In an exclusive interview for msafiri, Wagaki Mwangi talks to Mr Luc Gnacadja at the end of his three-year term as Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Mitigate the Effects of Drought
As former UNCCD Executive Secretary, you were an ardent advocate of action to preserve the world’s drylands – the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. But aren’t these vast areas simply wastelands that are best left to tourism? Isn’t it worth focusing much more on the tropical forest areas that have much greater global value?
The sexiness of rainforests has done a disservice to humanity. It has led us to only see the rainforests, so much so that we give priority to them and forsake the dry forests, which are much more extensive than rainforests. Forty per cent of the Earth is open or closed forest. Of this 42% is dry forests 33% is moist forest and 25% is wet forest. And when you compare the role dry forests play in the functioning of the ecosystem, I would venture to say they even play a much more vital role in keeping the ecosystem operational. It is precisely because of our bias for rainforests that we have overlooked the real drivers of deforestation.
Why should we care about deforestation, especially in the world’s drylands?
The scientific community has identified the loss of land cover as one of the indicators of desertification and land degradation. Dry forests are the backbone of the ecosystem of the drylands, so the UNCCD coined the motto, “Forests keep drylands working”. So whenever we see a trend of land cover loss, we should take action to avoid it. We now know that it is possible and feasible to use land in many ways without losing land cover. Also, beyond the dryland areas, we have seen the loss of forests transforming human ecosystems into barren lands. Some of them might become drylands in the near future due to global warming, but with a heavy legacy of degradation. We can no longer afford a land use legacy that says, degrade, abandon, migrate – DAM as I call it.
Is reforestation a solution?
Trees take a lot of water. Yes and no. Forests, especially in drylands, enhance the soil’s ability to retain water and to refill the aquifer. So we are not talking about mere afforestation programmes. We emphasize the need to scale up land use practices that have demonstrated much more effectiveness and efficiency – I mean cost-effectiveness – in regenerating the land cover. One example is the farmer-managed natural regeneration which helps to restore the land’s cover (its productivity as well as water table). On a visit to Niger in February this year, a woman told me the water table in her home had risen by 14 metres after 10 years of using this land restoration technique, which combines tree and food farming.The key is to ensure afforestation programmes use indigenous species that are quite drought-resilient. Exotic fast growing trees eventually drain the land of water. So there is a link between agriculture, deforestation and land degradation.
Could you explain the links?
Up to 80% of deforestation is driven by agricultural expansion, which is also driven by the degradation of the land under use. That’s how severe the impact of degradation is on deforestation. So if we mean to preserve existing forests, we need to think and operate outside the box of forest preservation only, otherwise, we are doomed to fail. The results of the climate change initiative called REDD – Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation – call for a rethink, and the imperative to go holistic through a landscape approach. We will not succeed in preserving our forests if we do not preserve and sustainably manage our land and vice versa.
So there seems to be a link between the tropical forests and drylands?
Under the global warming scenario – and the science says we cannot escape a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that, since 1950, dry areas have expanded by a little under 2% every decade. So when we talk about drylands we should ask ourselves, ‘What drylands are we talking about – those of today or of yesterday?’ We must be concerned about the drylands of today and tomorrow. World leaders were right last year in calling for the world to become a land-degradation-neutral place. Tropical forests and drylands are different biospheres, but nature is one. We must live up to a multidisciplinary science and set policies that derive from it. If we do not aim at being holistic, we will not succeed.
How can I help, as an individual?
Every world citizen should know that his or her consumption pattern is having an impact through water use and food waste. Each of us leaves a footprint on the land. Consider that one third of the food produced in the world is lost; from the field to the market and from the food plate to the bin. Now consider that 44% of all cultivated systems are in the drylands. You can imagine how this culture of waste is impacting land use in the drylands. Each of us should be aware of that and take responsibility for it. One can join initiatives of civil society to attend to land and soil issues. Assisting communities in drylands to have sustainable alternative livelihoods may help reduce the footprint on soil and help restore the condition of degraded ecosystems. You can do that in many ways, but whenever you have a chance, seize it and act. Also call on your decision makers to live up to the challenge, because irrespective of where you live, all parties to the Convention have a responsibility.
As the former Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, is there something you always wished you could say that you wish to say now?
No. I kept the freedom of speech that I brought on board. It was a challenge sometimes. Some parties got upset, arguing, ‘We have not asked you to do or say this or that.’ My response was that I could not fail myself by not saying what I know the science has made available. I was duty bound to observe a number of precautions, but whatever I thought was necessary to say,
I said. My hope is that UNCCD will continue to show and exercise leadership in moving us towards a land-degradation-neutral world.