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‘Climate Change is Killing People in Drylands’

 InDepth News 17 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) “Enhancing soils anywhere enhances life everywhere,” says UN’s top official Luc Gnacadja, who is tasked with combating land degradation and drought – not only in Africa, the most vulnerable continent, but all along the drylands belt running from Latin America through Sahel and Asia. (1917 words) - By Ramesh Jaura

BERLIN, Germany - "Enhancing soils anywhere enhances life everywhere," says UN's top official Luc Gnacadja, who is tasked with combating land degradation and drought - not only in Africa, the most vulnerable continent, but all along the drylands belt running from Latin America through Sahel and Asia.

Gnacadja is executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which along with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) emerged from the Earth Summit June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

UNCCD is often regarded an African convention. "Two-thirds of the continent is drylands but it is a global convention, with global scope and global benefit. 41 percent of the total land mass is made of drylands and 34 percent of the global population live in the drylands. Among those 34 percent, one billion are really the poorest among the poor of the world."

Gnacadja, a former environment minister of Benin, says in an exclusive interview: "I believe that a climate change solution will be found in the land and the soil. The soil is where we know all players have reasons to really tap into: the potential of the land and soil to adapt to climate change challenge and also to mitigate greenhouse gases."

A slightly abridged version of the interview with IDN-InDepthNews editor Ramesh Jaura follows:


IDN: You have been attending climate change conferences as UNCCD executive secretary since October 2007 and earlier as head of the delegations of your country, Benin. Where did it all go wrong, in your view, with the landmark UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December last year?

Luc Gnacadja: I am afraid the global players have their individual agenda and some of that agenda cannot fit into the intergovernmental process. Within the UN, the biggest and the smallest do count and they should all sit around the table and strike a deal that will be a sound deal for all the players.

This is really important, especially as we are moving away from the Cold War and the world is getting more and multi-polar. There are new powers emerging with new national or local agendas that that they want to see fit into the global agenda - and of course this is not easy to make happen. The UN is the sole context to make it happen. Moving away from that baseline means jeopardizing global sustainability.


SUSTAINABILITY

IDN: How far are your experiences similar to those of your colleague at the climate change secretariat, Yvo de Boer, who has announced that he will quit on July 1, 2019?

Luc Gnacadja: Our responsibilities are really pressing, especially in the context of the ongoing negotiations on climate change - and the Copenhagen conference was a milestone. [. . . ] What is from time to time worrying me is that the UNCCD is given a low political profile in the global debate.

But I believe that this convention is in fact the future of all the global sustainability debates. I believe that a climate change solution will be found in the land and the soil. The soil is where we know all players have reasons to really tap into: the potential of the land and soil to adapt to climate change challenge and also to mitigate greenhouse gases.

By doing so, they will be bringing more resilience especially for the poor and they will also be improving soil productivity - and, therefore, addressing poverty issues at the local level. They will be securing people's livelihoods and reducing the 'push factor' of environmental induced migration.

This is a kind of win-win ground that is not yet fully on the (global) agenda. From the UNCCD side we are pleading for synergies. [. . .] I am calling for the nations' leaders to pull down the ivory tower that we have built over the years around the conventions whereby we tend to implement them on a much clustered way. It doesn't make any sense; there is no cluster in nature; in nature there is no boundary. Whatever you do here that is not attainable, will harm you - maybe not today but at the end of the day it will harm you.


IDN: That would mean really integrating land degradation, drought and sustainable land management in the climate change negotiations. Right?


MDGs

Luc Gnacadja: Right. I am saddened by the fact that whenever land as such is raised as option it is immediately bracketed and those who bracket it have a kind of agenda built out of concepts of fear - that it might jeopardize their national agenda or bring the global community to have a close look at what they are doing with their land and soil. But we know, we should know that whenever we enhance soil, we enhance land globally. Awareness raising about this fact is essential.

Unfortunately - as in Copenhagen - whenever the potential that has now been clearly established by science, potential of the land and the soil not only to address adaptation but also to mitigate climate change is brought up in the context of the REDD programme (on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) or NAMAS (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Measures) there are a number of big players who bracket it. And I believe that the challenges in Copenhagen were mainly challenges of lack of trust between the players.


IDN: Do you expect something better at the negotiations in Bonn in June 2010?

