Feature Story

​How to slow migration and save the climate

July 31, 2017

Farmer planting plants in drought-stricken field.
Restoring degraded land increases security and gives hope to vulnerable communities. Photo: Shutterstock.com

By Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary, UN Convention to Combat Desertification, 2007-2013

Halting land degradation and restoring soil is a vital part of preserving the Earth’s global commons – the world simply cannot afford to continue to lose 24 billion tons of precious fertile topsoil a year – but it’s also an urgent matter of security.

More than three quarters of the world’s conflicts already take place in its drylands, and about half of all those in fragile regions and economies stem from battles for resources resulting from environmental degradation. The war in Syria followed six consecutive years of drought, and the extremism and violence of groups like Boko Haram are rooted in the loss of productive land. And the crisis is getting worse: since 1970 the area affected by drought worldwide has doubled.

Over the last two years, fewer than 2 million migrants seeking to get into Europe have changed the politics of the continent. But by 2030, as the climate changes and more land is lost, 60-130 million people are expected to want to migrate there.

Migration is often driven by lack of hope of a reasonable future at home. Restoring land can restore hope. It increases food production and incomes, reduces conflicts because there are more resources to go round, and combats climate change by sequestering carbon. It is central to implementing the universally agreed sustainable development goals and to enabling countries to fulfil their pledges under the Paris climate agreement.

It is becoming increasingly clear that transformational change is necessary. For example, a high level roundtable of representatives of both the executive and legislative arms of government, business, finance, thinktanks, NGOs and the media from both north and south, which I chaired at the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security earlier this month, called on leaders and stakeholders at all levels to “address the urgent need for systems change rather than incremental improvement”.

It also agreed that “this transformation should target reshaping the context of investment in agriculture, not least in providing incentives for farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere by restoring and afforesting land”.

Most of the world’s knowledge on how to manage land is stored in local communities. This is also where conflicts – such as the constant ones between settled farmers and nomadic pastoralists – tend to be triggered, and can be prevented or resolved. It is here too that partnerships for change can most easily be forged.

Much can be done with simple well-known, labour intensive techniques. Pruning offshoots from the still-living roots of trees felled long ago to a single stem, and keeping away goats that would otherwise eat it, for example, has regenerated forests in Niger and Ethiopia. Such farmer-managed natural regeneration has resulted in spectacular increases in harvests and incomes, the capturing of vast amounts of carbon, and the reduction or ending of conflicts, while building communities’ resilience to drought.

By the same token, the roundtable – held under the aegis of the secretariat of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – had little time for the top-down capacity building, so beloved by many international organisations which often involves officials far from the grassroots.

Instead it called for greater emphasis on “strengthening the capacity of those working on the ground and those directly affected by land degradation”. Bridges also need to be built between local people and policymakers. Women are critical agents of change, and make up the majority of farmers in many developing countries. They need to see an end to the gender inequalities that hinder their engagement. Young people can also be crucial changemakers and they particularly need the jobs that land restoration can provide.

Communities and governments alike will become more resilient to drought if they are better prepared for it. Early warning systems are essential, as is better assessment of vulnerabilities to drought, and of its impacts.

There are enormous investment opportunities in restoring land, but governments, businesses and financial institutions are failing to realise them. Incentives provided for activities that, often unwittingly, destroy land are at least an order of magnitude greater than those given for preserving, let alone restoring it. Public finance is needed to encourage entrepreneurship and the development of new technologies, but more especially to reward the services small farmers who nourish their soils make to the global commons through conserving biodiversity, combating climate change, enhancing food security and water supplies, and increasing security.

There also, of course, needs to be more private investment. Introducing special restoration bonds – modelled on the very successful green bonds, issued to provide a return to investors while furthering environmental sustainability and creating jobs and other social benefits – could play an important part. So could public-private partnerships, but these must involve local people, and local as well as central government. Above all, investors will need to be ready to receive returns not in the short, but in the medium to long-term.

The truth is that restoring the world’s over 2bn hectares of degraded land – starting with achieving land degradation neutrality by 2030, the landmark tipping point set in the SDGs for moving humanity into the restoration age – is an immense opportunity. Communicating that, as well as the challenges it presents, is a precondition of success. We owe it to present and future generations to undertake it speedily, and at scale.