A quarterly newsletter about achieving a land-degradation neutral world





Moving into view:
a strong land-related SDG
In shaping the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post-2015 development agenda, the international community is advancing a common vision for achieving land degradation neutrality. More…

From the Executive Secretary
In this issue of UNCCD News, the last in its current format, Monique Barbut says: “The future Sustainable Development Goals will steer our actions towards land degradation neutrality.” More…

“We have to work at both ends”
Environmental forward thinker Lester Brown: “The land sends a clear message: It is good to have goals, but they need to have some relation to the real world.” More…


Good practice

How global SLM knowledge can make its way to land users
The UNCCD’s new Scientific Knowledge Brokerage Portal (SKBP) will bridge the gap between global knowledge and the people who need to apply and adapt it locally. More…

Land for Life Award 2014
Get to know this year’s two winners: The Afghan NGO COAM, which promotes clean cook stoves, and the Green Asia Network, which planted 450,000 trees on degrading land in Mongolia.


Land degradation neutrality – tomorrow’s reality

Dear readers,

This is the last issue of UNCCD News in its current format. Over the past five years, this newsletter has told many different stories – stories about worrisome ecological degradation and encouraging reports of extraordinary commitment, innovation and vision. In the interviews, we listened to world leaders dedicated to a sustainable future, including Tarja Halonen, Klaus Töpfer, Yolanda Kakabadse and Jeffrey Sachs. In the stories about good practice and science, we met people who are combating land degradation at the local level and heard from scientists trying to provide a sound basis for treating and using our land in a sustainable manner.

There is a continuous need to share such stories, because every year, 12 million hectares of productive land become unproductive due to desertification and drought alone. So we will carry on sharing stories that inspire the sustainable management of our land, but in a format which better meets our readers’ needs. In future, you will find the feature stories about current policy debates, examples of good practice and scientific developments on our website and all UNCCD News subscribers will receive e-mails on a regular basis drawing their attention to the latest additions.

Monique Barbut

Shaping the Sustainable Development Goals

Currently, the international community is eager to outline a vision for a more sustainable world for the next 10 to 15 years. The Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 will provide us with guidance and, in particular, steer our actions towards land degradation neutrality at the local and national levels. In this issue of UNCCD News, we take a closer look at the proposed Sustainable Development Goal addressing land. The interview with Lester Brown, a leading thinker in global environmental issues, presents his views on the most important entry points for creating a land degradation neutral world.

The Sustainable Development Goals will steer our actions towards land degradation neutrality.

Congratulations to the 2014 Land for Life Award winners

I believe that this year’s Land for Life Award winners are already putting into practice on a daily basis what we are trying to make a universally accepted and applied goal. UNCCD News introduces you to the Afghan non-governmental organisation COAM, whose aim is to reduce the use of firewood as a way of tackling land degradation. It shares this year’s first prize with the NGO Green Asia Network from the Republic of Korea, which, with the help of more than 25,000 volunteers, planted an incredible 450,000 trees in Mongolia to restore degraded land.

A common goal, common reality

Countless people around the globe are working tirelessly to prevent land from degrading and to restore degraded land, striving for land degradation neutrality. I would like to invite each and every one of you to join forces to pursue our common goal and make land degradation neutrality more than an aspirational target: let’s make it a reality.

Monique Barbut
Executive Secretary

New UNCCD brochure on land degradation neutrality

brochure land degradation neutrality Because land degradation neutrality is high on the international land and soil agenda, the UNCCD Secretariat published a brochure in September 2014, which describes the concept and its development.

It gives a brief overview of the land-related threat to people’s livelihood and touches on the links with biodiversity loss and climate change. In addition, it highlights the science behind the concept and its potential adoption as a Sustainable Development Goal. » Download brochure (PDF)


Moving into view: a strong land-related Sustainable Development Goal

The news of the proposed Sustainable Development Goal 15 spread rapidly in the international land and soil community after the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group (OWG) presented its outcome document in July. One of 18 recommended goals, Goal 15 is proposing a land-degradation-neutral world.

Proposed Sustainable Development Goal #15

“Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”

Target 15.3: “By 2020, combat desertification, and restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land-degradation-neutral world.”

