As they abandon barren land, farmers take problems with them

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 6 December 2015 21:08 GMT

A farmer waves while riding a donkey with his family near Douentza January 28, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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Creeping deserts, loss of trees and infertile soils push poor farmers off their land and fuel migration

PARIS, Dec 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Creeping deserts, loss of trees, barren soils and water shortages are pushing poor farmers off their land from Africa to Latin America, forcing people to seek new ways to survive, experts said.

This migration, in turn, is putting growing ecological and financial pressure on the places they move to, whether neighbouring farmland or city slums, aid and environment officials told a gathering on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Paris.

"We have to recognise the absolute nexus between displacement, migration and the climate, and resource scarcity," said U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien.

The issue of forced displacement is a hot topic internationally, he noted, not least because of the millions of Syrians who have fled their country due to war. They account for around half of the refugees who are undertaking perilous boat journeys to reach European shores.

Of the other half, some are Africans from the Sahel region who have left their homes due a scarcity of natural resources and environmental degradation, he added.

"We must be prepared to tackle (displacement) at its root and in its broadest context" with the aim of making sure people are "protected from the ravages of climate variation", O'Brien said.

Harrison S. Karnwea, managing director of the Liberian Forestry Development Authority, said people were coming from as far as Burkina Faso and Ghana and entering Liberia's virgin forest to harvest licorice root, or chewing sticks.

Some Liberians are cutting down trees for timber and hiring migrant labour along the Ivorian border, where the government is trying to protect biodiversity, and paying the migrants with land for their work, he said.

Liberia - which still has forests covering 46 percent of its land - needs international assistance to head off threats and conserve those forests, he added.

Louise Baker, external relations and policy coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, said migration as a result of degraded land is on the rise, as three quarters of poor people in the world's rural areas are seeing their land become less productive.

Many move into adjoining areas which they exploit for food until that land also becomes exhausted, leading to a vicious cycle of "degrade, abandon, migrate", she warned.

Poor farmers have always moved seasonally to boost their income in lean seasons, she noted. "But the tendency is that people are moving more permanently now - often into slum areas of cities, where they don't have opportunities," she said.

"There is a push factor from the land that really is accelerating," she added.

Dealing with that requires rehabilitating natural resources and creating sustainable jobs, so that people have the choice of staying, she said.

RESTORING LAND

On Sunday, African countries, with backing from a range of international organisations, launched a push to restore 100 million hectares of land by 2030, with 10 countries pledging to deliver around a third of that.

Djimé Adoum, executive secretary of the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), said people were moving southwards from Burkina Faso into Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Guinea to escape worsening drought and land degradation.

Those countries are now noticing "it is getting browner and browner here, and starting to look like the Sahel", as arid land expands, said the former Chadian agriculture minister.

But thanks to one initiative in Burkina Faso that made damaged land fertile again, sorghum harvests more than doubled per hectare, giving local people enough to eat and sell, he said.

If young people have jobs, created by wider wealth, "they are going to be very unlikely to join the bandits and the terrorists. They will stay around, and become happy citizens, and all of us will gain from that," he added.

Even in Costa Rica, which has forest on 52 percent of its land thanks to government conservation policies, the degradation of land is a problem, said the Central American nation's environment and energy minister, Edgar Gutierrez Espeleta.

Some poor farmers are living on very barren land, he said, and the challenge is to bring that territory back to health, so it could be used to grow enough food.

Such areas need technology and social support to rehabilitate degraded land and allow communities to live there, or "we are not going to be able to bring people back and we will lose those lands for good", he said.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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