Image credit: IISD.CA - Photo: 2013

Land and Forest Should Ride A Tandem

By Luc Gnacadja* | IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

There is widespread agreement that sustainable forest management on a global scale is not achievable without halting land degradation. But this view is not shared by the rationale and focus of the tools and mechanisms designed during the past decade to promote and incentivize sustainable forest management.

As if to prove the point, the global coalition of the willing has been putting its money and effort into saying “Yes we can achieve sustainable forest management on a global scale without halting land degradation.”

“What if we change this state of affairs?” asks UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja. “Can the economy and the business community benefit from such a change?” he adds and elaborates “on the nexus of land degradation and sustainable forest management” and highlights the specific case of drylands.

BONN (IDN) – Land degradation and sustainable forest management: where, why and how do we get it so wrong?

We know, with clear and consistent evidence, that the expansion of agricultural land is the major driver of the depletion of primary tropical and sub-tropical forests.

70 to 80 % of expansion of cropland leads to deforestation. That expansion is driven by poorly-designed agricultural practice, changes in consumption patterns and population dynamics.

From 1980 to 2000, 80% of the additional 100 million ha of agricultural land in tropical regions came from the clearing of primary and secondary forests.

It should be noted that high degradation trends are occurring in 25% of our agricultural land. Overall, more than two thirds of our agricultural land suffers from moderate to high rates of degradation. This compares to only 10% of land where the status is improving, according to the “Status and trends in global land degradation” released by FAO in 2011.

Therefore, and given that state of degradation, we are likely to continue pushing the frontier of agricultural land into the forests. To meet the projected increase in demand for food by 50%, energy by 45% and water by 30% by 2030 an expansion of some 200 million ha of agricultural land will be required.

Degrade – Abandon – Migrate to claim more forest land. We have been perpetuating the depletion of our forests over decades, sometimes even centuries, in our quest for social and economic development. This must change if we want to preserve our forests and sustainably manage them.

As Paulo Adario from Greenpeace warned, if we do not change the way we do agriculture, even those involved in certified commercial logging might one day be out of business.

What is the alternative? It is mainly about endeavouring to: 1. Avoid soil erosion (we are losing 20 billion tons of fertile soil every year from cropland erosion alone which equivalent 3 tons per capita); 2. Fill the yield gap in production on agricultural land; and 3. Control expansion by restoring already degraded land that still holds potential for restoration or rehabilitation.

Good news

The good news is that to achieve this, the sustainable management of forests and trees has a key role to play.

That is why schemes and mechanisms such as REDD+, designed to avoid deforestation, should also incentivize that alternative approach.

Today, more than 2 billion hectares of land worldwide are suitable for rehabilitation through forest and landscape restoration. Out of this, 75 percent is best suited for mosaic restoration, where forests and trees can be combined with other land uses, including agroforestry.

What about the specific case of drylands?

Agroforestry is essential in addressing the dryland’s conundrum – feeding more people, more animals and more trees while the land is becoming thirstier due to global warming causing increased aridity, escalating drought and acceleration of desertification processes.

When land degradation occurs in arid semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas – generically known as drylands – it goes by the name “desertification” because it is a process of transformation that turns productive land into desert like conditions. Globally six million km2 of drylands carry a legacy of desertification.

Drylands are about one third of the planet’s landmass, home to 38% of the world’s population, 44% of its food production systems and 50% of its livestock.

Population dynamics here are impressive.

The majority of the projected 2 billion additional people on planet earth will be born in the countries of the developing world, with large proportion to be born in the dry areas. In fact, with an average of more than 3% of growth per year, the population of the Sahel will double in the next two decades, increasing pressure on the natural resources (water and productive land) that all societies heavily depend on. Here, achieving food, water and energy security for all will to a large extend depend on how sustainably the forests are managed.

42 per cent of the earth’s tropical and subtropical forest is dry forest. Despite being more extensive than rainforests, public awareness of tropical dry habitats is low and they receive little attention from conservation efforts. At the same time, very little financial investment is allocated for forests in the arid zones compared to other forest ecosystems.

Although suffering from greater degradation than wet forests and being directly impacted by global warming, dry forests have the potential to recover to a mature state more quickly than wet forests, and they may, therefore, be considered more resilient. Managing dryland forests in a sustainable way is key to our global food security in addition to being essential for improving living conditions and building the resilience of people and ecosystems already heavily affected by climate change.

Dry forests are currently neglected under REDD+ initiatives. But they offer a particularly promising opportunity for REDD+ co-benefits.

Scaling up attention to dryland forests

What is needed to scale up attention to dryland forests, given their importance for global sustainability, is innovation, including in our business model. We must design new business models to effectively attract investments, including private ones, in agroforestry and in dry forests. The land rush, which followed the 2008 food crisis, led to massive acquisitions of land by private investors mainly in dryland countries in the developing world. Those long-term investments might be jeopardized if they are not protected with investments in dry forests.

For instance, we need to innovate under REDD+ by developing an effective Policy Framework for dry forests.

It is not all doom and gloom.  In many places in the world, drylands are thriving. I have seen success stories as a result of innovation – policy innovation, private sector investments and grassroots level leadership.

In that regard, good news is even coming from areas of the Sahel in crisis.

For instance, in Niger farmers have adapted and improved traditional woodland management techniques to their farm land, returning degraded croplands and grazing lands to productivity and restoring degraded forests. Over the past two decades 5 million ha, nation-wide, have been brought back to life (attested to by comparative satellite images), feeding more people, more animals and more trees. This is agroforestry and ecological restoration at work. It has been labelled “farmer-managed natural regeneration”.

By preserving naturally regenerated trees, farmers are recarbonizing their farm land with indigenous species such as Fadherbia Albida. These trees also fix the soil and help sequester nitrogen, improve crop yields (for example of corn from 1 ton/ha to 4-5 tonnes), increase food security and are contributing to sustainable intensification while building adaptation and resilience to climate change.


Promoting sustainable forest management should also be about incentivizing schemes like this. I would argue those farmers are actually rehabilitating former dryland forest that had been transformed into man-made desert by other more invasive techniques.

The international community needs to address the root causes of the multifold crises in the Sahel. These are often natural resource-based crises, compounded by other factors. The time is ripe to develop a major initiative to upscale agroforestry schemes, for instance in the context of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. This could involve the re-greening of 50 million ha of farm land in the Sahel.

Such an initiative could well fit within the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative

This is a mega initiative that is still to deliver on its promise. It aims to coordinate efforts in sustainably managing ecosystems across a 5,000 km long belt from Senegal in the west of the continent to Djibouti in the east through sustainable landscape management and restoration/rehabilitation efforts.

The initiative has, as an overall objective, “to improve the resilience of human and natural systems in the Sahel-Saharan zone to climate change through a sound ecosystems’ management, sustainable development of land resources, protection of rural heritage and improvement of the living conditions and livelihoods of populations living in these areas”.

In supporting the initiative from its inception we have endeavoured to support and integrate an entire landscape approach: we cannot achieve sustainable forest management at global scale if we fail to halt land degradation.

The solution: addressing land degradation and poverty at the same time, especially in the developing world. The policy template of the UNCCD – The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification – is to build effective partnerships among all stakeholders in order to improve the livelihood of the populations and the conditions of their ecosystems affected by land degradation. That is how we can generate global benefits across landscapes.

Time for change

So what if we change the state of affairs about achieving sustainable forest management? Who will drive it? And how do we make the transition? Change is urgently needed.

We must boldly go back to the drawing board and innovate and, this time, get things right. We can’t afford to miss the small window of opportunity leading up to 2015. By then, we are set to design a new post 2015 global development framework learning from the successes and shortcomings of the MDGs; to agree on sustainable development goals which will drive the preservation of natural capital and ecosystem functions we all depend on and to reach a comprehensive global climate change agreement. In all those three areas, we need to reflect and translate the imperative of ecological restoration through landscape approaches.

The only way to achieve food, water and energy security for a growing population and to maintain our forests is to ensure sustainable land use for all and by all.

Thankfully, last summer during the Rio+20 Conference, governments recognized “the need for urgent action to reverse land degradation” and committed to “strive to achieve a land-degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development”.

This is an aspirational goal and a provision that must now be translated into an operational goal and deliverable targets. I believe that zero net land degradation and zero net forest degradation are two sides of the same coin: sustainable land use for all and by all.

*Luc Gnacadja is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). This article contains excerpts from his keynote speech at the World Forests Summit, organized by The Economist on March 6 in Stockholm, Sweden. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 20, 2013]

Image credit: IISD.CA

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Send your comment | Subscribe to IDN newsletter

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook:

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top