» Report of the Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable
Development Goals

» Press Release: General Assembly Adopts Resolution Incorporating Sustainable
Development Goals into Post-2015 Agenda

The 2012 Rio Summit agreed to strive for a land degradation neutral world, and many stakeholders around the world have provided detailed input for its inclusion in a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) from various regional or sector perspectives. The vision is a world where all nations individually strive to achieve land degradation neutrality and the OWG proposal expresses an important commitment to the level of ambition. While there is strong support for the goal of land degradation neutrality, opinions still diverge on specific issues. In June 2014, the President of the UN General Assembly, John Ashe, summarised the expectations relating to the inclusion of a land degradation neutral world in the SDGs: “Let us, the global community, pursue it relentlessly, because each flood, drought, landslide, tornado, heat wave or coastal submersion robs us of an invaluable natural asset – productive land.”

“Each flood, drought, landslide, tornado, heat wave or coastal submersion robs us of productive land.”
John Ashe

Member States will use the time available until the UN General Assembly’s final decision on the Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda to refine the concept of land degradation neutrality. Three areas in particular need further work: a definition of land degradation neutrality, the development of specific targets and of indicators to determine their baselines and monitor progress.

The starting point: a definition

It is vital to be clear what we mean by land degradation neutrality. To clarify this issue, the UNCCD’s Intergovernmental Working Group (IWG), established at the 2013 Conference of the Parties in Namibia, has taken on the task of drafting a science-based definition as a sound foundation for policy-making. The IWG aims to present its final report to the UNCCD Conference of the Parties in Turkey in 2015. “The potential of the IWG’s work cannot be overemphasised,” says Sergio Zelaya, Special Adviser on Global Issues at the UNCCD Secretariat.


Land degradation neutrality takes into account three important objectives which are at the heart of the UNCCD: preventing and/or reducing land degradation, rehabilitating partly degraded land, and reclaiming desertified land. Leading scholars such as Pamela Chasek and Uriel Safriel warn that this should not be misunderstood as a “licence to degrade” or as a kind of compensation scheme which allows offsetting of degradation as long as land somewhere else is restored.

But soil and land degradation is more than a physical and biochemical issue, so it requires more than just technical solutions. As Alexander Müller, Jes Weigelt and Ivonne Lobos Alva from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies explain: “It is very often linked to socio-economic aspects. For instance, poor and marginalised populations are usually found to be the most affected by land and soil degradation. Moreover, soil and land degradation is perceived as much a governance issue as it is a technical one. This implies that access to land resources and more gender equality play a role and would need to be addressed.”

Soil and land degradation is more than a physical and biochemical issue.

When is land degraded – and when can it be considered healthy?

Now is the time to develop specific targets and indicators. The Open Working Group did not drill down below the level of general targets. “Some of the targets proposed by the OWG need more work to make them more precise and measurable because as of now they only indicate the direction the international community intends to pursue,” says Sasha Alexander, who is monitoring the development of the post-2015 agenda at UN Headquarters in New York for the UNCCD Secretariat.

From the Secretariat’s perspective, the process of defining sound indicators must involve all stakeholders: not only the UN agencies but also the scientific community, civil society, the private sector and policy-makers in a broad land-user approach. “It is vital to bring in different stakeholders, especially those who have useful land and soil data repositories and experience at their disposal, such as World Soil Information (ISRIC) and other organisations around the world,” says Sergio Zelaya.

The close links with the other Rio conventions – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – are particularly important. Many efforts to combat land degradation also support adaptation to climate change and halt biodiversity loss. Because the UNCCD is committed to using these synergies, it is promoting the use of common indicators that not only improve assessment and comparison of the effectiveness of land management policies and practices, but also – on a more general scale – support a harmonised approach to sustainable development.

The list of possible indicators has been under discussion ever since land degradation first appeared on the international environmental research agenda. The UNCCD Conference of the Parties in 2009 adopted two indicators depicting the impact of land degradation on affected societies: land cover status and the poverty rate. In 2013, the Parties also adopted optional indicators such as water availability, changes in land use, the level of degradation from water and wind erosion, plant and animal biodiversity, and the amount of sustainably managed land.

Which way forward?

Setting a goal and targets, establishing indicators and refining monitoring and evaluation tools is only the beginning. The question is how the goal can be put into practice. According to the IWG’s co-chairs, Nicholas Hanley from the European Commission and Bongani Simon Masuku from the Government of Swaziland, “options for achieving land degradation neutrality are as rich as the circumstances, priorities and capacities of the communities in which the idea might be adopted and applied... Delivery will be a question of vision and ambition at all levels.”

