Photo: UNCCD Executive Secretary Monique Barbut - Photo: 2016

Land Degradation Aggravating Migration, Warns UNCCD Chief

Interview by Ramesh Jaura with UNCCD Executive Secretary Monique Barbut

NEW YORK | BONN (IDN) – “Migration associated with natural resource depletion and climate change is much wider in scale than previously appreciated,” Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), has warned in an interview.

“Close to 100% of the irregular migrants crossing from the Mediterranean into Europe are from arid regions,” she told IDN, adding: “Climate change will exacerbate land degradation in many regions, with both direct and indirect effects on rural household incomes, increased risks of crop losses and fluctuating commodity market prices. Under these conditions, we can expect an increase in the flow of migrants from drought-prone and degraded areas,” she cautioned.

But it is also an unprecedented opportunity to take proactive policy measures to stem migration by creating jobs that increase incomes, strengthen the resilience of households and restore degraded areas. “We can turn the situation around,” she stated.

More than 169 countries under the UNCCD have declared they are affected by land degradation. Globally, there are nearly 500 million hectares of abandoned agricultural land that could be brought back into production, Barbut said in an email interview.

The way out of an “international crisis” that land degradation currently signifies is to provide support to the countries affected by desertification in order to help them create employment.

This would enable the most vulnerable populations become part of the restoration of the abandoned and degraded lands in their local areas, stem migration and improve local resilience.

“The economic benefits alone – if we compare the international costs of restoring land against those of dealing with forced migration and refugees – should make action on land rehabilitation a key intervention,” the UNCCD Executive Secretary said.

UNCCD is based in Bonn, capital of West Germany, before two German states unified in 1990. The city hosts 18 United Nations organisations, programmes and offices.

Following is a slightly abridged version of the Q&A.

IDN: Goal 15 of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, endorsed by world leaders in September 2015, stresses the importance of combating desertification. Could you highlight some of the steps that are under way towards achieving that goal?

UNCCD Executive Secretary (ES): SDG 15 stresses the importance of mitigating the impacts of drought, a tremendous challenge in trying to increase resilience in the drylands. Last month (August 15-19) at a high level conference organized by Namibia together with UNCCD, African ministers adopted a Strategic Framework for Drought Risk Management and Enhancing Resilience. They committed to tackle drought in the framework of LDN (Land Degradation Neutral) and climate change implementation processes recognizing that a Drought Resilient and Prepared Africa is vital in achieving land degradation neutrality at national level.

The Global Mechanism of the UNCCD is coordinating a target setting programme to help countries translate, design, implement and monitor SDG target 15.3 on land degradation neutrality. Already, more than 100 countries are enrolled in the programme, under which countries are identifying priority hotspots to address land degradation and desertification in order to improve local livelihoods and land productivity nationwide.

Finally, the UNCCD is leading a coordinated effort to develop indicators to monitor progress towards SDG target 15.3. This will help countries to assess the current condition of the land, establish baselines and monitor where and how their land is undergoing degradation and desertification or restoration and rehabilitation.

We are working with various partners to provide the necessary data to make informed decisions and prioritize action on the ground, and encouraging countries to be proactive in this regard. For example, India released its Atlas on Desertification and Land Degradation last month, which is a model that countries with the capacity to do so could follow.

IDN: Various studies indicate that global environmental change could drive anywhere from 50 to almost 700 million people to migrate by 2050. One pillar of the UNCCD’s 10-year Strategy 2008-2017 aimed at directly addressing desertification and migration. Could you point to some aspects of the success of the strategy since 2008?

UNCCD ES: One of our four strategic objectives for 2008-2018 is to improve the living conditions of populations affected by land degradation. One of our greatest achievements is increasing global understanding of the connection between land degradation and forced migration.

This agenda is at the centre of the discussion by the policymaking community within and beyond UNCCD in the context of land degradation neutrality, and the need for a paradigm change in land use, and in the context of climate change.

