World

From Chile to China: the global battle against desertification

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.

“People were leaving, and the animals and trees were dying,” Sawadogo recalled. “We had to look at a new way to farm.”

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.

UNEP’s mission to combat desertification has been underpinned by the notion that as devastating as desertification can be, it can also be easily solved with targeted land restoration. This is something Ibrahim Thiaw, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification calls, “practical, cheap and accessible to all communities.” As Thiaw put it, “you don’t have to be a scientist to do land restoration.”

The gathering storm

First identified as a problem in the 1960s, desertification is now commonly accepted as one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world. “Land degradation and desertification negatively affects 3.2 billion people around the world today,” said Johan Robinson, a Senior Programme Management Officer with UNEP.

To make matters worse, the problem, he added, “disproportionately harms those who are least able to do anything about it: rural communities, smallholder farmers and the extremely poor.”

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; heightened impacts of climate change globally caused by the release of carbon and nitrous oxide from degrading land; and the threat of social instability from the forced migration that will result.”

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. That can start a vicious cycle where land degradation leads to loss of vegetation and forests that reduces the Earth’s capacity to sequester carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus worsening the climate crisis.

In fact, it was years of drought in the Sahel Region of Africa in the late 1960s and early 70s that caused severe food shortages and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The calamity alarmed the UN and focused global attention on desertification as a looming crisis.

Start of a movement

In 1977, the UN General Assembly discussed the dire situation in the Sahel and passed a resolution to convene the UN Conference on Desertification. Ironically, on a rainy day in late August 1977 in the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi, some 500 delegates from 94 countries gathered to start a two-week conference designed to tackle the continent’s desertification ticking time bomb.

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.”

In the last 50 years, UNEP, in concert with its global partners, has taken a lead on this issue. Aside from providing scientific data and expertise, another crucial part of UNEP’s work has been to build global political consensus on the crisis.

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, especially in the drylands of the world home to some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems. The UNCCD legally obligates its 197 parties to take various actions, including reporting on measures they have taken to implement the Convention.

“When compared to other sectors, combatting land degradation and desertification has not been the top priority for governments,” said Adamou Bouhari, a biodiversity and land degradation expert at UNEP. “We have supported countries all over the world to develop national action plans to combat desertification and align their national strategies with UNCCD 10-year strategies.”

Holding back the desert

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. This global initiative brings together Member States, local governments, academia, and the private sector to find sustainable solutions to restore the health of ecosystems, in which halting desertification is a key component.

Despite the persistence of desertification as an environmental and economic crisis, the good news is that not only is it possible to halt it, it’s possible to reverse it. And UNEP has been the go-to institution for support in projects combating desertification.

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. And with partners such as Rabobank, UNEP is blending private and public funding for sustainable agriculture and forestry projects, reducing the risk for investors and helping projects get off the ground.

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.

While tremendous progress has been made in the fight against land degradation and desertification, challenges persist. “There is a disconnect. There is an illusion that land degradation is local and therefore some people will be spared,” said Thiaw. “But it’s pure illusion. When there is a shortage of food in one part of the world, everybody is affected. When there is international migration exacerbated by land degradation, everybody suffers. When there is a major disaster affecting millions of people, the entire economy of the world is affected.

For Thiaw, recognizing the interconnectedness of the world’s environmental problems is a shift in consciousness that needs to take place urgently. After all, he said, “when you do land restoration, you address poverty, you address water issues, you address ecosystem issues, and you address climate change.”

This story is part of a series related to UNEP’s 50th anniversary. For other articles and a timeline of environmental milestones during the past half century, please visit our UNEP@50 section.