Investing in soils can put countries on a path to land degradation neutrality

UNCCD’s 30th anniversary marks time to renew fight against degradation and desertification
An agricultural landscape in Bawku West, Ghana, where the Regreening Africa programme is working to restore degraded land. Photo by Nathaniel Abadji/World Vision Ghana

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Since the time I began studying soils 25 years ago, we have seen some amazing progress – as well as a collective realization that much more needs to be done to address land degradation and desertification.

Soil is the skin of the Earth. It is now imperative that we raise the public consciousness about soil and make sure its health is on the international agenda.

On 17 June, we observe Desertification and Drought Day to draw awareness to the rapid transformation of land use that has left over 30 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface degraded due to unsustainable agriculture and land management practices, deforestation and urban expansion, all of which are exacerbated by climate change.

This year’s occasion also marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was established in 1994 to protect and restore land while ensuring a safer, just, and more sustainable future.

Despite this legally binding framework – involving 196 countries and the European Union – land degradation is accelerating in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, impacting about 2 billion hectares of land (a quarter of the global land area) and 3.2 billion people.

Desertification affects at least 170 countries that have signed up to the Convention, as humans have transformed more than 70 percent of the Earth’s land area from its natural state.

Steps forward

In its efforts to reverse this alarming trend, the UNCCD has delivered some important achievements in its history, particularly during the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification from 2010 to 2020.

In this period, the UNCCD raised global awareness about desertification significantly; expanded its knowledge and science base; and prompted many governments to adopt policies that create incentives for land users to avoid, reduce, or reverse degradation.

The Convention has also promoted the concept of land degradation neutrality (LDN), which calls for a hierarchy of measures: avoidance, minimization and offsetting – in that order. The goal is to ensure that any new degradation is compensated for by restoration and rehabilitation of other areas that are already degraded.

A formal definition of LDN was made in 2015, and the UN General Assembly adopted the concept as Target 15.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the same year. A Scientific Conceptual Framework for LDN was endorsed by UNCCD Member States in September 2017, and more than 110 countries began implementing LDN.

As of today, 78 countries have reported 484 targets to achieve LDN by 2030, highlighting the need for robust monitoring and reporting on these indicators – of which soil organic carbon is one.

The UNCCD has also released a 2018–2030 Strategic Framework, which is the most comprehensive global commitment to achieve LDN. It aims to restore the productivity of vast swathes of degraded land, thus improving people’s livelihoods and reducing the impact of drought on vulnerable populations

The most recognized symbol of these efforts is the Great Green Wall, which aims to restore Africa’s degraded landscapes and transform millions of lives in the Sahel region. Launched by the African Union in 2007, the largest living structure on the planet will stretch 8,000 kilometres across the continent, helping restore 100 million hectares of currently degraded land and creating 10 million green jobs by 2030.

The UNCCD’s Growing a World Wonder campaign has been raising awareness about the Great Green Wall and has already reached millions of people through media outreach, events, and civil society involvement.

Healthy soils

One important way to achieve land degradation neutrality is to prevent soil erosion, which is the most widespread form of land degradation. Healthy soil is the foundation for functioning ecosystems, including sustainable agricultural landscapes, rangelands, wetlands, peatlands and forests. So, healthy soil is fundamental if we are to achieve land-based ecosystem restoration, as well as the SDGs.

The Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) delivers robust and actionable research on soil and land health, with a focus on soil’s ability to sequester carbon; store and regulate water and nutrients; and provide multiple ecosystem services.

Its state-of-the-art soil spectroscopy lab and global database of ecosystem health indicators using the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) are among the world’s best tools for large-scale and accurate soil analytics. By conducting multi-scale assessments of land and soil health across landscapes, CIFOR-ICRAF can provide analysis at the farm, landscape, and global levels. This dataset can be used to help countries monitor their LDN targets, restoration targets and even their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) when soil health is included.

CIFOR-ICRAF also runs the Living Soils Laboratory, which focuses on the living component of soil. It aims to study how these soil biota – comprising organisms such as earthworms, termites, fungi, and bacteria – restore and sustain ecological functions through farm management and agroforestry interventions.

Coalition of Action

During the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, it became clear to delegates that a focus on soil health was necessary to help transform global food systems. At the same event, the Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health (CA4SH) was launched to improve soil health globally by addressing critical implementation, monitoring, policy and investment barriers that constrain farmers from adopting and scaling healthy soil practices.

Co-led by CIFOR-ICRAF and anchored in the UNCCD, the Coalition aims to integrate soil health considerations in policy; expand research in development; increase the number of hectares of land under improved practices for soil health; and boost investments in soil health as much as tenfold above current financing commitments.

At the UNCCD 16th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP16) in Saudi Arabia in December, CIFOR-ICRAF hopes to see a soil health resolution to bring member states, the private sector, and civil society together to commit to reversing land degradation and scaling soil health. This should be announced on World Soil Day on 5 December 2024.

When I received my doctorate in 2008 for a dissertation on soil biogeochemical patterns in the Talamanca foothills of Costa Rica – the first country to create a commission for the implementation of the UNCCD – the Parties to the Convention were only just embarking on their 10-year strategy to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification and land degradation.

With today’s knowledge base, scientific tools, and global awareness of soil health, countries are now better placed to deliver on national pledges and achieve their LDN targets by the end of the decade. With renewed impetus from member states, the UNCCD can finally fulfil the mandate it assumed 30 years ago.

Leigh Ann Winowiecki is global research leader for soil and land health at CIFOR-ICRAF and is co-lead at the Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health (CA4SH).

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