Addressing land degradation: an unexpected opportunity

Land, an incredibly valuable, yet vulnerable resource. It is vital for producing food, preserving biodiversity, facilitating the natural management of water systems and acting as a carbon store. While we all enjoy the prosperity brought by economic, social and technological development, the land that much of our livelihood depends on is degrading, and fast.

Only 30 percent of our planet is covered by land, yet a staggering quarter of this has been badly degraded, with this figure continuing to increase by 12 million hectares every year. The situation in China is not promising either. More than 40 percent of land suffers from desertification, soil erosion, and reduced fertility.

Once land is degraded, it loses its ability to cultivate and support life and it has been estimated that around 40 percent of degraded land occurs in areas with the highest percentage of impoverished population.

However, the future is not all doom and gloom, by working together on land degradation we have an unexpected opportunity to introduce an integrated approach and subsequently tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, such as climate change and ecosystem preservation.

In 1994, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was established to halt land degradation and today, the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, can be used to highlight the linkages among land degradation, climate change and the ecosystem.

As the carbon store, soil contains more carbon than all vegetation and the atmosphere combined. Sustainable Land Management (SLM) is a means to continue productive yielding while minimizing and preventing negative impacts on the vegetation and soil, therefore preserving its capacity in adapting to and mitigating climate change.

Since joining the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, I have been continually impressed at how UNDP has adopted the SLM approach for environmental protection in China. One of our projects, in Miyun District, Beijing has restored the ecological function of mis-managed trees on the barren mountains, and tested out a sustainable method that could increase the forest’ ecological function, and improve the land by tree-relocation and better maintenance of the trees. The approach has also increased the forest’ capacity to capture and store CO2 from air and therefore has successfully contributed to the mitigation of climate change.

To add to this story, a recent UNDP Global Environment Facility (GEF) supported initiative in the headwater area of Huaihe River Basin has demonstrated how addressing land degradation can also help us protect the ecosystem. By introducing inter-cropping and other environment-friendly tea cultivation techniques to over 11 tea farms, the project helped protect the local biodiversity and improved the quality of over 3,000 hectares of land and soil, and increased the income of 2,100 households.

However, this is not always simple, and addressing land degradation needs to have effective policies and programs in place. Not only do we need to work on improving the techniques in restoring and managing the land, but also we need to find an effective way to engage the local communities to participate in this effort. By changing their old practices on the land, and showing the communities the actual benefits changes can bring to them and to the environment, we can ensure the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal No.15 “Protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss”.

Desertification is a phenomenon that ranks among one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time, yet by integrating our policies and programs, we can use this as an opportunity to protect our land, while at the same time combating climate change and biodiversity loss.

Ms. Agi Veres is the country director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China.