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Climate change and desertification a threat to social stability - UN

by Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary, UNCCD
Wednesday, 16 April 2014 12:00 GMT

A Turkana man herds livestock back from grazing grounds at the end of the day in the disputed area of the Ilemi triangle in northwestern Kenya near the borders with Ethiopia and South Sudan, on October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As their resilience diminishes in vulnerable regions, the poor are forced to take a stand to fight for their survival – or flee

William Tell, in popular legend, takes a stand against a system that undermined his human dignity – tyranny and oppression. He refused to bow down before the hat of the evil bailiff Gessler, but was then forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head with a crossbow.

This tale has a universal message. When you are pushed into a corner, your freedom and liberty are under pressure and your family and future are threatened, you take a stand.

So why are we ignoring the fundamental threats to the liberty and freedom of more than one billion poor people globally and pushing them to take a stand? Why do we fail, time after time, to turn the challenges presented by desertification, land degradation and drought into opportunities?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released the last of its three reports on the status of Climate Change. The verdict? The threat of climate change is growing. Poor people, who contributed the least to it, are the most vulnerable to its impacts and pay the highest price.

No single “bailiff” may be dispossessing the poor of their means of survival. But the growing tyranny of a changing climate and oppression of food insecurity and poverty are creating social instability all over the world.

This new trend has emerged repeatedly, from Darfur to North Africa, the Middle East and parts of South Asia. As the choices for survival diminish, the poor are forced to take the stand to fight for their survival or flee.

What is of higher value than being able to feed your family? For a significant part of the global population, this means having direct access to productive land – water, soil and its biodiversity – because land is their only tangible asset.

Some 500 million small-scale farmers support the livelihoods of over 2 billion people. More than 1.5 billion people live off degrading land; at least one billion are poor. The projected climate trends threaten their livelihoods.


The frequency and intensity of extreme and unpredictable weather events, especially floods and droughts that are linked to climate change, is threatening their livelihoods. It is upsetting the coping mechanisms they have relied on in bad times, robbing them not just the ability to feed their families, but their dignity as well.

By 2010, 900 million people around the world faced chronic hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report estimates that food demand will rise by 14 percent per decade while yields could decline by up to 2 percent per decade.

Land degradation is part of a toxic mix that is turning hungry people into vulnerable communities that are prone to instability, migration and conflict. It takes whatever underlying social weaknesses exist and magnifies them. For countries where social safety nets or alternative sources of income are lacking, underemployed and disenfranchised youth are the obvious targets of radicalization.

Let us be clear, food will be less plentiful or more expensive unless land stewardship on a global scale rises to the top of the international political agenda. In an interconnected world, a threat to food security is a threat to international security.

As we approach the 9 billion people mark in 2050, competition over the natural resources that provide us with food, energy and water may increase and may be very fierce.


Europe cannot escape the crisis considering nearly 60 percent of its agricultural and forestry products are sourced outside the continent. It is a huge appetite with a land footprint of 640 million hectares a year – an area about 1.5 times its own size, and growing.

We can ignore the plight of poor people today, but as John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Like William Tell before them, many poor rural societies that depend on the land have weak or unprotected land rights. With effective practical measures, many of them could be part of the 80 percent of the global population that are ‘consumers’ by 2030. This is an additional 2 billion people demanding products and services. It is an economic opportunity waiting to be seized.

The ecosystem services from the land can promote quality of life, economic growth and poverty reduction globally. If we can create a more positive cycle and get rural economies moving, a 10 percent increase in yields on African farms would mean a 7 percent reduction in poverty.

Early intervention that reduces the risk of drought and food insecurity and prevents social conflict is far cheaper than relying on relief and military means to respond to the resulting crises. It takes as little as $25 to restore one hectare of degraded land in Niger, one of the countries in the Sahel that is most vulnerable to desertification, land degradation and drought.

If we fail to reduce the underlying threats, millions of people may be forced to move from the affected areas. Where will they go? Estimates project as many as 60 million people could move from North Africa to Europe in a 15-year period.

A rights-based approach that values rural employment and economic development can turn vulnerable populations into strong and resilient communities. Targets aimed at preventing future land degradation, scaling up good land management practices, rehabilitating abandoned land and restoring natural ecosystems should find a home within the Sustainable Development Goals framework, the UN climate change negotiations in Paris in 2015 and the post-2015 development agenda.

The choices we are making either support or undermine the investments and gains we have made to reduce global poverty. They determine whether we enter a positive or a downward spiral. We are at a crossroads. The future we want is ours to win or lose.

But as the Anglo Saxons put it and as William Tell might appreciate – there are no second chances. “We do not get to take a second bite of the apple.” We ignore land and soil at our peril.

Monique Barbut is the executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertificatio.