African Ministerial Conference on the Environment: address by UNCCD Executive Secretary

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Your Excellency Barbara CREECY, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries of South Africa and Chairperson of AMCEN,

Excellencies, 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for bringing us together today to address an urgent threat to humanity. 

The COVID-19 is more than a health crisis. It is a socio-economic crisis and a growing threat to regional and global security. It is also a threat to our environment. 

Today’s session is therefore timely and clearly warranted.

More than ever, this COVID-19 crisis has reminded us of how much we depend on nature for our health, our wealth and our food systems.  

To the surprise of many pundits, Africa turned out to be so far very resilient to the pandemic, thanks to incredible and courageous decisions throughout the continent. 

However, despite heroic efforts by African leaders and African people, the continent’s economy is already hit very hard. While the socio-economic consequences have not been fully assessed yet, millions of people from across the continent are affected, reversing hard-won progress made in many fronts. 

Furthermore, the pandemic will have serious environmental consequences. Indeed, when jobs are lost, when cities are pushing people back to rural areas, when families have no other source of revenue, land and nature are the only safe heaven there is. Nature is the GDP of the poor.  

Madame Chair,

The linkages between land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss have been clearly established by all our scientific bodies. Today, the spread of zoonotic diseases such as COVID is the starker example of this triple challenge and its devastating effects on humans and on our environment. 

Fortunately, the contrary is also true: land and ecosystem restoration have a remarkably positive impact on the climate. Climate action, in turn, creates better conditions for a thriving land and ecosystems in general, creating a triple opportunity for sustainable growth and development, which is precisely what we need after COVID. 

Madame Chair, 

Health is our most basic human right and one of the most important indicators of sustainable development. We rely on healthy ecosystems and healthy land, to support healthy societies and communities. For many of us in Africa, land is the sole source of livelihoods and the only safety net there is.  As such, today I have a simple ask to all of you: bring land to the centre of your COVID recovery conversations and actions. Why? Because it will not only help address the climate and biodiversity crises but also have an impact on other pressing issues, such as food security, energy generation and distribution, job creation and health and help deliver Agendas 2030 and 2063. 

The wetland rehabilitation in Mpumalanga South Africa  for example yielded tremendous benefits for people and nature alike:  

Thanks to the efforts of all those involved, the rehabilitated wetland now provides services estimated at  419 US dollars per year to some 70 per cent of local households. 419 USD per year may seem small. Not in an area where half of households survive on an income of less than 690 US dollars per year.     

Land restoration puts carbon back in the soil where it belongs. The land-use sector, through a combination of conservation, sustainable management, and restoration, has great potential to reduce emissions and sequester carbon.  Land represents the largest sink for carbon -even larger than oceans. Land has the additional advantage that there are 500 million farming families that can help in the global effort to draw carbon from the atmosphere and put it back in our soils and vegetation. 
Take for example the Kenya agricultural Carbon project. 

About 40,000 smallholders in western Kenya adopted a variety of sustainable agriculture practices including soil conservation and forestry. In 2014, the project achieved a reduction close to 25’000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. More importantly, farmers’ yields increased by up to 15 to 20 per cent.

The same is true for the Farmer managed natural regeneration in Niger – a low-cost land restoration technique used to combat poverty and hunger amongst poor subsistence farmers. The tree cover increased 20 times offering a larger carbon sink. The real farm income doubled for 900,000 farms.  Soil fertility improved to boost grain yields by 10 per cent. As a consequence, biodiversity also significantly improved.

Allow me to repeat: the COVID -19 crisis has become a major economic and social crisis. Inflation and food prices are rising. Land restoration brings degraded land back to life and helps us address the expanding food gap we are facing. Very importantly, it does it at a lower cost than “business as usual”.  For example, it can cost less than 100 USD to rehabilitate one hectare of farmland using traditional agro-forestry, water conservation, and livestock management practices. 

Land and nature in general will no doubt play a central role in the reconstruction of African economies. Agriculture, tourism, livestock, timber and non-timber products are essential elements of the economy. 

Land restoration is not divisive. It can unite us. Rich and poor. North and South. Governments and Civil Society. Public and Private Sector. Land restoration benefits us all. We can indeed turn the triple challenge that I described into a triple opportunity - by reinforcing positive practices at each stage. This will foster closer collaboration and set the stage for a new political and investment paradigm. 

As part of its preparations for a post-COVID recovery, Africa may wish to consider including in its negotiations with its creditors the notion of debt swap for land restoration and nature conservation. Most countries will not be able to reconcile the payment of their debt with a large effort to rebuild their economies. In order to re-invest in the rural economy in support of the poorest of the poor, some countries may need a softer approach to the debt burden, short of debt forgiveness. 

Madam chair, 

Today’s meeting is important. It is a call to action – at scale, a call for unity, a call for solidarity. 

UNCCD stands with you.  

Thank you.