Meeting with African Group Ambassadors

AFUN briefing

Remarks by UNCCD Executive Secretary Mr. Ibrahim Thiaw

Your Excellency Chairperson Ambassador Ammo Aziza Baroud,

Excellencies Permanent Representatives, Ambassador Fatima Mohamed,

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed a real pleasure to address you today in my capacity as the Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, a Convention that Africa pushed for at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and which bears a special focus on Africa.

My brief today will be focused on the impact of LAND DEGRADATION in Africa’s economic and social development. A continent whose economic growth over the last 25 years has been remarkably steady, though the impact of such growth has been somehow muted by a series of factors. Among them, the loss of productive land while the number of people to feed kept growing fast.

It’s a complex equation:

(i) the demand on Africa’s natural resources keeps growing, exacerbated by a steady demographic growth and by externalities such as trade and illicit activities.

(ii) ecosystems and the services they provide are shrinking, due to desertification (land degradation), climate change and drought

According to UNEP, the African continent has already lost more than 60% of its agricultural land since 1950.

If we know that the population has been grown by more than 440% between 1950 and 2020, we have at least partial response to the equation.

Here is the next parameter: according to the Economics of Land Degradation, the costs of land degradation are estimated at USD 127 B per year (almost twice as much as total ODA that flowed to Africa in 2019).

Some countries in Africa have seen up to 95% of their land affected by desertification (Eswatini); 66% for Angola; 64% for Gabon…This is not specific to one sub-region, though the Sahel is arguably one of the most vulnerable region in the world where desertification is already having tragic consequences. Whether its Egypt or Algeria, Libya or Mauritania, no country is spared in the North Africa sub-region.

The vulnerability comes from the fact that up to 94% of agriculture is dependent on few millimeters of rainfall, and few centimeters of topsoil.

This explains why Africa’s economy is very dependent of droughts. Actually, no country in Africa is immune to drought. No country is well prepared.

Years of droughts generally correspond to years of economic downturn. Years of sorrow and loss. Years of despair.

Some experts estimate that two thirds of Africa’s arable land may be lost by 2025, if this trend continues.

If I had more time, I would have spoken at length about the multiple consequences of Sand and Dust Storms, which affect our health and our economy.

Sand Dust Storms affect the productivity of our land, the security of our navigation systems (hamper our air and marine traffic).

And now, the pandemic.

And the rate of extreme poverty and hunger has increased for the first time in 30 years.

When you lose your only resource, your only source of income, what else is there to do?

Indeed, when the productive land is degraded, 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.  As your Governments engage onto rebuilding affected economies, I see the COVID-19 crisis as a wake-up call and the recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity.

This brings me to my main message: Land restoration needs to be at the center of all our post-COVID recovery efforts. For Africa perhaps more than in other regions of the world, land restoration and sustainable land management are among the best long-term responses to the pandemic.

Let me come to the good news: land restoration provides multiple solutions:

  1. Land degradation is reversible. And it can be as cheap as a couple of hundred dollars per ha
  2. Transforming degraded land and turning it back to production
  3. Land restoration creates green jobs. It is a labor-intensive activity
  4. Targeting rural women and youth: reduce vulnerabilities and forced migration, creating economic opportunities
  5. Land restoration: combatting climate change and reducing biodiversity loss

When asked: since Africa only contributes to 7.1% of the total emissions, what could be its best contribution to the Paris Agreement? Say Land restoration. By turning one stone through land restoration, you achieve both mitigation and adaptation.

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 our largest sink for carbon.

When asked what could be the best contribution of Africa to the Biodiversity Loss? Say Sustainable Land Management.

When asked how best can Africa mitigate the impact of Drought? Say Landscape Approach. Resilience building; or perhaps early warning and management.

Science tells us that investing in large-scale land restoration to combat desertification, soil erosion and loss of agricultural production is a win-win solution. It is a win for the environment. It is a win for the economy, and for the livelihoods of local communities.

In this respect, I have good news for you.  The current total of all restoration commitments by countries is close to 1 billion hectares, half of which are in Africa. This is a huge commitment from a continent that has always played its role in multilateral processes.

On the other hand, Africa is choking to an unbearable  debt. In our opinion, options to manage this economic crisis should include debt swaps. Debt for Large-scale Land Restoration would be an elegant win-win option. A relief to national economies and a response to global challenges including climate, desertification and biodiversity.


Let me appraise you of some recent developments happening in the life of this Convention with a strong support never seen before, documenting, again, the momentum on land restoration.

First, at the G20 recent summit, under the Saudi Presidency, a milestone decision was taken. At that Summit, G20 leaders launched “the Global Initiative on Reducing Land Degradation and Enhancing Conservation of Terrestrial Habitats” to prevent, halt, and reverse land degradation.  Building on existing initiatives, leaders share the ambition to achieve a 50 percent reduction in degraded land by 2040. In their communiqué, the G20 Ministers of Environment underscored that land restoration and the avoidance of habitat loss are often cost-effective solutions to addressing the biodiversity crisis and other key environmental challenges.  Consultations with Italy, current Chair of the G20, are ongoing to maintain this crucial momentum on land restoration.

Second, at the One Planet Summit held in Paris on 11 January 2021, the Great Green Wall of the Sahel received a major boost. President Macron of France played a key role, which we truly appreciate.

The Great Green Wall received major financial support, with close to USD 17 billion committed by financial institutions, global funds, and donors.

Third: just this past weekend, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced major restoration initiatives: one national and one covering the GCC countries. A new commitment covering 240 million hectares, to be restored to slow down desertification, biodiversity loss and climate change.

We feel that time for large-scale restoration has come. Land Restoration is a low-tech and cheap technology. A solution to multiple crisis the world is faced with.

We are aware and support the ongoing initiative in the SADC region.

We hope that other sub-regions will mobilize their political leaders and experts to develop their own regional or national initiatives.

Allow me to finish with the UNGA High Level Dialogue due for May 20.

You may have received the invitation from the PGA for a HLD on DLDD. I know many African Missions to New York are members of the GoF on DLDD. A Group that is actually co-chaired by the proud African Nation of Namibia.

I would urge your respective governments to:

Make the African voices heard at the upcoming High-level dialogue on desertification, land degradation and drought that the President of the General Assembly will convene on 20 May 2021.

Encourage the participation of African Heads of State and Heads of Governments by pre-recorded videos to be played in the Plenary Hall during the High-level debate;

Support the prospect of establishing a like-minded group which could be called “Coalition on the Stewardship of Land”, a sort of political platform that aims to mobilize political leaders, corporations, and other non-state actors in support of land restoration.

Thank you.