Monique Barbut: “Sustainable land management: a global priority”

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by Anne Perrin

Interview with Monique Barbut

Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), calls for greater land protection.

Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

Majani d’Inguimbert

Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), takes a critical look at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) and outlines the priorities of UNCCD prior to Cop 22. Besides sustainable land management, enhancing the resilience of rural communities and food security are a few of the many goals of the Convention. Monique Barbut was previously CEO and Chair of the Global Environment Facility from July 2006 to August 2012.

How do you assess the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21)? Was enough done to support farmers in ACP countries?

As with every COP conference, historic progress was achieved in Paris. An agreement has finally been reached between Party countries with the goal to keep the rise in average global temperature well below 2°C. But it doesn’t end there. The carbon sequestration capacity of land was also recognised for the first time, which is a major advance towards making sustainable land management (SLM) a global priority. Land will therefore be pivotal in the implementation of Article 5 of the Paris Agreement on carbon sinks – which I am very pleased about. Land is the basis of all goods and services provided by ecosystems. With the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions pledges in place, there is a real chance that we could fill 25% of the emissions gap. By rehabilitating 12 million ha of land (the amount of land lost annually) per year by 2030, an additional 3.33 Gt of carbon could be sequestered annually. Farmers in ACP countries will therefore have a major role to play in this initiative through greater adoption of good SLM practices. This, in turn, will help to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. It will also mean that farmers are more able to adapt to varying climate conditions and will improve food and water security for local communities and farmers whose livelihoods depend on sustainably managed land.

The land degradation neutrality (LDN) concept was developed in 2015. How will this concept push land to the top of the sustainable development agenda?

Achieving LDN will enable us to maintain or even increase our natural capital to support ecosystem services that are essential for our well-being. We need to preserve healthy ecosystems and restore those that have been degraded. Only then will they be able to provide enough of the good-quality resources we need – namely the food, air and clean water that we consume. Underlying this concept is the hope of completely halting the net loss of productive land and rehabilitating land. As restoring degraded land and achieving LDN are specific targets under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15, the entire international community is called upon to strengthen initiatives in favour of SLM and restoration of degraded land. Achieving LDN also indirectly fulfils other SDGs, such as ending poverty (SDG 1), achieving food security by eradicating global hunger through increased yields and sustainable farming (SDG 2), managing water resources sustainably (SDG 6), creating decent work and employment for all (SDG 8), increasing carbon sequestration in soil to tackle climate change and its impacts (SDG 13), and achieving peace by reducing conflict and environmental migration (SDG 16). The international community therefore has a duty to throw its weight behind these initiatives and to make sure there is sufficient money to deliver the undeniable environmental and social benefits of LDN. Once finalised, the ground-breaking LDN Fund will give the public and private sectors a way to pool their efforts towards this goal.

The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGW) was launched in 2005. Is it still a source of hope despite the difficulties encountered?

As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Substantial time and human and financial resources are required to develop and implement a large-scale initiative like GGW. Major progress was made, with the commitment of many countries, at the first GGW conference held in Dakar in May 2016. The harmonised regional strategy has now been turned into national action plans, a regional capacity-building programme is in place, and there is a communication plan. Countries have access to a platform for knowledge management, experience sharing and best practices. Several major projects are already underway and local initiatives are building on successful SLM experiments in other locations, tailoring the lessons learned to suit country-specific contexts. Things are moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.

By 2030, GGW aims to restore 50 million ha of land, sequester 250 million t of carbon, ensure food security for 20 million people, support 300 million people in Sahelian communities, create at least 350,000 jobs and provide 10 million smallholder farmers with access to climate change-resilient agricultural technologies. Once accomplished, the GGW will be the largest living structure on the planet, three times larger than the Great Barrier Reef.

I firmly believe that income generation and rural green job creation through the GGW, or any project based on sustainable land management and restoration in rural areas, will strengthen communities’ resilience to climate change and desertification, ensure food security and reduce rural out-migration towards Europe. It will also help to reduce conflict between communities competing over land and water, and prevent young people becoming radicalised and joining extremist groups. This offers real hope for all of sub-Saharan Africa.

What, in your view, are the most relevant techniques to promote smart, sustainable agriculture while boosting yields?

The UNCCD recommends over 250 good practices for sustainable land and water management in various ecosystems, including conservation agriculture, farmer-assisted natural regeneration, agroforestry and no-tillage farming. There are many good examples around the world where these techniques have delivered significant yield improvements.

A 1,900 ha grain farm in the semi-arid region of Queensland, Australia has adopted no-tillage and controlled-traffic farming techniques across the site in an effort to prevent soil compaction. The farm has also applied the three principles of conservation agriculture (minimal or zero tillage, crop rotation and cover crops) wherever possible. In just 3 years, soil structure between crop lines had improved, obtaining a more malleable and crumbly texture and retaining more moisture. And 5 years on, sorghum yields were up from 3 to 7 t per ha. What’s more, no-tillage farming costs four times less overall than traditional farming methods, while diesel costs are eight times less per year. By introducing SLM practices, the farmer has seen a sharp rise in income.

The steep mountainsides in the Faizobod District of Tajikistan were farmed intensively during the Soviet era, causing substantial soil degradation in the process. A livestock farmer has introduced rotational grazing near the Karsang and Tshinoro mountains to address this problem. The animals graze for 4 hours in the early morning and 4 hours in the afternoon, on a rotating cycle of between 10 days and 2 weeks. The dung helps to improve soil fertility and promotes the growth of more resource-dependent species, replacing fertilisers used during the Soviet-era. This rotational system also helps to prevent excessive trampling of the soil – a phenomenon observed on other over-exploited smallholder farms. The farmer was also finally able to increase his revenue by selling his animals at higher prices than his neighbours

More than 5 million ha of degraded land has been rehabilitated in the Maradi Region of southern Niger using a technique known as ‘farmer-assisted natural regeneration’. This has led to supplementary production of 500,000 t of grain per year and enough fodder to feed significantly more cattle. This technique has already improved the food security situation for about 2.5 million people.

2015 was the International Year of Soils and we are now over halfway through the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification. How have things gone so far and what does the future hold?

The International Year of Soils saw renewed respect for our soils and our land – elements that, directly or indirectly, provide all the goods and services we need (95% of our food, drugs, clean water, etc.). If we want to combat desertification, we have to take care of our soils and our land. The adoption of the SDGs, and especially SDG 15 (life on land), marks a global gear-change in the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification. Land has finally been placed at the very top of the climate agenda. This recognition is strengthening our effort to tackle both desertification and climate change and will continue to do so over the coming years.