First, we need to know more precisely where we stand, because, as Ronald Vargas Rojas from the Global Soil Partnership says: “We don’t yet have accurate global information on the status of land degradation.” The drivers of land degradation need to be analysed and ways of establishing sustainable land management practices on a large scale need to be found. There is also a need to strengthen policy and governance frameworks which embrace the concept of land degradation neutrality, with a particular focus on coordination across sectors and on monitoring methodologies. In other words, implementing land degradation neutrality locally, nationally and globally is a huge but necessary undertaking.

We don’t yet have accurate global information on the status of land degradation.

National implementation in progress

The Sustainable Development Goals and their operational targets are merely a starting point. Implementation is a matter for national governments, with policy-makers, civil society and the private sector each fulfilling their roles and responsibilities. However, in order to stimulate action in developing countries in particular, the international community and national governments may have to provide additional incentives, such as the inclusion of land degradation in international financing mechanisms for climate change adaptation, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration.

The prospects are good. Some parties have already committed to the concept of land degradation neutrality at the national level. India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, for example, announced in June that the Indian Government wants to make the country land degradation neutral by 2030.

The newspaper China Daily quotes China’s Vice-Minister of the State Forestry Administration, Zhang Yongli: “Based on our experience, land degradation neutrality is doable. You need to integrate the work of government and local people, placing limitations and adopting preferential policies, and combine the work of improving the environment and livelihoods.”

Leaping at the chance

A goal and/or target on land degradation could boost the UNCCD’s efforts worldwide. “An SDG will offer a new overarching narrative. It could also provide new funding opportunities for promoting sustainable land management. These are urgently needed, especially in less developed countries which are particularly affected by desertification, land degradation and drought,” says Sergio Zelaya. But the real work will only start once an SDG is in place. The challenge is to make it a reality – on farmers’ fields in Spain, Kazakhstan and Australia, in field trials in Kenya and Brazil, and in policy forums in Rome, Ethiopia and New York.


“We have to work at both ends”

Lester Brown has been called one of the world’s most influential thinkers. After working as a tomato farmer in his youth, living in rural India and studying agricultural economics and public administration, he worked for the US government for several years. After that, he helped to establish the Overseas Development Council, founded the Worldwatch Institute in 1974 and, in May 2001, the Earth Policy Institute to provide a vision and a road map for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy. Mr Brown has authored or co-authored over 50 books, which have been translated into 40 languages. He has received many prizes and awards, including 25 honorary degrees and, in 2012, he was inducted into the Earth Hall of Fame Kyoto.


You have witnessed the international environmental debates over the past decades. How has the awareness grown over the years that combating land degradation is key for sustainable development?

Lester Brown

This varies quite a bit from one country to another. Among the environmental issues affecting our economic prospects, climate change is certainly the area in which awareness has grown most rapidly during recent years. Unfortunately, we don’t see that much awareness on desertification, although we have talked about it for some time. Just consider that the United Nations Conference on Desertification took place in 1977!

Where do you consider the problem of land degradation to be most serious?

We are currently witnessing some of the most serious land degradation in history in Northern and Western China. Much of the problem there is related to the number of grazing sheep and goats. Today, you find nine million sheep and goats in the United States, but 360 million in China. When too many goats and sheep graze, they destroy the vegetation. Just recently, this resulted in Western China experiencing perhaps the largest dustbowl in history.

The US was confronted with a devastating dustbowl in the 1930s, which was an important event in the country’s environmental and political history. But we altered agricultural practices and farmers turned ploughed land back into grassland. This brought the situation under control and ever since then, the great plains of the United States is fairly stable in terms of wind erosion.

In China, however, the livestock population is out of control, partly because almost every rural family wants to have sheep and goats. To get this situation under control, the government would have to go into every village and make people dramatically reduce the size of their herds. Of course, it does not have the capacity to do so. In other areas, however, the Chinese Government takes decisive action to rehabilitate degraded land. Nevertheless, it looks to me that we are heading in a direction with no return.

The Sahel is the second area in the world confronted with enormous overgrazing, resulting in serious land degradation. Here, villagers’ wealth is largely determined by the number of their sheep and goats. So here again, land degradation is closely connected with overgrazing. There are a few local success stories that show that it is possible to reduce livestock numbers, restore vegetation and reclaim land. However, at this point, they are miniscule and address maybe one per cent of the degraded land.


Which other factors lead to land degradation?

Around three billion people worldwide are climbing up the food chain and, for example, consuming more pork, poultry, milk and eggs – with dramatic environmental effects.

