Is land management the secret to stability in Africa – and Europe?

by Monique Barbut | U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
Thursday, 28 June 2018 13:43 GMT

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

As climate change hits in Africa and population grows, reversing land degradation is key

For many Africans, land equals livelihoods. Forests, small farms, rain water and rivers sustain most people. But roughly 45 percent of Africa is degrading due to unsustainable use and a changing climate.

Land degradation is redrawing the continent’s geopolitical maps, fanning conflict in the region as well as political tension in Europe over fleeing migrants and creating instability globally.

When land is degraded, families go hungry. Communities suffer. The knee-jerk reaction is to fight for what little exists or to leave. But the answer to these complex problems is right under our feet: to reduce and reverse land degradation.

Test of Endurance, a new report by the Planetary Security Initiative, warns of increased stress on land systems, just as the African population is set to double by midcentury. It observes that nearly half of the land in sub-Saharan African is steadily degrading, with severe economic impacts. This cost Africa a whopping $10 trillion in economic activity.

Most of those losses are tied to agriculture and food production. When the land is degraded, the soil loses its carbon stocks, which then holds less water, and in turn, produces less food.  You don’t have to be a Cassandra to guess what happens when a region endures steady land degradation for decades. More so, when 83 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population relies on the land for livelihoods.

The Lake Chad Basin offers a most dire of cautionary tales.

More than 17 million people who are living around the lake – partly in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon – are desperately hungry. A recent UN Secretary General report warned that 10 million people around the Basin are in urgent need of immediate humanitarian help. More than 2.4 million have left their homes. The worst instincts of survival are evident from the breakdown in the rule of law, and chronic violence.

The causes of the unrest and violence around Lake Chad are many and interconnected. But the near absolute loss of agricultural productivity is a clear catalyst.

That is, of course, an extreme example, but it is a real one. This humanitarian crisis serves as a warning not just for Africa, but the rest of the world as well because together, the world’s drylands produce 45 percent of the food consumed globally, and they too are degrading.

The preservation of Africa’s lands, in particular, by restoring fields and forests to shield them from further degradation and the worst effects of climate change is truly, a matter of self-interest.


But there is only so much that Africa can do about the carbon pollution emitted elsewhere. What African can and must do is take control of its lands, and imagine and initiate a plan to use and manage its lands differently.

The Bonn Challenge, which was set up in 2011, may restore 150 million hectares of land by 2020, and 350 million by 2030. Meeting that 2020 goal alone could yield up to 84 billion United States dollars in economic value for local farmers and food producers.

The Sustainability, Stability and Security (3S) Initiative will involve 250,000 villages in Africa to rehabilitate 10 million hectares of land by 2020. It will create 2 million jobs in the Sahel zone, on the Southern margin of the Sahara desert, where internal displacement and out-migration are transforming society.

Nursing degraded lands back to health is the means by which millions of small farmers will be protected from the worst climate change impacts. But they cannot do it alone.

The starting point is to remove man-made barriers: from weak land rights, to failure to enforce land use laws and the absence of financial mechanisms that put a real value on natural areas.

Enabling Africa to set up an effective land agenda that is connected to national economic development strategies is vital. Rights will secure land and resource tenure, helping the most vulnerable to plan for the future and pass down their hard-won livelihoods to the next generation.

If sub-Saharan lands are restored, Africa can feed itself and stave off persistent conflicts and instability. This won’t happen overnight, but a long term vision for peace and stability in Africa starts by addressing the needs of vulnerable communities.

Monique Barbut is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations.