Tackling land degradation crucial for human well-being, UN officials stress

Desertification is caused by climatic variations and human actions

17 June 2010 – United Nations officials today stressed the need to look after the world’s drylands, which are home to more than one billion poor people and where efforts to achieve key development targets face particular challenges.

“When we protect and restore drylands, we advance on many fronts at once,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out in his message for the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, observed on 17 June.

“We strengthen food security, we address climate change, we help the poor gain control over their destiny, and we accelerate progress towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he said, referring to the global anti-poverty targets world leaders have pledged to achieve by 2015.

But, as the Secretary-General pointed out, desertification continues to be a problem. Over the past 40 years, nearly one third of the world’s cropland has become unproductive, often ending up abandoned.

“The unremitting stress of drought, famine and deepening poverty threatens to create social strains, in turn creating the potential for involuntary migration, the breakdown of communities, political instability and armed conflict,” he said.

“Let us reaffirm our commitment to combating desertification and land degradation and mitigating the effects of drought; and let us recognize that enhancing soils enhances life.”

Luc Gnacadja, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), said the theme for this year’s Day – “enhancing soils anywhere enhances life everywhere” – gives soil health the importance it deserves as a critical component to human survival and well-being.

“There’s far more to this than food,” he stated in his message. “The things that live in and grow from this irreplaceable and finite resource also keep us clothed, the air and water clean, the land green and pleasant and the human soul refreshed.

“Only now are we starting to comprehend how the tiny life forms in soil sustain productivity and the greater environmental balance,” said Mr. Gnacadja.

In his message for the Day, Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), highlighted a number of success stories that all countries can learn from.

They include a project in which the Kenyan Government worked alongside farmers to improve cultivation practices to combat the effects of desertification resulting from erosion, as well as a province in China that has achieved a complete reversal of desertification after five decades of unremitting efforts.

“Ultimately, we have the tools to combat the threat of an encroaching desert which will also put us on the path towards poverty alleviation,” said Mr. Steiner. “It is all interlinked: environmental protection and economic and social development. We cannot lose this battle but, as we all know, countries must work together to win it.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) marked the World Day with the publication of a manual that shows how a project in Mauritania successfully fixed dunes and stopped sand encroachment.

Sand encroachment, as FAO explains, is what happens when grains of sand are carried by winds and collect in dunes on the coast, along watercourses and on cultivated or uncultivated land. As the dunes move, they bury villages, roads, oases, crops and irrigation channels and dams, causing major economic damage and increasing poverty and food insecurity.

The new publication explains sand encroachment processes and control techniques, with an emphasis on involving local people in sand control activities, and will serve as a useful blueprint for similar projects in Africa, the agency noted in a news release.

By choosing the right local plant and tree species and involving the local community and national authorities, the project fixed 857 hectares of threatened land on the outskirts of the capital, Nouakchott, and in southern coastal areas with 400,000 plants grown for the purpose in nurseries.

Today’s celebration will help promote the role of conservation and management of the world’s forests as an essential tool to protect against land degradation, according to the Director of the UN Forum on Forests.

Jan McAlpine said that events like the World Day to Combat Desertification, the International Year of Biodiversity 2010, and the International Year of Forests 2011 serve as a call to action to the global community and showcase the importance of people’s roles as agents for change in building a more sustainable future for all.

She added that the Forum’s Secretariat is participating in initiatives such as the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration, which is working to map and analyze the restoration potential of the billion hectares of degraded land across the world, and ultimately to bring back to life large tracts of forest lands directly threatened with desertification.


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