Luc Gnacadja: We will continue advocating the improvement of land and the soil and focussing on drylands. The human face of climate change is to be seen in the drylands. People are already dying due to the impact of climate change in drylands, because of prolonged droughts that are followed by sudden rain and flood. Because of severe degradation of land, some people are starving, some of them are dying, and others are migrating.

Look at the MDGs (millennium development goals). In September this year, we are going to review the MDGs (at a special session of the UN General Assembly). One thing that will come up clearly is that the countries and the areas that are affected by desertification are those that are ranking at the bottom of the implementation scale of the MDGs.

And if you look at the human development index (of the UN Development Programme), we see that the populations that are at the bottom of the human development index are mostly in the drylands. When you take a given country, the people living in that country are ranking at the bottom of the MDGs. So this is saying something clearly […].


IDN: But apparently this is not recognized by governments and by the people at large . . .

Luc Gnacadja: It is not yet recognized. That's why I am campaigning for it. And I do hope that the international community will recognize that it is not by accident that eight out of ten conflicts in the world are in drylands, the drylands belt running from Latin America through Sahel and Asia. What is at the root of those conflicts? If you look at it closely, it is the fight to have access to very scarce resources. It's about productive land and water.


GLOBAL NOT LOCAL


IDN: What would you say has the UNCCD been able to achieve since the convention came into force in 1996?

Luc Gnacadja: The convention came into force around a debate that coincided with its opening for signature in Paris on June 17, 2019. It came into force in a political context where there were divergent views on how to implement the convention. Some believed that it is a matter just of a local challenge - that is roughly the view of the developed countries - but the developing and African countries are saying that it is not local but global.

The UNCCD 10-year strategic plan and framework to enhance the implementation of the Convention (2008-2018) highlights the importance given to the development and implementation of scientifically-based and sound methods for monitoring and assessing desertification, and underlines the need for a holistic view.

Meanwhile, UNCCD's first scientific conference (September 2009 in Buenos Aires) has provided advisory to the COP (conference of parties to the Convention) regarding how to monitor the impact of the implementation.

The three main strategies of judging how to monitor impact consist of the proposed eleven indicators. The COP picked two as mandatory. This is a major breakthrough because when you have a strategy and you have a yardstick to measure progress you can set targets.

So I do hope that we are moving towards where parties will agree on a global baseline on the methodologies and then they will be able to set targets - targets at local, national as well as at regional and global levels. Some of those targets will be closely linked to the targets of climate change and targets of biodiversity.

Let me give you an example: when there are a lot of voices calling for zero net forest degradation - in the context of climate change - it will be impossible to reach such a target if we don't aim at having zero net land degradation. Because, where is the pressure on forest coming from? It is coming from land being degraded, and people looking for new land. Then they go for deforestation. So one is closely linked with the other. In other words, if we say that we want to preserve the forest we must make better use of the land under management and we must attach importance to reclaiming or rehabilitating the degraded land.


NOT AN 'AFRICAN CONVENTION'

IDN: So it's not just an African convention as some people insist?

Luc Gnacadja: It's not an African convention. Of course Africa has been referred to because Africa is the most vulnerable. Two-thirds of the continent is dryland but it is a global convention, with global scope. 41 percent of the total land mass is made of drylands and 34 percent of the global population live in the drylands. Among those 34 percent, one billion are really the poorest among the poor of the world.

So this is really where we need to change the perception: UNCCD is a global convention, with global scope and of course global benefit to be delivered. For instance, when you are reclaiming land, land is long-term food security. Food security is not about Africa only. When you are rehabilitating land or improving land cover, it is not only about Africa. So it's a kind of paradigm that requires paradigm shift. And we are working on this.


IDN:  Would the International Year of Biodiversity and the special session of the UN General Assembly help you move forward with the governments and in the awareness of the people at large?

Luc Gnacadja: We have a programme of close cooperation with my colleague Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and we have a programme of raising global awareness about this year of biodiversity. We will not only release a joint statement but we will also be a part of a number of activities throughout the year.

We are working to launch a land day at the CBD's global conference (October 18-29, 2010) in Nagoya in Japan. After all, eight out of 25 global "biodiversity hotspots" are in drylands. That's why we have carefully chosen and crafted our team for awareness raising. Enhancing soils anywhere enhances life everywhere. This is at the core of the work on biodiversity.

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