Land restoration requires immediate action and Indigenous land rights, says U.N. report

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Food systems are responsible for 80% of the world’s deforestation, 70% of freshwater use and contribute to 40% of the planet’s land degradation says a recently published report by the U.N.’s Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The report, the Global Land Outlook 2 (GLO2), published on Wednesday, is the most comprehensive study of the extent to which the world’s land is degraded, and what this means for people, the economy, wildlife, and the climate.

“Conserving, restoring, and using our land resources sustainably is a global imperative, one that requires action on a crisis footing,” says Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UNCCD. “Business as usual is not a viable pathway for our continued survival and prosperity.”

In addition to the report’s call to action is a list of 250 solutions and good practice examples from around the world that illustrate ways to combat environmental degradation, restore land health and improve living conditions. These range from breeding indigenous drought-tolerant crops in Burundi, to restoring forest landscapes with regenerative agriculture and shade-grown coffee in Mozambique.

For the first time, the report also recommends scaling up the land rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) to ensure the success of nature restoration projects.

The IPLC role in land restoration was highlighted in the Glasgow Declaration of Forests and Land Use at last year’s U.N. climate conference, which pledged $1.7 billion to secure land tenure and forest rights for communities. Recent research has also highlighted that reaching the Paris Agreement’s climate goal to maintain global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius won’t be possible without protecting IPLC lands.

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“Land […] is the connector between biodiversity and climate change, between humans and nature,” says Miriam Medel, the UNCCD’s chief of external relations, policy, and advocacy. Her team led the production of the GLO2 report’s research which spanned over five years and collaborated with 21 organizations.

The report was launched in the lead-up to the UNCCD’s COP15 summit which will be held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, from May 9 to May 20, 2022.

Land restoration under the radar
Not to be confused with the U.N. Convention for Biological Diversity’s COP15, the UNCCD summit will focus on reviving the world’s degraded lands, ecosystems, and soils. This summit has largely fallen under the radar when compared to the other two U.N. conventions on biological diversity and climate change.

Medel told Mongabay that focusing on the health of the land and those who live on it offers the opportunity to pursue the objectives of the three conventions together.

Ethiopia, Tigray region, Rayazebo District. This mountain was terraced to prevent erosion and to reclaim the land for agriculture. Image courtesy of UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
“Land restoration is a very cost-effective solution to multiple crises that we are facing globally,” says Medel. “It’s a solution for the environment, for climate change, because we bring carbon back to the soil. It’s a solution for biodiversity conservation […] it’s also a solution for food security, job creation and even peace and stability.”

The report places the cost of global land restoration at an estimated $300 billion per year to achieve the restoration of some one billion degraded hectares (2.47 billion acres)—an area the size of the USA—by 2030, the final year of the U.N.’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

The report argues that governments will be able to meet current pledges by repurposing subsidies given to the fossil fuel and agricultural industries, which total $700 billion every year.

Additionally, investing in restoration creates benefits that far exceed the costs, as every dollar invested in restoration activities provides a $7-30 return in economic benefits. These include direct opportunities like employment and selling timber, crops and meat, as well as ecosystem services like preventing soil erosion and increasing yields.

Medel says that one of the most inspirational initiatives, a UNCCD flagship, is the Great Green Wall, an 8,000-kilometer (4,970-mile) project that includes 11 countries and stretches across the width of the African continent in the arid Sahel region.

The initiative aims to stop the southern advance of the Sahara Desert by creating and maintaining a mosaic of restored and productive land. By 2030, the initiative pledges to restore one million square kilometers (about 0.4 million square miles) of degraded land, sequester 250 million tons of carbon, and create 10 million green jobs.

 The role of Indigenous and pastoralist communities
Indigenous people are central to any work about restoration, to address climate change or biodiversity loss, says Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, a Tuareg Indigenous leader who spoke to Mongabay by phone during the U.N.’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Aboubakrine comes from a pastoralist Indigenous community near Timbuktu in Mali, one of the countries partaking in the Great Green Wall initiative.

“They are the ones who lived there for millennia and transmitted knowledge that they got from the land—from generation to generation,” Aboubakrine told Mongabay. “If we want to learn how to restore, preserve and conserve, [we] really need to learn from them.”

The GLO2 report states that while there are up to 500 million pastoralists in the world, they are often neglected from the land restoration agenda. This is despite their grass-dominated rangelands being a major carbon sink and covering one-third of the Earth’s land surface.

Yon Fernandez-de-Larrinoa, leader of U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Indigenous Peoples Unit and founder of the organization’s Pastoralists Knowledge Hub, told Mongabay that respecting Indigenous free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is necessary for land and biocentric restoration.

Biocentrism sees ecosystems and their human and non-human co-inhabitants as intrinsically connected. This principle is part of the cosmogony of many Indigenous communities and underpins their way of life.

According to the report, Indigenous biocultural spaces and customary use help preserve agrobiodiversity, making food systems more resilient to climate change. As proven land stewards, they will be vital to the success of the global land restoration agenda, states the GLO2. However, this is only if their rights are recognized and they are involved in the management of protected areas, it continues.

Although tenure security, especially of Indigenous communities and pastoralists, is an enabler and an objective of land restoration, there is still some way to go in realizing that reality.

A 2020 Nature study found that most communities—nearly 295 million people who overlap with high target restoration sites in tropical forest areas—were often not consulted or part of the restoration process.

“Unfortunately, many restoration efforts treat communities as potential beneficiaries […] not the actual artisans of that change,” says Alain Frechette, director of strategic analysis and global engagement at Rights and Resources Institute (RRI).

Frechette told Mongabay that the evidence shows that when communities have tenure security, they will invest in and protect the land. Without these rights, whatever land is being restored is vulnerable to encroachment and other external pressures.

He says projects thus also lose the opportunity to restore land in ways that can be more sustainable and anchored in communities’ own systems and knowledge systems, in turn leading to restoration projects that are counterproductive to their own needs and priorities.

The report says businesses and land developers can also do their part by engaging in partnerships with Indigenous peoples and local communities to help obtain legal recognition of their customary lands as mandated by FPIC.

“If you wanted to do it properly, you would start by securing land rights or doing something to ensure that communities are the drivers of that restoration project,” says Frechette.