29 October 2008


29 October 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press conference by executive secretary of convention to combat desertification

Speaking to reporters at a Headquarters press conference this morning, Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), said 75 per cent of the world’s poor lived in areas of land degradation and called for a common framework to address desertification.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) Global Assessment of Land Degradation and Improvement, land degradation, also known in the United Nations context as desertification, was a long-term decline in ecosystem function and productivity.  Both climatic and human factors contributed to land degradation, Mr. Gnacadja said, adding that land was considered degraded when the organic carbon content of the soil was emitted into the atmosphere.

Data compiled between 1981 and 2003 found that an additional 24 per cent of land had degraded globally, over that time, mainly in humid areas where rainfall was not a problem.  The good news, Mr. Gnacadja said, was that 16 per cent of lands had improved, mostly in dry areas, particularly in Africa and Australia.

That improvement demonstrated that land degradation was predictable and reversible, if the tipping point had not been reached, he continued.  Its social and economic impact was due to public and global policy failures, since what worked for land improvement was well known.  There was a failure to “upscale” good practices, share information and knowledge, mainstream at the national level and globalize required resources.  There had also been a failure to provide knowledge and services to local populations.

He went on to say that a milestone had been reached last year when parties to the Desertification Convention had adopted a common strategy for its implementation.  That strategy had four main strategic objectives:  improving the livelihood of affected populations; improving productivity of affected ecosystems; generating global benefits; and mobilizing resources to support implementation of the Convention through effective national and international partnerships.

The recognition that reversing land degradation had global benefits was new, arising from understanding that the land presented an opportunity to solve ongoing problems and challenges, including climate change, environmentally induced human migrations, food insecurity and space for the production of biofuels, he said.

Over 15 decades, humankind had built up a carbon-based society, which had degraded the atmosphere and the soil.  The degraded atmosphere had worsened the soil by causing drought and unpredictable rainfall, Mr. Gnacadja said, adding that the degraded soil, in turn, had worsened the atmosphere by losing its ability to absorb carbon, but also because degraded land emitted organic carbon into the atmosphere.  To tackle climate challenges, he said:  “We must look to the untapped potential of the soil […] to act as a carbon sink.”  It was a “win-win” situation that would improve biodiversity, improve the soil’s productivity and ultimately impact the livelihood of the population.

When asked how he would rank factors contributing to land degradation, he said it depended on the area.  In some places, where degradation was due to soil erosion, unpredictable rainfall and flooding sparked by global warming would be high on the list, while elsewhere, in South-East Asia, for example, a major contributing factor was deforestation.

Asked about the sharing of technologies used in Israel, or elsewhere, he noted that some technologies for improving the land had worked since ancient times, such as “terra preta”, making charcoal from biomass and then using it to enhance the soil, as was currently being done in Latin America.  Several communities in Africa had technology that improved the soil’s ability to hold water, he continued.  Communities in Burkina Faso that used that technology had managed to avoid the impact of the food crisis, and had last year seen a 30 per cent boost in yields from their lands than neighbouring communities that had not used it.  Those were low-cost technologies.  The problem, he said, was that the technologies, as well as those being used in Israel and elsewhere, were not being distributed widely.

The average cost of improving the land in local community projects was around $500 to $600 per hectare a year over five years, he said.  It could improve the condition of the ecosystem by 30 per cent and provide a sound basis for sustainable growth.  He cited the World Bank, saying that when the income of a small farmer was about $1, $2.60 were generated for the national economy.  Since the onset of the global food crisis, there had been a call for greater investment.  “An ecosystem is like a bank account,” he said.  “[I]f we keep on withdrawing and we do not invest in those eco-systems by also feeding the soil [so that it can maintain] its ability to regenerate, we are moving towards bankruptcy,” he underscored.

Responding to a question regarding what Brazil’s President Lula was now doing relating to land degradation, deforestation or effective use of sugar cane, Mr. Gnacadja referred to an interview he’d read with Brazil’s new Minister of the Environment.  Brazil was ready to commit resources, to commit to protecting specific areas, to commit to monitoring parts of the Amazon.  Brazil was also aware that it must maintain the soil system during the production of biofuels, and prevent competition with food production.  He said Brazil’s commitment to the future seemed sound.  He noted that the Global Assessment of Land Degradation had ranked countries in term of organic carbon emissions due to land degradation and that Brazil had ranked third after Canada and Indonesia.

The nexus between land degradation and climate change was clear, he said.  There had been a focus on forests, but forests grew in soil and when that soil was depleted, the forest was lost.  It was necessary, while working towards the new climate regime, to build a comprehensive and integrated framework that would take into consideration the untapped potential of the soil for carbon dioxide mitigation.

Asked what the greatest priorities were, relating to climate change, he said that there were two major policy trends UNCCD was focusing on:  water management, which required a focus on sustainable land management; and the potential to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gasses through land and soil.  That would tackle issues of climate, biodiversity and desertification.  Implementing such policies required bringing together the Secretariat and the global mechanism to carry them out.

To that end, he said, among other things, that the United Nations Committee on Science and Technology needed to build a platform on what to measure, and on what baseline to measure land degradation and land improvement, so that all countries would use the same data and indicators.  Then countries would have to commit to achieving specified targets.

“Land improvement must be a global priority,” he said, stressing that such improvement would address problems such as environmentally induced migration, the food crisis, peace and security.  Eight out of ten civil wars and conflicts were over access to resources in areas of land degradation.  People were more aware of the dangers of climate change to polar bears than of land degradation to human beings.  Land issues seemed to be felt more locally.  It was important to raise awareness of the broad range of global concerns affected by land degradation.  “Whatever is good to address land degradation is good for the global environment and vice versa,” he said.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.