The biennial summit organized by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and hosted by India said at the end of two weeks of deliberations that land restoration makes business sense if there are regulations and incentives to reward investments.
There is an urgent need to conserve and restore land and soil affected by desertification, land degradation, drought and floods, which will also long-term benefits for the health, well-being and socioeconomic development of society, particularly livelihoods of the rural poor, the New Delhi Declaration: Investing in Land and Unlocking Opportunities announced on September 13.
Calling the Declaration a powerful document, UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw said, “There is a clear link between land restoration, climate and biodiversity. Investing in land will unlock a lot of opportunities.” Land restoration at scale is the cheapest solution to meet challenges posed by climate change and biodiversity loss, he said.
Restoring land is good business
Thiaw said that UNCCD has established a clear business case for land restoration. He called upon national governments to incentivize land restoration. “We have woken up to the fact that we will see more frequent and severe droughts, a phenomenon that will be exacerbated by climate change,” he added.
“The Delhi Declaration is an ambitious statement of global action and shows ways to achieve land degradation neutrality,” said Prakash Javadekar, India’s Environment Minister and President of the 14th Conference of Parties (as national governments are called by the UN). “For the next two years, India will have the presidentship of UNCCD. India is committed to our own actions in our country towards land restoration.”
More than 9,000 delegates and representatives from 196 countries and the European Union participated in the conference, which also grappled with the contentious issues of land tenure, migration due to land degradation and how to deal with droughts. Countries will address insecurity of land tenure, including gender inequality in land tenure, promote land restoration to reduce land-related carbon emissions and mobilize innovative sources of finance from public and private sources to support the implementation of these decisions at country-level, the Delhi Declaration said.
Money remains a problem
The conference was bogged down for long periods over the issue of including land tenure, migration and financing mechanisms in the UNCCD agenda. Many developing countries, especially from Africa, wanted community ownership of land to be given international legal recognition, and for the UNCCD to start discussing this. Some industrialized countries – led by the US and Australia – objected, saying that individual ownership of land was a core principle in their countries and not open to challenge from any international agreement at any stage. The Delhi Declaration finally came up with a compromise that did not please many African governments.
A bigger issue of contention was migration forced by land degradation. Countries in the Sahel region of Africa wanted drought and land degradation to be recognized as legitimate reasons for international migration – a stance opposed strongly by the European Union. Indian negotiators spoke privately of such a move opening the doors to migration from Bangladesh, which is suffering serious land degradation due to sea level rise. But as hosts, India did not take a stance in public. The entire issue was finally dropped, much to the chagrin of countries such as Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.
Money remains the biggest problem. For 25 years since the UNCCD was set up, its projects to control desertification and deal with drought have been chronically underfunded by the international community. With the IPCC now establishing the scientific relationship between land degradation and climate change, developing countries made a strong pitch at this conference to get money from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to restore degraded land. Once again, this was strongly opposed by rich nations, who pointed out that the GCF was seriously underfunded itself. That was why Thiaw made a strong pitch for private money, but many of the relatively smaller African nations are unsure whether they will get any of that, or any financing from the World Bank either for the purpose of land restoration. A delegate from Cameroon complained about the lengthy and expensive process of applying to the World Bank to finance a project.
Earlier in the week on Monday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said while opening the high-level segment of the summit, “I call upon leadership of UNCCD to create a global water action agenda, which is central to land degradation neutrality strategy.” The Indian government has launched a programme to double the income of farmers by increasing crop yield through various measures, which includes land restoration and micro irrigation. Modi had also announced that India would raise its ambition of the total land to be restored from 21 million hectares to 26 million hectares by 2030.
The UNCCD has suggested a mechanism for reporting action to ensure it captures key issues such as gender inequality, drought response and the influence of consumption and production patterns and flows on land degradation. Through the Delhi Declaration, ministers expressed support for new initiatives or coalitions aiming to improve human health and well-being, the health of ecosystems, and to advance peace and security.
The Delhi Declaration urged the development of community-driven transformative projects and programmes that are gender-responsive at the local, national and regional levels to drive the implementation of UNCCD. “Land restoration will not succeed if we don’t put people first,” Thiaw said.