Significance of Soil Highlighted at Rio+20

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Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy Sérgio de Mello
IDN-InDepth NewsReport

BRASILIA (IDN) - Among few good tidings from the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit (Rio+20) is that the heads of the secretariats of three Rio Conventions have pledged to generate synergies in support of sustainable development. The three Conventions emerged from the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit 20, years ago.

In a joint statement issued June 21, 2012, the Executive Secretaries of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) committed to tackle sustainable development challenges by focusing on prioritized cross-cutting themes.

These include landscape and ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation, generating and sharing information on climate change impacts and vulnerability when considering biodiversity and land use and mainstreaming gender into activities related to the implementation of the conventions act.

The three top UN officials of the three Conventions emphasized at the Rio+20 the need for "coordinated, concrete, concerted, simple and attainable solutions" to achieve "a truly sustainable future". To this end, they called on countries and governments to set sustainable development goals, including achievable targets on land, biodiversity and climate change.

Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, Executive Secretary of the CBD said: "Twenty years of experience under these three agreements has produced the body of policy that we need to realize sustainable development. We now need to accelerate the implementation of this framework – at all levels, and in so doing, increase coordination so we can realize the important synergies that are needed for development."

Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD said: "Further commitment by the international community is needed to achieve The Future We Want. Going carbon neutral, becoming land degradation neutral and halting the loss of biodiversity are intertwined goals. Countries and governments should set sustainable development goals that take into account existing inter-linkages among the three pillars of sustainable development and that recognize the important goals and targets already agreed upon among the Rio Conventions."

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC said: "Governments are on the right track in terms of designing international policy frameworks. Under the UNFCCC, they have set the goal of a maximum 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise, with a view to considering 1.5 degrees Celsius. They are building the support infrastructure for developing countries and are working towards a new universal climate change agreement, whilst increasing ambition now. There is no doubt that the scope and speed of action urgently needs to be stepped up, and that holds true for all three Conventions."


The Convention on Biological Diversity is an international treaty for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of the components of biodiversity and the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of genetic resources. With 193 Parties, the Convention seeks to address all threats to biodiversity and ecosystem services, including threats from climate change, through scientific assessments, the development of tools, incentives and processes, the transfer of technologies and good practices and the full and active involvement of relevant stakeholders including indigenous and local communities, youth, NGOs, women and the business community. ()


Desertification, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity were identified as the greatest challenges to sustainable development during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Established in 1994, UNCCD is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment, development and the promotion of healthy soils. The Convention’s 195 signatory Parties work to alleviate poverty in the drylands, maintain and restore the land’s productivity, and mitigate the effects of drought.


With 194 Parties, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has near universal membership and is the parent treaty of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by 191 of the UNFCCC Parties. Under the Protocol, 37 States, consisting of highly industrialized countries and countries undergoing the process of transition to a market economy, have legally binding emission limitation and reduction commitments. The ultimate objective of both treaties is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.

The joint statement was first disclosed on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the three Rio Conventions by their respective Executive Secretaries at a breakfast round-table with the current Presidencies of the respective Conference of the Parties. The Anniversary was celebrated with a full day programme at the Rio Conventions Pavilion.

The Rio Conventions have played a key role in framing global and national policy responses to the challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, desertification and land degradation. Their collaboration is facilitated in the context of the Joint Liaison Group run directly by the Executive Secretaries of the three Conventions.

Importance of soil

Among the three Rio Conventions, the UNCCD is of particular significance because, as the Convention's Executive Secretary Gnacadja pointed out during the global observance event of the 2012 World Day to Combat Desertification (WDCD) on June 17, there is "no life without soil and no soil without life". It was important to realise this because: "By 2030, the demand for food will increase by 50 percent, for water by 40 and for energy by 35 percent."

He added: "We need land to meet these needs, but if we go on with business as usual, we will meet none of them. Therefore, this year’s theme of the Day calls on each of us to make a voluntary commitment to become land degradation neutral."

Gnacadja was supported by several experts in the field: The UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) Director Jan McAlpine said: "Soil is like blood in our veins – without it nothing on the planet will survive." Nevertheless, each year globally 75 billion tons of non-renewable fertile soil is lost due to land degradation.