This paradigm shift is evident from developments on the political and media fronts. For example, in May, UNCCD was invited to brief the UN Security Council on “Peace and security in Africa: Challenges for Sahel”. This was the first ever consideration of these issues by the Council.

A few weeks ago, at the Migration Dialogue for West Africa in Cote d’Ivoire, Ministers in charge of security discussed climate change, land degradation and drought as root causes of migration and called upon the rest of the continent to meet in Marrakesh at COP 22 to find practical solutions to promote stability and security.

Just this year, global media organizations – New York Times, British Broadcasting Corporation and National Geographic in a soon-to-be-released film – have examined these links due to the growing number of forced migrants globally. Political awareness is growing, but a lot more is needed in research, policy and planning to get traction on the issue.

IDN: A land degradation neutral world has been on UNCCD’s agenda for nearly a decade now. Not the least because a joint publication of the UNCCD and of the special UN Rapporteur for the Right to Food in 2008, established how a rights-based approach to combating DLDD (desertification, land degradation and drought) is an essential contribution to ensuring the human rights of lower income groups living in ecosystems threatened by the combined effects of overexploitation and climate change. What steps have been taken since to implement necessary measures?

UNCCD ES: As I mentioned earlier, agreement on the need for urgent action to reverse land degradation at Rio + 20 led to the agreement of a land degradation neutrality target under the Sustainable Development Goals. A pilot project in 14 countries launched soon after provided a successful test-case of the feasibility and practicability of the Land Degradation Neutrality. As a result, at least 100 countries enrolled to be part of the programme in the within 6-months of the adoption of the Goals.

The Global Mechanism of the UNCCD, in cooperation with several partners such as the Government of Turkey and the Global Environment Facility, is already providing technical assistance to 60 countries to support them in setting their national targets. These efforts are directed at the countries most vulnerable to climate change, from Grenada in the Caribbean, to Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa.

Similarly, the Parties and stakeholders to the Convention are targeting vulnerable population groups within their countries. Since 2008, more than 52 parties voluntarily targeted and implemented projects that benefit women or women’s groups. The ministerial declaration from the last COP (October 12-23, 2015) stresses the importance of empowering women going forward, and the commitment to do so is already evident in the number of countries working on the issue and calling for stronger action on gender.

The international community, with significant support from the UNCCD, has moved policy forward. Policy implementation boils down to finance and the steady progress being made on the ground. Sound land management is not just a rights-based issue; it is an issue central to everyone’s survival.

IDN: This year’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony showcased what has been described “the most impossible sounding dream of all”, Africa’s Great Green Wall. It’s nearly a decade ago that the initiative was launched. Are you satisfied with what has been achieved until now? Are sufficient funds being provided for completion of the ‘wall’?

UNCCD ES: The Great Green Wall is proving to be a ribbon of hope in one of the world’s poorest regions, the Sahel, where the vast majority of livelihoods depend on the productivity of natural resources, notably land.

Huge progress has been made in restoring vast swathes of degraded land across the region since the initiative was launched nearly a decade ago. For example, Ethiopia has restored 15 million hectares of land and Senegal has planted 12 million drought-resistant trees.

This has been crucial in creating thousands of jobs in rural areas, boosting food security for millions of families and providing a compelling reason to stay for vulnerable youths thinking of migrating across the Sahara desert and onwards to Europe in search of a better life. 

And yet, we know that much more needs to be done for a rapidly growing population expected to treble by 2050. At the landmark Paris climate summit last year, USD 4 billion was committed over the next 5 years by development partners to boost implementation of the Great Green Wall. This indicates the growing commitment of the international community to invest in the region. 

But of course, partners must deliver on these pledges. Not only to ensure that the people of this diverse region have the opportunity to fulfil a long-standing dream to restore the productivity of their precious land resources, to help them forge decent lives. But also to help tackle some of the emerging global challenges of this century that impact us all – climate change, migration and international peace and security foremost amongst them. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 September 2016]

Photo: UNCCD Executive Secretary Monique Barbut

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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