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Can land degradation neutrality be achieved by middle of this century or have we run out of time?

The core agenda at this year's UNCCD explores ways to reverse land degradation and its outcomes while accelerating positive achievements for people and for ecosystems with a view to delivering on SDGs.

Written by Abhimanyu Chakravorty | Greater Noida |
Updated: September 7, 2019 9:57:15 am
Panellists at the COP14 to UNCCD forum. (Source: Abhimanyu Chakravorty)

What is the impact of degraded land on biodiversity, gender, climate change, migration, food security, and sustainable development? And can land degradation neutrality (LDN) be achieved by the middle of this century?

While there’s no silver bullet to these questions, policymakers, scholars, and scientists Thursday discussed and offered solutions to mitigate the adverse consequences of land degradation at the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) being hosted in India.

The forum comes at a critical juncture when extreme weather events across the globe are pushing millions of people into the clutches of poverty, starvation, and forcing them to migrate across continents in the search for a better livelihood. Food security has been severely compromised the world over making millions more vulnerable and further marginalised as droughts and floods have become commonplace.

And how people utilise land is, perhaps, that cog in the wheel that needs immediate attention.

Despite these obvious challenges, significant improvements in land and water management and by changing agricultural practices and diets, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and these best practices can cushion the adverse impacts of climate change.

The definition of LDN as per the UNCCD says that it’s a “state whereby the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services enhance food security remain stable or increase within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems”.

Explained in simpler terms, land degradation means either a temporary or a permanent reduction or loss in the productive capacity of land biologically and economically. And to reverse these adverse conditions or achieve stability in land use is what is called Land Degradation Neutrality.

As per the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, land degradation neutrality (LDN) (SDG 15.3) was outlined as a target to achieve by nations. The core agenda at this year’s UNCCD explores ways to reverse land degradation and its outcomes while accelerating positive achievements for people and for ecosystems with a view to delivering on SDGs.

“LDN should be incorporated as a national target for countries to achieve,” declared Jean-Marc Sinnassamy, Senior Environment Specialist, Programs Unit at the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Sinnassamy argued that LDN is a different acronym and not widely used, which could be a hindrance towards its universal adoption by the middle of this century. “Can we simplify the meaning of LDN? We could also use landscape restoration but it shouldn’t be reduced to the mere physicality of it and should take into account the development of communities and ecology at the same time,” he said.

Lack of awareness of consumption choices is problematic

Overconsumption in developed economies coupled with rising consumption in developing economies is one of the prime reasons driving land degradation. So, the issue of consumption in urban areas featured prominently during the deliberations today, with experts calling for a balance between consumption in urban and rural areas.

Experts and participants at the forum also concurred that we all need to address the elephant in the room: consumption choices. Decidedly, one of the questions raised at the convention was this: “Is there a way to understand the implication of our consumption?”

The latest IPCC report on climate change also warned of a portentous future unless human beings drastically alter food production and consumption to prevent the debilitating effects of climate change.

To achieve land degradation neutrality, experts argued, an enabling atmosphere needs to be created that goes beyond individual sustainable land management (SLM) practices, one that requires positive interventions by diverse stakeholders including farmers, government institutions, corporates and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Localisation of language to reach out to farmers

One of the interventions required is to first identify priority areas that require LDN and use local language to reach out to farmers from that catchment area, said Professor Marijana Kapovic Solomun from the University of Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Language has to be adapted to reach more people and should take into account local sensitivity. Without localisation of language, they (farmers) will still be stakeholders but not active. An average person who depends on agriculture in rural areas don’t have the Internet and can’t read other languages, so we have to reach out to them,” she said.

LDN can be achieved through gender mainstreaming 

Panellists at the Gender Mainstreaming in Land Degradation Neutrality forum at UNCCD. (Source: UNDP India)

One of the biggest barriers to achieving land degradation neutrality target is the absence of gender equality in the context of land use and economic opportunities. Without normalising gender mainstreaming into land related issues, we aren’t going to achieve LDN targets any faster.

It’s widely known that the crushing blow of land degradation is felt most by poor and vulnerable populations, but it’s disproportionately more debilitating for women, unfortunately. “Women are very important stakeholders but there’s unequal access to land for women. Equal access to natural resources will increase their participation and encourage them,” said Mr. Af Hällström, Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of Finland in India.

Hällström called for measures to encourage gender-responsive policies and enforce legal protections for women and other vulnerable groups to realise the full potential of the LDN approach.

In India, for instance, women, especially in rural areas, tend to be excluded from availing institutional credit, lack access to information and resources, and face hurdles to actively participate in decision making, planning and process of policymaking. Mostly, they remain passive recipients of piecemeal information on land use. They also lack legal rights to land as a result of entrenched customary systems in many societies.

Nishtha Satyam, Deputy Representative, UN Women India MCO at UNCCD held at Greater Noida. (Source: UNDP India)

Nishtha Satyam, Deputy Representative, UN Women India MCO, understands that this is a big impediment to addressing land degradation. “Unequal power relations and gender-based discrimination in legal and customary systems in many societies even deny women user rights to plant, control soil degradation and enhance soil fertility. Gender-responsive LDN transformative projects and programmes strategically contribute to the achievement of land degradation neutrality, which is important also for climate mitigation,” she said.

Land degradation affects men and women differently, especially when arable land is scarce. So Juan Carlos Mendoza urged policymakers to frame policies that are gender-informed and inclusive.

“We need to frame policies in a manner that is gender-informed because it’s important to understand the equity and the impact perspective. There’s a strong demand to understand policy implementation on women and address the knowledge gap,” said Mendonza, Manager of the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD.

Whether all these challenges and opportunities will be absorbed by various stakeholders is what remains to be seen, and that’s what will determine the time taken to adopt LDN targets.

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