In India, annual grain consumption per person amounts to around 400 pounds per year, while in the United States, it is 1,500 pounds. It is crucial to understand that of these 1,500 pounds, only 300 pounds are directly consumed as bread, cereals or pastry. The great bulk of the rest is used for meat production. While three pounds of grain are needed to produce a one-pound gain in live weight of pigs, seven pounds are needed for a one-pound gain of a cow’s live weight.

Therefore, both industrialised countries and emerging economies have to pursue sustainable consumption habits. The latter should be wise enough to not copy the developed countries’ mistakes.


The United Nation’s Open Working Group suggested including the goal of a land degradation neutral world in the future Sustainable Development Goals. What do you think of this approach?

It is good to have goals, but they need to have some relation to the real world. At the moment, I don’t see any meaningful and productive links to governments and herders in some areas affected by desertification. We also have to keep in mind that land degradation is not only an environmental but also an economic and social challenge. If land is degraded, sheep and goats don’t find enough vegetation for grazing. As a result, the villagers will lose their herds and end up in the cities as environmental refugees, without a job and with no perspectives.

“It is good to have goals, but they need to have some relation to the real world.”

Can you briefly outline a road map for making this goal a reality?

We know how to prevent land from degrading; we know the solutions. But we lack political commitment at the national and international level and tend to ignore the fact that the effects will be devastating.

We have to realise that carrying capacities are limited by the natural systems themselves, for example water, forest resources, and cropland. We have to promote water efficiency as a matter of urgency, for example by changing from surface irrigation to drip irrigation. We can also grow crops which demand less water, for example wheat instead of rice.

In the current discussions about land degradation neutrality, what is lacking is the word “population”. We don’t seem to make the link between population growth and land degradation. However, there is a very close relationship between human and livestock population growth. Over the past decades, they almost had a similar growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa. If we are serious about reducing land degradation, we have to deal with the issue of population growth, too.

In simple terms, that means making sure that women and men everywhere who want to plan their families have access to family planning services. There are 200 million women worldwide who want to control the size of their families, but lack the necessary support. Filling this gap would not only take us a long way toward stabilising world population, it would also improve the health and well-being of women and their families. And it would not cost much: only a very small proportion of the United States defence budget, for example. And yet it may have much greater influence on long-term global security than any military investment we could think of.

We have to come up with a package of policies to stabilise the situation. I think that educational efforts are vital, so that people understand the environmental consequences of their unsustainable behaviour and of continuous unchecked population growth.

“Education is vital, so that people understand the consequences of their unsustainable behaviour.”


Who should be in the lead?

The United Nations has to play a leadership role; I am thinking in particular of the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Population Fund. These policy areas have to coordinate their activities. We need an integrated effort and I don’t think that happens today to the extent needed.

The Sustainable Development Goals have to consider many different sectors. Where do you see the most important links to land degradation?

Food security is one of our greatest concerns. When we address food security, we talk a lot about the challenges related to climate change. However, I think that water shortages are even more serious. I have seen a new development in the last few years: In many countries, people go without food for an entire day. In around a quarter of Nigerian families, children have foodless days.


There are many more links as our world is getting very complex. You have to be a meteorologist or a geologist, etc., to understand the current environmental threats. This is why drafting solutions for a more sustainable world is becoming more and more intellectually challenging. It is just not easy to respond to the challenges.


How does the goal of a land degradation neutral world fit into your plan B which you have been proposing since 2003? What is this plan about?

In the plan B series, we outline what is needed to create a sustainable global economy. We look at a whole series of issues, for example soil resources, population growth and water, which are particularly relevant.

One of the serious threats that we have analysed is closely linked with land degradation: Water tables are falling in so many places around the world and wells are going dry due to overpumping. The reasons for overpumping are the same as mentioned before: an ever-growing population. The demand for water is exceeding natural water capacities.

In India, for example, farmers don’t need a licence to dig a well. As a consequence, there are 26 million wells with irrigation pumps across the country, which drastically lower the water tables. The World Bank indicates that 175 million people in India are sustained by overpumping. In comparison, 130 million people in China are sustained by overpumping, which is only a very short-term solution. The effects will eventually lead to a great shock, but for sure will show up in global food prices. This again will be most serious for low-income farmers.

Many years ago you were a tomato farmer yourself and then worked in rural areas of India. Do you remember any lessons the land taught you back then?

I had the great advantage of growing up on a general farm in a rural community. I started to work on the farm at a very early age. When I was 17, my younger brother and I began to grow tomatoes. We started out with 28,000 tomato plants in 1951 and in 1958, we already had 280,000. Looking back, I found it extraordinarily educational, in particular in combination with living in rural India afterwards and later studying agricultural economics.

