Bonn , Germany, 5 June 2011 – The arid zone forests are the quintessence of ‘Nature at Humanity’s Service’, the theme of this year’s World Environment Day. These forests are the “invisible” backbone of the humanity’s food security today. One in every three plants under cultivation originated here and now provides the globally-consumed crops like wheat, barley, sorghum, corn, cabbage, potatoes and olives. Half of the world’s livestock lives off the arid zone forests. And a significant proportion of the 2 billion people who live in the drylands directly depend on these forests for their day-to-day sustenance, energy and wood needs.
The services rendered by the arid zone forests go beyond this food provisioning service. The arid zone forests play a critical ecosystem service. They are a key part of the climate regulating system and sustain valuable global biological diversity. They are inhabited by the world’s largest concentration of mammals, and over 50,000 plant and 1,500 bird species. And so, just as they have done for many generations in the past, the resources from the arid zone forests continue to sustain humanity. But for how long?
Two policy failures, in particular, undermine the long-term sustainability of the arid zone forests. First, largely due to an underestimation of their value, the arid zone forests remain “invisible” to policy-makers. Consequently, the policy incentives required to sustainably conserve and use the arid zone forests are underdeveloped. Second, whereas the forest, land and water resources are naturally interdependent and function as a trilogy, the prevalent policy approach to their conservation is to focus on each resource singularly. The consequent policy imbalance in resource prioritization undermines the sustainability of all.
For us to ensure that the future generations enjoy equal, if not better, utility of these resources, policy-makers and practitioners alike must think outside the box in the management of the drylands forests. This means, first, focusing on the causes, not symptoms, of their degradation. Second, it calls for a careful and coordinated calibration of the land, forest and water policies for the drylands. Third, it makes the payment for ecosystems in the drylands a requirement, not an option. Lastly, it underscores the need to mainstream soil improvement in all sustainable development frameworks.
The 10-year Strategy of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (2008-2018) is designed with the kind of vision we are called to adopt today; where the nature in and from the drylands serves humanity now, and into perpetuity. One strategic objective is to improve the conditions of the drylands ecosystems affected by land degradation. Another is to improve the livelihoods of the populations in the drylands regions affected by land degradation or desertification, as the phenomenon is commonly referred to in respect of the drylands. As a measure of progress, the reports submitted during each second reporting cycle will quantify two aspects, starting in 2012.
First, they will quantify the proportion of the population living above the poverty line, and second, the status of the land cover. The change in direction signals an increase or decrease of poverty or deforestation as the case may be. If the land cover is increasing, we can expect its forests and vegetation to continue servicing humanity. Similarly, if relatively more people are exiting poverty, then poverty as a cause of forest degradation is addressed, and the services provided by the drylands are more assured.
In order for the real economic value of the services rendered by the drylands, including its arid zone forests to be correctly determined, the 2nd UNCCD Scientific Conference will be held in 2012, under the theme, ‘Economic assessment of desertification, sustainable land management and resilience of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas’.
Arid zone forests are the prototype of nature at humanity’s service, but are an incredibly taken for granted resource. Let this year’s World Environment Day be the year of an unequivocal commitment to the protection of the arid zone forest, land and water resources. Together we can improve the livelihoods of the communities affected by poverty, and eliminate a major cause of the degradation of the forest, water and land resources. Doing so, would enhance food security and secure the resources in the drylands for posterity.
I applaud the United Nations Environment Programme for its unceasing quest for environmental sustainability, and congratulate India and UNEP, on this auspicious occasion, for reminding us that nature is not to be taken for granted. We abuse it at our peril.