23 Oct, 2019

Land degradation as a threat to food security and a push factor for migration

by Alessandro Balduzzi

Among the Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations, land degradation is described as one of the critical issues affecting life on land. The United Nations (UN) urges all its member countries to take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats.
However, what does land degradation mean?

Land degradation (also known as soil degradation) is defined as “the temporary or permanent decline in the productive capacity of the land, and the diminution of the productive potential, including its major land uses (e.g., rain-fed arable, irrigation, forests), its farming systems (e.g., smallholder subsistence), and its value as an economic resource”. Land degradation alone causes economic losses that amount to US$490 billion annually according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). 

Furthermore, land degradation is regarded as a driver of migration by the UNCDD itself. This is explained by the bilions of people living on deteriorating farmalnd whose productivity is shrinking. This drastic diminution undermines the farmers’ food security forcing them to migrate not only now but over the next decades. 

According to the UN, the combination of climate change and worsened soil quality could councur to make crop yields halve in some regions by 2050. Having to deal with scarce resources, conflict over the latter are likely to break out. In fact, decreasing land productivity caused by deforestation, overgrazing, flash floods or drought is also a noteworthy push facttor when it comes to social instability, particularly in dryland areas where low rainfall has been associated with a significant increase in violent conflict and in subsequent forced migration.

Even though it is not at the centre of the public debate, land degradation is a critical issue which affects an estimated 1.5 billion people globally out of around 7 billions people living on earth. In ligh of the fact that just around 1.3 billion people gain their livelihood from agriculture on degradated land, it is clear that a contraction in food production does not involve just farmers but also concerns the whole food chain. 

First of all, it undermines food security among low-income urban inhabitants whose expenditure on food is bound to increase as a result of decreased supply.

The strategies undertaken to minimize forced migration through sustainable land management and land rehabilitation depend on the local context of application. Still, some common features can be found across the good practices already in place. In order to be successful, the protection and restoration of fragile ecosystems cannot neglect a shared approach through which abundant and dignified livelihood and employment opportunities are created. 

Furthermore, an initiative aiming at being beneficial must secure land rights and access to natural resources for vulnerable categories, be gender sensitive and empower the most marginalized. In plain words, such initiatives must tackle and overcome pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities.

These remarks are the produt of a report by UNCCD and IOM (the International Organization for Migration) which examines several examples of successful attempts to fight land degradation in relation with forced migration. The report highlights some projects realized in the framework of the 3S initiative (“Sustainability, Stability and Security”), an intergovernmental action launched by Morocco and Senegal in 2016 and supported by the UNCCD secretariat. 

Its aim is to minimize forced migration and radicalization by creating employment options for young people, women and migrants, through a number of land-related measures: promoting restoration of degraded lands, strengthening land access and tenure rights and enhancing early warning systems to predict drought and other natural hazards and support effective responses to the forced migration of affected populations.

Africa is especially affected by soil degradation since sixty-six per cent of the uncultivated arable land left in the world is located within the continent. Most of this land, though, is vulnerable to drought, soil degradation and desertification and its productivity is declining as never before. Fourteen African countries are already partners of the initiative, having recognized that land is a critical source of income for their citizens.

Africa is once more where the future of our planet can be saved. To fight land degradation there means guaranteeing food security for more than 15% of the world’s current population. To defeat it would enable the future generations to remain in their home countres and help it prosper.