challenge is to find win-win solutions, or negotiated solutions involving acceptable trade-offs. The UNCCD report rightly points out the unavoidable conflicts of energy-related policymaking, and the same is true in the case of using land for climate mitigation objectives.
We have to understand why land is being degraded, why soil carbon is being lost
Historically, land use implies losses of biomass, biodiversity, productive capacity and the ability to sequester and store carbon over a long period. There are no easy, quick-fix technical solutions, and current efforts at land restoration or restoring soil carbon sometimes seem to happen under this fallacy. We have to understand why land is being degraded, why soil carbon is being lost.
Technical solutions are as yet unproven and costly — examples that spring to mind include bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which is dealt with rather uncritically in the report, and the widespread use of biochar that is now promoted, probably excessively so, as a silver bullet in UNCCD circles (e.g. in Figure 10.2). Solutions like these are often promoted without much understanding of underlying complexities, ecosystem differences and variability. If we want to mimic nature’s processes we need to figure out how, which will take a long time, as most ecosystem processes around degradation and restoration, particularly in drylands, are still not fully understood. This will also be very costly, as global restoration initiatives show.
The land sector seems to carry too heavy a burden with regard to the achievement of the Paris Agreement objective of keeping global warming below 2 or even 1.5 degrees. The fossil fuel sector needs to be addressed, and its true environmental costs (around USD 5.3 trillion), which are around ten times higher than the direct subsidies (around USD 493 billion) that many countries, such as Indonesia, use to make fuel prices affordable for the poor, need to be made more transparent.
By moving from fossil fuels to biofuels, we will need to dedicate more land to the production of the energy we need
In this regard, biofuels are part of the solution, but they will not be able to cover all energy needs. Biofuels from trees don’t receive sufficient attention in the report. We know from other research that biofuels alone never can cover global energy needs. There is not sufficient land for this. In any case, we have to be aware that by moving from fossil fuels to biofuels, we will need to dedicate more land to the production of the energy we need. The figures presented in the report in this regard are sobering.
There is a rare mistake in that the UNCCD report seemingly attributes all soils under boreal forests to peatlands (“the peat under boreal forests is the main reason this ecosystem type stores so much carbon” – p.219). This is mistaken of course, as soils under boreal forests are just boreal forests soils, and only part of them are peat. Not enough attention is paid in the report to dryland forests (Miombo, the Chaco) and their possible role as carbon sequestering ecosystems, where up to 70 percent of the carbon is stored in root biomass, below-ground. These systems are underexplored and threatened by fires, overgrazing, and other human interventions.
The report rightly points out in its conclusions that solutions sound simple but are often, rather, not so simple, requiring deeper understanding of the underlying processes, the limits of the Earth system, and a deeper, more transparent, negotiation process. Such processes are rarely implemented, but there is progress. This will need to involve all stakeholders equitably, which also requires providing clear knowledge and understanding to all participants of the issues at stake, so that everybody can make free decisions based on sufficient information.
A cleared, and newly replanted forest landscape in Latin America. Forest landscape restoration is emerging as a possible solution for reviving degraded land and the ecosystem services it once provided. CIFOR Photo/Amy Duchelle
Major global calls and initiatives to reduce the rapid loss and degradation of natural habitat through restorative practices have entered into a new era of implementation with unprecedented mobilization of financial resources and political will. At the UNCCD conference last month in Ordos, China, the “land degradation neutrality” framework was discussed as the centerpiece of the new Global Land Outlook.
The report outlines key actions and recommendations that cut across climate, water, food, urban needs and sustainable management of natural resources to achieve land degradation neutrality which is a moving target due to the constant interplay of competing land-based sectors and external actors.
For effective upscaling of FLR efforts at the country level, national restoration plans need to go beyond tree planting
Forest landscape restoration (FLR) may help to reconcile these tensions. Although there is no operational definition of what FLR is, it aims for both environmental integrity and sustainable production of goods and services through the repair of damaged or otherwise unproductive land as well as maintaining expanses of natural habitat for biodiversity conservation.
Two recent CIFOR analyses have concluded that for effective upscaling of FLR efforts at the country level, national restoration plans need to go beyond tree planting. At a minimum, they need to be inclusive in the political, social and economic spheres, ensure they transcend government administrations, and apply sound prioritization for implementing different restorative options while considering participatory monitoring tools and approaches. Expanding forest cover is easily measured from space but learning about what works and what does not—and why—can only be assessed and reflected upon on the ground.
This research was supported by the International Climate Initiative (IKI), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), UKAID and the United States Agency for International Development.
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CIFOR advances human well-being, equity and environmental integrity by conducting innovative research, developing partners’ capacity, and actively engaging in dialogue with all stakeholders to inform policies and practices that affect forests and people. CIFOR is a CGIAR Research Center, and leads the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). Our headquarters are in Bogor, Indonesia, with offices in Nairobi, Kenya, Yaounde, Cameroon, and Lima, Peru.