According to a new report, with our cities, farms and holistic way of life, we have replaced large parts of the earth from their natural state, usually making them worse than before. The researchers found that up to 40% of the world’s total land area is now classified as degraded, with Asia, South America and Africa being particularly affected.
The report was published by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), part of a legally binding treaty that addresses the effects of desertification and drought, to which almost every country has agreed. UNCCD will hold its next major meeting, COP15, next week, where leaders and civil society will try to put land restoration on the political agenda.
“Land degradation is affecting food, water, carbon and biodiversity. It is reducing GDP, affecting people’s health, reducing access to clean water and worsening drought, UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw said in a statement. “Modern agriculture has changed the face of the planet more than any other human activity.”
Land degradation occurs when land cover is removed or lost, causing soil and organic matter to be washed away. We tend to think of degraded lands as dry deserts, rainforests cleared by loggers, or areas covered by cities, but this obviously also includes green areas that have been stripped of natural vegetation or have been intensively cultivated.
The United Nations found that 70% of Earth’s land area has already been replaced by its natural state, causing “unique environmental degradation” and also contributing to global warming. About $44 trillion (half of the world’s annual GDP) is at risk due to the depletion of natural resources, which provide many valuable services to all.
The report states that between 20% and 40% of the global land surface is now degraded, an area the size of Africa. Still, the estimate is “conservative” and could be larger in reality, the United Nations said. The decline is particularly severe in arid regions, meaning water-scarce parts of the world, which are now home to one in three people.
More than any other activity, agriculture is largely behind these impacts, the report found, with at least 40% of Earth’s land surface currently devoted to agriculture – and half of that land degraded. . The decline in agriculture is largely due to illegal deforestation, lax enforcement of laws, and consumer demand.
The report highlights ways through which we can still prevent and reverse the damage done to Earth’s land – not with the technology of the future but with existing tools and information. And there are places that have already started investing in land restoration that are seeing benefits, with examples from different parts of the world included in the report.
One example that stands out is Africa’s Green Wall Initiative, which began in 2007 to restore degraded landscapes on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the west. The United Nations said local communities played a leading role in the project, with funding from the World Bank and the Green Climate Fund.
In Niger, Africa, farmers have brought back a traditional technique that mixes trees with agricultural land, hoping to reverse decades of deforestation and land degradation. These trees can promote crop growth and improve soil health, while providing people with additional food, fodder and fuel, making their lives easier.
Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, with 24% of its land degraded, Indonesia is investing in protecting and restoring its peatlands – which contain vast amounts of carbon. The United Nations estimates that about half of the country’s 140,000 square kilometers of peatlands have been drained or logged, leading to more frequent wildfires.