Achieving zero net land degradation is feasible, said Dennis Garrity, Executive Board Member of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and UNCCD Drylands. Ambassador. Garrity recommended the implementation of national and local regeneration measures and a transformation towards climate smart agriculture systems.

Jochen Flasbarth, President of the German Federal Environment Agency, said that soil is inappropriately seen as a domestic issue and Alexander Mueller of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) noted that soil degradation is not just a problem in developing countries. According to Mueller, the United States are losing fertile soil at a very high rate for example.

Kanayo Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), warned against viewing small local farmers, herders and foresters as contributors to land degradation. He said that empowering them through access to technology and finance will move them towards improved sustainable land use and livelihoods.

In a separate message on the Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the international community to ensure that a commitment to sustainable land management features prominently in the official outcome at Rio and in the wider mobilization for sustainability that will also be part of Rio's legacy. "Without healthy soil, life on Earth is unsustainable," Ban said.

Land for Life Award

As part of the events in Rio to mark the Day, UNCCD and the reigning Miss Universe 2011, Leila Lopes, who is also the UNCCD Drylands Ambassador, announced the winners of the first Land for Life Award. The award, with a total prize fund of 100,000 USD, recognizing innovations from around the world, went to community organizations in Haiti, Turkey and Uganda.

The first prize of the award, with a pot of 40,000 USD, will go to the organization Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) in Haiti. Through community-driven ecological sanitation, where human waste is converted into valuable fertilizer, SOIL offers an integrated approach to the issues of inadequate sanitation, declining soil fertility and extensive erosion. Since building Haiti’s first EcoSan toilet in 2006, SOIL has gone on to become one of the country’s largest sanitation providers.

"Sanitation is seldom considered with regards to sustainable land management," said Dr  Sasha Kramer, Executive Director of SOIL, reflecting on the meaning of winning the award. “But with over 250,000,000 cubic meters of nutrient rich human wastes being discharged into the environment every year, it is time that scientists and policy makers consider the management of human wastes as a driver for global sustainable land management.”

A prize of 30,000 USD will go to the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA). The largest environmental NGO in Turkey, TEMA has mobilized people across civil society, from children to farmers, gathering one million signatures in support of a law on soil protection, as well as providing practical leadership and training for holistic land management.

"Struggling for land preservation requires us to be patient and insistent like a rock, like the soil itself," said Serar Sarigül, the general manager of TEMA. "It's very important and motivating for us to receive such an award, and it's very meaningful to receive it on our 20th anniversary. I would like to thank all my colleagues, our representatives and the 450,000 volunteers across Turkey, for making this happen."

The award also goes to the organization Conservation Efforts for Community Development (CECOD) in Uganda, who will receive 30,000 USD. Concerned with increasing practical knowledge of sustainable development, CECOD has turned children into agents of change in rural communities through creating a network of eco-schools, training 7,500 teachers and involving 34,700 children in micro projects, such as organic farming and water harvesting.

"The land resources we use today are only borrowed from the next generation, meanwhile the current effects of desertification and climate change are a result of mistakes made by the recent past generation,” said Robert Isingoma, CECOD Country Director. "We must put the current generation at the center of environmental planning and let them take charge of shaping a sustainable future."

Two organizations received special mention for their achievements from the Jury: DeCo! a social enterprise in Ghana selling high-grade fertilizer to farmers made from compost, and The Wand Foundation, an organization which helps farmers in the Philippines reclaim their land from usurious lenders and increase its productivity, also through fertilizer from ecological sanitation.

"These three winners exemplify the type of leadership and initiatives which are making the difference at grassroots level, improving livelihoods and ensuring land stewardship," said, UNCCD Executive Secretary Gnacadja. "We need to learn from them and help them to scale-up their work and disseminate the lessons learnt."

More than one hundred applications for the prize were received from 52 countries and 15 semi-finalists were selected. The competition was open to individuals, NGOs, governments, business, media and others that could demonstrate contributions to sustainable land management.

The Land for Life Award was launched at the 10th Conference of Parties to the UNCCD in Changwon, Republic of Korea as part of the Changwon Initiative in October 2011. This year's award program is supported by the Korea Forest Service, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Global Environment Facility, International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN), the Qatar National Food Security Programme, the Business Forum in Korea and the Elion Resources Group, China. [IDN-InDepthNews – June 22, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image: A herd of goats in Norte Chico, Chile. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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