Desertification is like skin cancer. If soil is the skin of earth, desertification is its cancer. Desertification can be caused by natural reasons such as prolonged droughts and anthropogenic reasons, such as deforestation, over grazing livestock on rangelands, wrong methods of irrigation which cause water logging and salinity. Desertification is affecting lives and livelihoods of 1.5 billion people around the world who depend upon subsistent agriculture and livestock grazing in the dry land countries of the world.
More than 50% of agricultural land is moderately to severely degraded now. With soil erosion 75 billion tons of fertile soil disappears every year while 12 million hectares per year is lost due to drought and desertification, an area with the potential to produce 20 million tons of grain every year. Six million km2 of dry lands bear a legacy of desertification. Due to land degradation 27,000 species lost each year and 70 to 80 % of expansion of cropland lead to deforestation.
We are living in a planet which is now subjected to red alarm; according to an estimate by millennium eco system assessment, world population is increasing by 150 people per minute, carbon dioxide (a global warming gas) increasing by 6,150 ton per minute, tropical deforestation is going on with a fast rate of 25 hectares per minute, while desertification is advancing by 23 hectares per minute and each year 12 million hectares of fertile land (half of UK size) is turned into desert, which could grow 20 million tons of grains.
United National Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is a global treaty which was negotiated to fight against desertification. The UNCCD made its presence felt on June 17th at Rio+20 conference at Brazil by organizing a grand Land Day, which was star studded by many head of UN agencies in a round table dialogue. “Zero land degradation” was the topic of the day. But do the delegates and heads of the state in Rio have the slightest idea about the future when in twenty years the demand for food, energy and water will rise to significant 40-50%, with increasing population. Land and soil are perhaps taken for granted and the top policy and decision makers are not willing to pay attention to this emerging issue of land degradation and desertification.
Land has so far not attained the profile equal to climate change and biodiversity; although these three babies (conventions of biodiversity, climate change and combating desertification) were born at Rio at the famous Earth Summit in 1992, but the “land baby” couldn’t get equal attention and care of her parents, like her siblings.
We know very well that the planetary environment is a single integral entity. The planet is warming up as a result of carbon and other gases, so where can we take zillions of tones of atmospheric stocks of carbon? Of course in the soil, and with land degradation, biodiversity is also lost, so we see a definite synergy here.
Zero land degradation looks like a super ambitions slogan at Rio+20, but do we have another easy choice to get rid of carbon dioxide, the notorious global warming gas? Of course not. We can’t simply continually ignore people suffering from hunger and malnutrition in dry lands of Africa and elsewhere. We have to catch this bull by the horns and deal with this accordingly.
In the context of UNCCD, much of the discussion currently is around soil science, perhaps because we have lots of people who are experts in soil sciences. Soil is no doubt important, but let’s not forget that soil is integral part of land, which has a direct relevance with “non-scientific” issues like land governance, secure tenancy rights to landless farmers and pastoral community and agrarian reforms. These are politically sensitive issues but have direct repercussion on the degradation of soil and food production system.
Private sector is trumped and touted as a savior of agriculture and deteriorating livelihoods of poor. But beware of global trend of land grabbing in disguise of investment on agriculture in poor countries. Land grabbing has become a threat to food production, security and food sovereignty in many dry land countries. Acquisition of large chunks of common community by multinational has set direct competition in access to land for food cultivation by local communities on one hand, and access to land by the multinationals for cultivation of non-edible crops and in particular agro fuel. The land grabs deprives small farmers and pastoral communities of their nourishing base which is land.
Pakistan has ratified the convention in 1997, but still has to demonstrate any serious effort to reverse desertification, as a dry land country, it is subjected to severe desertification in its rain fed and irrigated areas. Pakistan Government is also restless to embrace land grabbers in the mask of “corporate agriculture farming (CAF) companies”, who are eying Pakistan’s fertile lands to grow grain and export to their own countries, leaving local population “food insecure”.
As a nation we failed to protect our ecology and our land, a high rate of deforestation, urban encroachment in agricultural areas, water logging and salinity, over grazing and whole sale clearing of soil from vegetation for getting fuel wood is pushing us towards land that is fast turning into desert.
The need of time is to take this issue on war footing, promote massive trees plantation, saving existing forests from logging, discourage land mafia from occupying forests, leasing forest lands for CAF and “yaksaala” (1 year lease for cultivation in Tharparkar and other areas) and over grazing. We have to give up flood irrigation and adopt modern water thrifty irrigation techniques such as sprinkler and drip irrigation.
The government has to come forward and formulate a comprehensive agrarian reforms policy which could support farmers in attaining modern irrigation and soil conservation climate smart agriculture. The policy of corporate farming should be replaced by “cooperative farming” in which cooperatives of agriculture graduates should be supported to establish highly productive but eco-friendly farms.
Tanveer Arif, CEO SCOPE Pakistan, is an environmentalist and a land right activist. He is associated with UNCCD since 1992 as civil society member.