GLF Africa: Restoring drylands, accelerating action on the ground

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Remarks by the Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw on UNCCD Commitment on drylands in Africa and the Sahel

To speak about land is to speak about life in all its complexity.  Whether wet, dry, or severely degraded, the land is humanity’s common treasure that we must protect.

So, allow me to debunk five myths about drylands:

  1. Drylands are not productive lands: Untrue! Drylands specifically provide us with unique products and produces: cereals, animal feed; non-timber products. Almost 3 billion people live in drylands, including hundreds of millions of pastoralists. Half of the world rangelands are found in drylands, including the largest terrestrial mammals and the tourism economy they generate. The fashion industry would not survive without cotton from drylands. The world is just about to discover the nutritional and health values of fonio, shea butter, cosmetic products and other great varieties produced in drylands.
  2. Drylands are not rich in biodiversity and have little to offer to resolve the climate crisis: from the largest terrestrial herbivores found in the magnificent savannahs of Africa, to the tiniest micro-organisms found in the large diversity of drylands habitats (ponds; savannah, oases; rivers; wetlands). The large open spaces of drylands are major carbon sinks. Their management and restoration provide unique mitigation and adaptation opportunities.
  3. Drylands do not contribute much to the economy.

In most drylands, people have land as their only asset. In Africa, up to 70% of the population depend on the primary sector, including in drylands that represent up to 45% of the land mass. Agriculture, livestock, inland fisheries, tourism revenues. Think about the Okavango, the Masai Mara, Kruger, Zakouma, Waza, Comoe, to name just a few? Be it in Namibia, in Malawi or in Mali, millions of people depend on drylands. Who can explain why the mighty rivers of the Nile, the Niger, the Zambezi, or the Senegal have to flow through arid lands? As you know, the vast Sahara desert is sitting atop of the largest aquifers of Africa.

Paradoxically, the drylands of Africa are granaries for hundreds of millions.

Without its drylands, Africa would not be Africa. Africa is blessed with its drylands.

  1. Drylands are waste lands; they are not worth investing in. Today, drylands harbour major extractive companies: from oil production in the Middle East, to mineral extraction in dry Africa and Australia. The world is amazed by the clean energy potential found in drylands. Expect the shift from fossil fuel to hydrogen and other types of clean energy to be spearheaded in dry regions. Furthermore, with the progressive change of diet in the world, drylands are sources of healthy products on high demand. Expect the food industry to increase its investment in healthy food from dry areas. Drylands are major tourist destinations, thanks to their unique landscapes, spectacular wildlife, and great diversity of people. Again, expect major investments in the sector.
  2. In drylands, people deliberately destroy their environment.

Drylands' ecosystems are fragile and are more vulnerable to human interactions than other habitats. However, people living in dry areas are generally water-efficient and use relatively little biomass. Either they scarcely use the environment, or they are forced to migrate for there are no resources to sustain them.

Take the example of the Sahel: 11 countries came together, across the width of Africa, from Senegal-Mauritania to the West to Djibouti-Eritrea to the East. With a giant ambition. A bold vision. To invest substantial human and financial resources to heal their degraded ecosystems, support their rural communities and contribute to climate. They will, with their partners, build a new, green world wonder. Commitments will now have to move to a scalable action.

Change is home made. Not imported.

Dear friends,

It is time to change our narrative on drylands. On Africa. It is time to reset. It is time to rethink Africa’s development. It is time to turn challenges into opportunities.

The African population is certainly young and dynamic: Not a dynamite.

African drylands are certainly fragile. Not volatile.

« When a lion jumps in the finish line of a race, those who were in the back suddenly take the lead ». This African wisdom is perhaps the closest equivalent I found to the English concept of « piggybacking ».

Dear friends,

When land degradation happens in the world’s drylands, this is known as desertification – meaning the loss of biological and productivity of the land. Desertification reduces agricultural output, contributes to droughts, and increases human vulnerability to climate change. In Africa – we all know it too well – about 45% of its land, this precious resource- is being degraded, with dramatic impacts for its people, as 70% of them depend on the land to live and survive.

I therefore feel obliged to repeat this message: Land is a finite resource. We are depleting our capital. Our food systems are not sustainable. Our production systems are land hungry. And water hungry. Our consumption patterns are not viable either.

The good news is that dryland degradation can be reversed, recreating more resilient and productive landscapes that will fix more carbon especially in the soil, restore ecosystem services, promote new viable enterprises, and create employment, while reducing conflicts and migration. And together, these will increase the opportunities to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the targets of the Rio Conventions on desertification, climate change and biodiversity.

In the context of post COVID-19 recovery efforts, investing in land restoration makes the most economic sense: just as an example, through investment in sustainable land management interventions, Africa could generate about 71.8 billion USD/year if all countries act against soil erosion.

The question is how we protect and restore the land. There are plenty of ways, but I would like to emphasize on three transformations that will allow us to restore Africa’s drylands efficiently and effectively.

First, we need to work towards sustainable and efficient land management techniques that grow more food with less land and water.

Second, we need to invest in regenerative practices such as organic agriculture and agroforestry.

And third, we need to adopt a landscape approach for restoration – instead of shortsighted, spot-focused views.

Naturally, these transformations can only be successful if we act together: through coherence of policies and practices, through international cooperation and solidarity, and through the involvement of all those concerned, including farmers and landowners.

The UNCCD process, its institutions, constituted bodies and mechanisms, including its Global Mechanism, are here to support Africa in restoration efforts.

At the onset of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and as we imagine a better world for all after the pandemic, we can unlock the opportunity of land restoration and its multiple benefits for the people of Africa.