From Chile to China: The global battle against desertification

De Chile a China: la lucha mundial contra la desertificación

In May 2022, global leaders met in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire for the fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. The event, focused on how to protect and sustainably manage one of Earth’s most precious commodities-land.

Yacouba Sawadogo, 76, has been a farmer for much of his life, tending a plot of land in a semi-arid stretch of central Burkina Faso. But in the 1980s, that way of life almost came to an end.

Severe droughts triggered soil erosion and land degradation, crippling farms across Burkina Faso and much of Western Africa.

Amid the crisis, Sawadogo developed a modified version of a traditional farming practice known as Zai that would help crops survive on minimal rainfall.

Forty years on, the technique has revolutionized farming in much of Africa, earning him the nickname ‘The Man Who Stopped the Desert,’ Sawadogo – a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Champion of the Earth – is part of a global effort to slow the process of desertification taking place everywhere from northern Chile to the Taklamakan Desert in China.

For nearly 50 years, UNEP has played a key role in the global fight against desertification by supporting visionaries like Sawadogo, providing scientific expertise, financing innovative land restoration projects, and galvanizing nations to take coordinated action against desertification..

First identified as a problem in the 1960s, desertification is now commonly accepted as one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world.

Almost a quarter of the world’s total land area has been degraded with far-reaching implications for every single person on this planet, according to The Global Environment Facility(GEF), which serves as the financial mechanism for several environmental conventions, such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

According to the GEF, unchecked, desertification can lead to: “food shortages, volatility and increases in food prices caused by declines in the productivity of croplands.

Contrary to common misconception, desertification is not necessarily the natural expansion of existing deserts but rather the degradation of land overtime due to overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices. And although desertification is ultimately man-made, it is exacerbated by the extreme weather, such as droughts and heavy rains, associated with climate change. 

En 1977, la AsambleIn 1977, the UN General Assembly discussed the dire situation in the Sahel and passed a resolution to convene the UN Conference on Desertification. Born out of that conference was the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification, a blueprint for restoring the “productivity of arid, semi-arid, sub-humid and other areas vulnerable to desertification in order to improve the quality of life of their inhabitants.”

Having clear and achievable national action plans is a critical aspect of UNEP’s other great achievement: the formation of The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was adopted in 1994 and entered into force in 1996.To date, the Convention is the world’s sole legally binding international agreement that explicitly links the environment and development to sustainable land management.

UNEP and the UNCCD were also at the forefront of the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification, a global campaign (from 2010 –2020) to raise awareness about desertification, which threatened to derail any hope of reaching the Millennium Development Goals.

UNEP, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, has also played a central role in the 2021-2030 UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. 

The Great Green Wall, a mosaic of land restoration activities stretching from Senegal to Djibouti, is a prime example. It’s hoped that when this African-led initiative, which will be supported by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, UNCCD and UNEP, is completed, it will contribute to reducing the impact of desertification in the Sahel and Sahara, restore degraded landscapes and transform millions of lives in one of the world’s poorest regions.

To help finance restoration work, UNEP is channelling private investments into the Sahel and other developing regions. The Restoration Seed Capital Facility, for example, funds early-stage forest restoration projects.

UNEP is also implementing, through The Restoration Initiative, land restoration projects in Kenya and Tanzania. Furthermore, with the GEF, UNEP has implemented more than 160 land degradation projects to the tune of $130 million over the last 24 years. Combined, these projects have resulted in more than 2.3 million ha coming under restoration and sustainable land management.