A big part of the solution – and the problem presently — is literally under our feet. There are many reasons to secure our land resources and the land itself.
Land security is an issue of human security. Today, 33% of land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils. About 1/6th of the world’s population depend on degrading land. Indeed, though most people are much less aware of it than of other critical crises (e.g. the climate crisis), we do have a soil crisis.
Each year, an area thrice the size of Switzerland is lost for agriculture, exacerbating existing situations in climate change, water management, availability of food, and ultimately human security.
As Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) noted in her foreword to our book, Land Restoration:Reclaiming Landscapes for a Sustainable Future, “Land and soil is the second-largest carbon sink, after the oceans. Getting carbon back in the soil could buy the 30 years that we may need to move to a low-carbon economy. It could also get vulnerable populations, who are already experiencing climate change impacts and resource scarcity, time to adapt.”
The relationship between land restoration, climate change abatement, and human security is beginning to be recognized in the mainstream. When I first became a steering committee member for Initiatives for Land, Lives and Peace (ILLP) about five years ago, the discussion of the central need for land restoration as a vital way to fight against climate change was largely contained within niche parts of the research community, a hand-full of on-the-ground practitioners and local changemakers, as well as the UNCCD, led by Luc Gnacadja (Executive Director at that time).
The theme for this year’s Caux Dialogue on Land and Security is the “Business of Land Restoration and Trust.” The case for tackling land degradation and conflict is clear. Land degradation costs businesses around $40 billion a year, and is a real risk to the future of the food, fiber, forestry, and bioenergy industries. When these industries are threatened and harvest yields on agricultural lands are reduced through land degradation, people are forced to move to find work and food sources. When there is weak governance and socio-economic inequalities already present, conflict often naturally ensues (e.g., due to land rights).
There are several relatively low-cost means of restoring land, but they take time and trust. One example, is Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). FMNR is a system of tree and shrub regrowth and management. This regrowth can be integrated into crops and grazing pastures and has been shown to double crop yields. FMNR also helps restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion, and rehabilitate the water table, among other positives.
Much of my research today is centered on accounting for co-benefits in resilience planning and associated investments. In the ten plus years I have worked in the space of environmental and developmental economics, it has become clear – for better or worse – that the business case tends to be what decides whether an environmental improvement will be adopted. Highlighting the fact that minimal investments aimed directly at land restoration almost always have indirect co-benefits such as increased livelihood stability and reduced regional conflict. Not to mention that I recently learned that the world’s soils contain almost one-third of living organisms (per the European Union’s Joint Research Center). Considering that we only have identified about 1 % of these organisms, it’s worth keeping the soil around and learning more.
I wager that in land restoration and management overall, technical questions are not the greatest obstacles, though the science is complex and, of course, continues to unfold. The real challenge continues to be getting communities to work together and to share and support effective goals around land issues. Starting with users of the land and go up– addressing stakeholders at multiple levels—is crucial. We need to strive to overcome silo thinking, whether by experts, policy makers, or practitioners, in order to continue to restore degraded lands effectively.
At a time when the USA is considering reducing key national climate measures (such as the Clean Air Act) and is threatening to exit the Paris Agreement on the International Stage, I am heartened thinking about the many local, regional, and international efforts I see related to land restoration. It is possible: investment (economic, social, and emotional) in landscapes, improved land governance, and trust building are coming together over and over to help restore land and with it, create a cleaner and more peaceful world.
Happy Earth Day! Please remember that there is no Planet B.
Jennifer F. Helgeson, PhD
About the editor:
Dr. Jennifer F. Helgeson is an environmental economist leading work on the economics of community resilience planning. Views shared in this post are her own and do not reflect the opinion of the organization by which she is employed. In the past, Jennifer was a researcher at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, Norway and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, France. Following the completion of her B.A. Degree in Economics at Brandeis University, Dr. Helgeson had a Fulbright grant to research environmental economic issues in Norway. She earned her M.Sc. Degree in Environmental Change and Management with a focus on Environmental Economics at the University of Oxford, UK. Dr. Helgeson holds a PhD in Environmental & Developmental Economics at the London School of Economics (LSE) under a Grantham Institute for Climate Change Research scholarship and was also supported by NSF funding.
Jennifer is primarily interested in economic analyses that consider behavioral aspects and approaches to dealing with environmental issues. She has authored a number of academic articles and chapters. She co-edited the Elsevier published book “Land Restoration: Reclaiming Landscapes for a Sustainable Future.”