"Born from the land" - now it's time to give something back

Worker carrying hay deep in the Maowusu Desert, China where biological barriers are being built to create grid patterns that stabilize sand dunes. (Credit: Keystone)

As per the lyrics by world renowned Senegalese singer, Baaba Maal, we are “Born from the land”. Now it’s time to give back - in order to ensure that our terrestial ecosystems can continue to support human life as we know it.

That was the key message of Wednesday’s first-ever online global observance of the annual Desertification and Drought Day (July 17) which featured a full-day programme broadcast via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Why is land important? Land-based resources provide our main source of foods, clean water, fresh air and income-generating activities. Today, 77% of the world’s land areas have been transformed by human activity. Population growth, alongside unsustainable production and consumption patterns, have led to land degradation that accelerates climate change, endangers future generations and negatively impacts some 6.2 billion people already today. Nearly 25 years ago, emerging awareness of such trends led to the 1996 UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The convention, which 197 countries and territories have signed, introduced the concept of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN), asking states to set voluntary national targets for sustainability. But most have have fallen short of the mark.

Food. Feed. Fibre

Maal’s signature song set the tone for the day’s events, focused around the themes of sustainable production and consumption for three of life’s most essentials: “Food. Feed. Fibre”. Comparing our present-day treatment of land to that of a badly depleted bank asset, Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) said this:

“We have overexploited our land. We have taken it for granted as if the resources were limitless (…) We have used up our capital instead of the income generated [by it] every year. It’s important we live under the limits of our budget.”

Lifestyles need to change, he said, to meet the demands of ten billion people by 2050. Increased awareness, particularly among youths, is critical to support more rational production and consumption, ensuring the sustainability of earth’s human habitats.

Consequences of land degradation

  • Migration: people move from degraded areas, which have lost their food, feed and fibre producing potential to neighboring regions or cities - leading to new social, political and economic tensions.

  • Security: people fight for access to land and water especially in areas where resources are scares. Thiaw:

“But people also fight where the land is rich. Governance is certainly one of the issues we should be looking at.”

  • Climate change: Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:

“Human activities have destroyed our treasured forests and jungles, which absorb mass amounts of greenhouse gasses. Moreover, the destruction of natural habitats increases contact between wild animals and humans raising the likelihood of [human transmission of] animal-borne infectious diseases [such as Covid-19]. The degradation and desertification of land has a direct impact on humanity. It is an issue on climate, health and our imminent survival.”

  • The production of food, feed, and fibre contribute to a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Much of that production is also far in excess of what is really needed, says Thiaw. Food, for instance:

“We waste over one third of the food we produce without eating it. [Food produced by some] 1.4 billion hectares of land is wasted every year - thereby emitting unnecessary carbon to the atmosphere. We are destabilizing the planet by producing and wasting.”

Worrying projections.

  • By 2050, the land transformed by human activity could hit 90%;

  • By 2030, food production will require an additional 300 million hectares of land. Today, the grains we produce to feed livestock take up 80% of land-based agriculture.

Solutions: Land reclamation through afforestation, biodiversity resstoration and more sustainable agriculture can help halt and reverse current patterns, speakers said at the event, hosted by the Korea Forest Service (KFS). Thiaw said 80 countries had pledged to restore 400 million hectares of land by 2030.

Waste not want not: Just as the voice of each citizen who votes can be counted, every consumer can reduce his or her impact through the choices made. Thiaw:

“In most cases, how much food we waste is entirely our choice (…). If you decide to buy new clothes, wear them once and throw them away, you are making a statement. When you buy food in bulk, using only part of it and throw the rest away, you are making a statement. When you cook food and throw it away whilst 800 million people are still living in hunger, you are making a statement.”

A new social contract. By choosing to restore the land and work in harmony with nature, degradation could be curved, emissions could be reduced, biodiversity loss reversed and new job opportunities created. Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General:

“I call for a new social contract for nature through international action and solidarity. We can scale up land restoration and nature-based solutions for climate action and the benefit of future generations. By doing so we can deliver the Sustainable Development Goals.”