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Global conference steps up action to move to a land-degradation neutral world

15/11/12 - The fourth international conference on Drylands, Deserts and Desertification (DDD) taking place at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Sede Boqer Campus, Israel, is defining ways to take action on the agreement by world leaders in Rio de Janeiro in June to move to a land-degradation neutral world.

Land-degradation neutrality refers to a global shift in land stewardship such that degradation of new areas is avoided, and unavoidable degradation is offset by restoring an equal amount of already degraded land in the same time and in the same ecosystem.  By 2011, 166 countries were affected by desertification. 

The Conference, themed “Implementing Rio+20 for Drylands and Desertification,” kicked off with a tribute to Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the late Professor Wangari Maathai of Kenya, for her role in bringing global attention to the idea of land restoration through her tree-planting work.

In his tribute, Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, praised her for she dared to think the unthinkable, and to think globally while acting locally. She did not wait for government to act, but took responsibility by responding through action, reaching out to those in her circle to influence change, he said, stressing that the best tribute to her is to emulate her spirit.

In a provocative keynote speech, Professor Paul Ehrlich, an ecologist from Stanford University, spoke about overpopulation as an indirect driver of desertification. He said “land degradation is the biggest part of the human predicament, yet the least understood scientifically and least discussed by politicians.”

The meeting, which was attended by over 350 participants from 60 countries, served as the first substantive gathering of experts to discuss the concept of a land-degradation neutral world post Rio+20.

At a full day session Tuesday, the Conference discussed the idea of zero-net land degradation, a term that takes the view of a land-degradation neutral world a step further by specifying a concrete goal and a target to be achieved.

In opening the discussion, Mr. Gnacadja stressed the need to change the narrative about desertification, and said “the concept of zero-net land degradation provides the opportunity to frame land and soil degradation as global issues and to ensure that sustainable land management and restoration are reflected everywhere at every scale. Policy action should build and capitalize on grassroots level success stories on land restoration.”

He urged the Conference to focus on questions that need to be answered to make the concept a rational policy idea. Questions such as how to measure and quantify land degradation and the potential for restoration, the total economic value of land, the targets and the institutional framework.

Ephraim Nkonya, International Food Policy Research Institute, pointed to lessons learnt from successes in preventing land degradation and/or rehabilitating degraded lands to show that the economic productivity of the land can be exploited without degrading its natural capital.

Professor Rattan Lal, The Ohio State University, posed provocative questions. “Is there a peak soil?...Are there any endangered soils?” 

He underlined the principal role of humans in land degradation, and laid out the 4-Ps and 3-Cs as the keys to curbing land degradation, restoring the land and achieving land-degradation neutrality. These are policy, people, procedure and pricing coupled with commitment, continuity and coherence [in implementation].

The DDD conference has emerged as an important global gathering of scientists, field workers, industry, government, CSOs, international development aid agencies and other stakeholders concerned about land degradation in the drylands, and their sustainable use and development.  Thus, the discussion on how to operationalize zero-net land degradation (ZNLD) benefited from insights on the ground.

Tony Rinuado, from World Vision Australia, spoke of the increase in the number of trees on farms in Niger, from an average of four to 50, with little involvement of government or non-governmental organizations. He attributed this diffusion to farmer-to-farmer communication by word of mouth.

The key, he said, is to create an enabling environment that gives individuals and communities confidence to invest time and money to improve their land, knowing that they will benefit. Under these conditions, he said, a low-cost ZNLD is possible.

Presenting the Limpopo Transboundary Programme, Paolo Caroli, highlighted the lessons learned. Removing a population to conserve an area is unnecessary. Policy change and stakeholder engagement are pre-requisites when redesigning land use. Communities do not automatically respond to changes in legislation and policy, so it is crucial to understand the trade-offs for institutions and stakeholders because benefit-sharing is critical. Lastly, organizing and sharing information can have a dramatic impact.

Xian Xue, Chinese Academy of Sciences, shared the lessons learned from a case study in northern China. First, the rehabilitation of degraded land and the prevention of degradation in non-degraded land is possible if sustainable land-use policies and scientific methodologies are implemented. Second, the selection, combination and implementation of measures and technologies largely depends on the ecosystems’ characteristics and the desertification pattern.

A case study from Sri Lanka presented by Dinali Jayasinghe, UNDP Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme, underscored that "soil conservation should start in the home garden!" It showed that it is possible to minimize land degradation by assisting small groups of farmers, and that small grants for community level startups can have large impacts.  Jayasinghe emphasized that conservation must be sustained beyond the lifetime of grants and through supportive legislation.

Veronica Muthui, UNDP’s Regional Technical Advisor for Ecosystems and Biodiversity, made a clear distinction between restoration, rehabilitation and reallocation.

In the concluding session to compile a draft framework for actions taken to operationalize ZNLD, Alain Grainger, University of Leeds, said monitoring restoration through revegetation of the land is easier than determining the rate at which degradation is reduced due to a lack of baseline data and the scientific capacity to measure the latter.

He suggested an implementation with three phases. At first, the focus would be on restoring degraded lands, improving national land-use planning systems and expanding international and national monitoring capacities, for example, by establishing a panel on land to advise and identify indicators, and by establishing a Global Desertification Observation System.

The next phase would be to reduce desertification rates with the support of fully integrated systems for land-use planning and monitoring. The last phase would be to set a target year to realize a ZNLD goal, based on the experience from the first two phases.

Michael Cherlet, Joint Research Center, presented the new World Atlas on Desertification, highlighting its potential to address ZNLD. As land-degradation neutrality is not a static condition, the Atlas could provide a dynamic framework for monitoring, he added.

Using satellite imagery series, the tool could be used to calculate and map various aspects of ecosystem dynamics and provide up-to-date information on the state and trends of land degradation and opportunities for sustainable land management that could be used to establish a global baseline.

He added that the tool could be developed further to monitor changes in land productivity and land degradation, and aid the evaluation of land-degradation neutrality. The Atlas would be available on a digital platform.

At a session chaired by Dr. Sem Shikongo, who chaired the Intersessional Intergovernmental Working Group of the UNCCD Ten Year Strategy for 2008-2018, participants charted the next steps.  They proposed focusing first on the "low hanging fruits", building on best practices at all levels and collaboration with existing institutions. At the intergovernmental level, it was recommended to include ZNLD in the process for the post 2015 agenda, including as a potential Sustainable Development Goal.

About the Conference
The Conference is exploring a wide range of issues, including restoring water resources, soil and land restoration, grazing and soils, architecture and urban planning in drylands and dry areas, desert agriculture, rehabilitation of desertified areas, public health and remote sensing.

The four-day conference programme, which began on Monday and ends Thursday (today), combines plenary lectures and panels, parallel sessions, workshops, field trips and social events. It is designed as an opportunity for a diverse group of experts, policy makers and land managers to consider a range of theoretical and practical issues associated with combating desertification and living sustainably in the drylands.

For presentations on the workshop Operationalizing  Zero Net-Land Degradation, see page 64 of the book of abstracts by clicking here
For information on the Conference, click here.
For more information on the workshop contact: Sara Minelli,

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