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‘Soil Crucial to Sustainable Development’

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By IDN Global Desk

BERLIN (IDN) - Land and soil, which are finite resources and the essential bases of all food production, should be treated on par with energy, food and water as essential elements of sustainable development, says Tarja Halonen, co-chair of the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, and a former President of Finland.

Though the debate on land and soil has been moving forward, "it is still lagging behind the climate and biodiversity processes, so we have to give it an extra push for the run-up to the discussions on the post-2015 agenda," she told UNCCD News, a bi-monthly update on the work of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

As a co-chair of the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, she helped prepare the Rio+20 Conference report 'Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing', which introduced the Sustainable Development Goals to the Rio process. She gave the keynote speech at the 2nd UNCCD Scientific Conference from April 9 to 12, 2013 in Bonn (Germany), the seat of the UNCCD secretariat.

About 800 scientists attended the conference and discussed socio-economic impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD), for example, global food insecurity, poverty, biodiversity loss, unemployment and migration, as well as potential solutions.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Poverty eradication

Question (Q): How does land relate to the overarching goal of poverty eradication?

Tarja Halonen (TJ): Land is often the only asset available to the poor. It provides them with food, work and income, so it is key to their economic wellbeing and food security. That is why the poor need secure tenure of their land, as well as knowledge of sustainable land management techniques, in order to achieve economic and food security now and in future.

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto opened my eyes to the key role of land ownership rights for poverty eradication. Unless people have legal ownership of the land they cultivate, it is difficult for them to become attached to the land and care about its health. What’s more, without these rights, they can also be displaced from their land very easily.

These problems particularly affect countries with weakened social structures. So we need to focus on smallholder farmers’ rights. In my view, there is scope for many types of ownership, whether individual or cooperative, as long as they are fair. Secure access to land is also a gender issue: around 80 per cent of Africa’s food and 60 per cent of food in Asia is produced by women!

At present, 1.5 billion people depend on degraded land, and most of these people are poor. With increasing demand from a growing world population for the services that land provides, this situation could become critical. That’s why sustainable land management is essential. By maintaining the soil in good condition, the poor can produce better quality food and improve their nutritional status. People who are well-fed are better able to exploit economic opportunities. Healthy soil means healthy people and better livelihoods! Sustainable land management is one of the most effective tools for poverty eradication. It’s about empowering marginalised groups, especially the poor, women and young people, and harnessing their under-utilised human capital.

Q: What role do you see for a land-degradation neutral world in the Sustainable Development Goals envisaged for the post-2015 era?

TJ: Poverty eradication is still the primary goal for the international community. The trinity of green growth, social justice and global environmental boundaries should guide the work on the Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 period.

Land is one of the key issues together with water and energy. It is a vital resource that we have to protect for future generations. I think it is very promising that in many sectors of sustainable development, people say that a sustainability approach is the right way to go. There are already many sustainable land management success stories to be told, and that’s very important: people need to know what to do and not only what not to do. We need more pilot projects from the international community, so that there are more of these success stories that can be replicated in other parts of the world.

The role of science

Q: What role do you see for the scientific community on the road to a land-degradation neutral world?

TJ: Scientists have a vital role to play. They provide scientific assessments on the current status of our soils, climate and biodiversity. They have done very important work already on climate change, by giving us the facts and figures that show how human action is warming up the world we live in. They have also encouraged us to question our use of GDP as the sole yardstick of development and to look at other social and environmental metrics to measure human wellbeing.

So I encourage scientists to continue to voice their opinions and concerns. It’s time to release the science! Policy-makers must listen to the scientists. After all, politicians in democratic systems are accountable to their electorates and should therefore be receptive to scientists’ advice and concerns, especially on issues that are crucial for the future of humankind. That applies especially to desertification, land degradation and drought.

I would like to see much closer cooperation between the scientists associated with the three Rio Conventions so that scientists send a strong message to the international community and policy-makers about the need for sustainable land management. SLM is vital to feed the world, mitigate climate change and conserve biodiversity.

Scientists are developing alternative agricultural methods for drylands, as well as techniques to support the rehabilitation of degraded land. They are pioneering the action that is so important to maintain healthy soils. But we still need to bridge the gap between science and practice. Part of this is about making the scientists’ findings accessible to farmers all over the world. But it also means ensuring that scientific knowledge reaches the people who are currently working on the Sustainable Development Goals.

So I have a clear message for the scientific community: let policy-makers know what you know! We need scientists to provide us with firm data and clear targets. This scientific evidence is essential to help decision-makers take positive and sustainable action on DLDD. We face major challenges, but scientists can change the world – they have done so in the past, and I hope they will do so again.

Stop the tyranny of GDP!

Q: You mentioned GDP – is this still an appropriate indicator for development?

TJ: We have to stop the tyranny of GDP! Too many people still see GDP as the most important measure of development. But that’s a short-sighted approach. GDP is only an acceptable measure if we take it into consideration in the context of a green economy. We need to broaden our perspective to include social and environmental aspects as well. There is now a growing recognition that economic growth doesn’t bring welfare.

Nonetheless, the economic dimension is important, and we can utilise economic arguments to achieve the positive outcomes that we want. I have worked in many different areas, such as human rights and women’s empowerment, and I have noticed that decision-makers always listen to economic arguments. Anything that can be measured becomes more meaningful for them. So I think that the UNCCD and other initiatives are on the right track when they focus their attention on the economic aspects of desertification, sustainable land management and resilience. But GDP alone is not the right way forward, and I welcome the shift in perspective here.

Interestingly, scientists also have a role to play in this context. They know that investing in SLM is essential for the future of humankind; and they can supply the strong arguments to show that it is also extremely profitable. Doing nothing is far more expensive than taking action on DLDD, and SLM is a smart investment.

Q: How can women contribute to combating desertification, land degradation and drought?

TJ: There is a strong gender dimension to DLDD. Women play an essential role in food production and land management: the majority of small farmers are women, especially in Africa, so land degradation impacts particularly on these women and their families. Often, their nutritional status is very poor, and this is worsened by DLDD. Women and children are always the last to leave degraded land.

Women and girls are also the main providers of water for their families. As the land dries out, they have to travel longer distances to find water, leaving little time for education or other productive work. I am very committed to the empowerment of women, because if women have greater equality and access to land and education, positive results are achieved very quickly.

Educating women and girls, also about sustainable land management, creates a win-win situation. It empowers women and girls, improves human capital for present and future generations, and helps to maintain and restore soil health. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 4, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Tarja Halonen | Credit: UNCCD

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