What is the issue?

According to recent studies, approximately 75% of the world’s land area is already degraded, with some regions more touched than others as showed in the map below. With the population growth and the consumption level increasing in developing countries, demand for food and therefore arable land will keep growing. The food system is responsible for a large part of land degradation. Indeed, the main drivers are the intensification of agriculture production, overgrazing and deforestation linked to animal agriculture. Fuelwood overconsumption and urbanization are also important factors of land degradation but stay minor compared to agriculture (UNISFÉRA 2005). As globalization and more specifically trade liberalization in agricultural commodities continue to nourish the main drivers of land degradation, institutions have been created to coordinate actions between states as an attempt to tackle the issue.

Let’s first dive into the different definitions of land degradation to better understand what the institutions are fighting against. They can differ depending on the sources, with some of them giving more emphasis for certain elements than others. According to the IPCC 2019 report, land degradation could be defined as such:

Land degradation is a negative trend in land condition, caused by direct or indirect human-induced processes including anthropogenic climate change, expressed as long-term reduction or loss of at least one of the following: biological productivity, ecological integrity or value to humans.

In other terms, land degradation is the deterioration of the soils' quality which is caused either by human directly or by nature. However, human-induced land degradation is about 13-40 times more important than the natural rate of land degradation (Rahaman & Solavagounder, 2020). The rapidity at which the soils are destroyed is a big threat for food security, as about five to six million ha are permanently degraded and lost to agriculture (UNISFÉRA, 2019). The main types of soil degradation are water erosion, wind erosion, chemical deterioration and physical deterioration (SSWM 2020). Some types of soil degradation are related to the zones where this happens such as desertification or deforestation.

Land degradation is really at the heart of preoccupation of many actors from the environmental field to government officials, as you can see here with these different perspectives on land degradation:

WWF: “Soil is the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth. It is comprised of countless species that create a dynamic and complex ecosystem and is among the most precious resources to humans. Increased demand for agriculture commodities generates incentives to convert forests and grasslands to farm fields and pastures. The transition to agriculture from natural vegetation often cannot hold onto the soil and many of these plants, such as coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean and wheat, can actually increase soil erosion beyond the soil’s ability to maintain itself."

President of Finland, Tarja Halonen: “The global challenges and their solutions are closely interlinked and depend also very much on the sustainable management of our land resources. Land is one of our most precious resources for development, and therefore we have to take care of it. The facts tell, however, that more than 40% of the earth’s land area is arid and more than half of it is degraded. Also more than half of the agricultural land is degraded. In addition, in less than fifteen years from now, people on this planet will need 45 % more food, 30% more water and 50% more energy. These challenges are multiplied by the increasing impacts of climate change.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres: “Our planet is ailing, land degradation affects some 3.2 billion people, 70% of the world’s land has been transformed by human activity. I call for a new contract on nature through international action and solidarity. We can scale up land restoration and nature based solutions for climate action and the benefit of future generations."

FAO small video on soil degradation which is bringing a socioeconomic perspective on the issue.

Land degradation and desertification ¶

The distinction between this two concepts is crucial as the institution analyzed later in this blog will focus on desertification. As highlighted on FAO’s website:

Desertification is a type of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid areas caused by human.

This type of land degradation is found at the intersect of socioeconomic drivers and environmental drivers which makes it more complex for states to tackle it. As presented in the map below, most of the places at risk of desertification are found where vulnerable population live such as in the Sahel, Northern Africa, in the Middle East, Central Asia and some areas in Southern Asia and Latin America (UNISFÉRA, 2019). This create a vicious circle where population do not have the capacities or knowledge to adopt sustainable agricultural practices and therefore lands are degraded more rapidly. Combat desertification requires a large spectrum of actors, impacting at different levels of the society.

Land degradation is already affecting about 3.2 billion people which makes it one of the most important environment issue, and it will just keep getting worse as the population increase (The Guardian, 2018). It is both related to climate change and biodiversity loss, which makes the issue floating around many scientific uncertainties on the possible long-term adverse impacts. What is certain is that the alarming rate of land degradation can not decrease without states taking coordinated and efficient actions. Desertification is one of the most important type of land degradation, and as we will see later, UNCCD has been created to respond to this problem. Before assessing how does the institution perform, let’s take a closer look at the actors' network of land degradation to better understand UNCCD position and role in there. For this, click on the next section of the blog!

Extra information from The National Geographic ¶

Would You Stay if Your Home Became a Desert?