The land still sends a clear message: We have to work at both ends – accelerating the shift to smaller families, particularly in Africa, and, in more industrialised countries, moving down the food chain for the benefit of the Earth, but also for our own benefit.


How global SLM knowledge can make its way to land users

Success or failure in preventing land degradation and restoring degraded land is not a question of a lack of knowledge. Information from global sources is out there, but a key challenge is ensuring that scientific and practical knowledge reaches the land users, communities and policy-makers who can make the difference between success and failure. The UNCCD Secretariat is currently developing the Scientific Knowledge Brokerage Portal (SKBP) to bridge the gap between global knowledge sources and communities around the world that need to apply and adapt these locally.

The new pilot will link existing information resources and provide a search tool that centralises case studies, local knowledge and bibliographic records on solutions to land degradation. “The SKBP will simplify and consolidate the process of retrieving knowledge,” explains UNCCD Knowledge Management Officer Rita M. Benitez.

The pilot has two main entry points. First, global maps about sustainable land management resources by country and by managing entity will connect users to existing knowledge bases. A click on Peru, for example, opens a pop-up window displaying three knowledge bases, their descriptions and links. This first level of the SKBP is already operational in a small-scale pilot version, which has been up and running since 17 July 2014. The interactive web maps were developed in cooperation with the Jornada Dryland Research Program of the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) which continues to support access to these maps.

The second component is more complex. It is a search portal that allows searches by topic, location, causes of land degradation, and other criteria relevant to land degradation. Users will be able to access the content databases provided by SKBP Pilot partners, who are leaders in collecting relevant data and have made their repositories available to the SKBP. These repositories include the following:

The portal will allow searches by topic, location, causes of land degradation, and other criteria.

Provided by: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), the Spanish National Research Agency
Inventory: More than 25,000 items about agriculture and natural resources from CSIC’s eight scientific areas and more than 130 institutes
2) ISRIC’s GeoNetwork
Provided by: World Soil Information (ISRIC)
Inventory: 700 digitised soil maps with worldwide coverage, and partial access to the Wageningen UR Library, with more than 10,000 documents about soil
3) WOCAT’s Knowledge Base » WOCAT  
Provided by: World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT)
Inventory: Books, factsheets, brochures, articles, theses, workshop proceedings, videos, a glossary and other tools
4) Technologies and prac-
tices for small agricultural producers » TECA
Provided by: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Inventory: Practical information, e.g. on agricultural technologies and practices, with a focus on crop production, forestry, livestock, fisheries and marketing
5) International System for Agricultural Science and Technology » AGRIS Reforestation and restoring terraces to reduce landslides, avalanches and flash floods
Provided by: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Inventory: More than seven million drought, land degradation and desertification-related bibliographic records and full-text articles from scientific journals, DBPedia, World Bank, Nature, FAO Fisheries and FAO country profiles

What’s the added value?

A recent Google search for “land degradation and sustainable land management practices” delivered 770,000 results. However, most of these search results do not provide the contextual information that a land manager will need to deal with land degradation on his or her farm and answer questions such as: “Where has this solution been implemented or where might it be applicable? Which cause of land degradation does it address? When was this source published?” Policy-makers will also need to do some careful analysis of search results to draft policies to prevent or halt land degradation in their countries.

People seeking practical land management information are often unfamiliar with international resources and may not succeed in finding suitable information sources, or may be excluded from them by user registration or other interface requirements. “Rather than exploiting a two-way traffic flow of knowledge from researchers, local communities and CSOs, policy-makers often find themselves in the middle of a knowledge “traffic jam” with nothing moving in either direction. Under such circumstances, many simply reach for the information that is closest to hand, whether or not it is the most relevant, reliable or up-to-date,” according to stakeholders in the DESIRE project, which promotes alternative land use and management conservation strategies. The SKBP will limit content sources to those relevant to land degradation and will utilise search technologies made available by Search Technologies during the pilot phase to help users find responses to land management problems that may be named differently across participating knowledge bases.

The UNCCD is also keen to model the SKBP Pilot as a platform for local and regional knowledge exchange. The pilot aims to serve as a platform through which global communities can adapt examples of successful land management practices to other regions with similar conditions. To ensure that language is not a barrier, the search portal component of the SKBP Pilot has been developed using Google’s open-access translation tool, which supports 80 languages.

Upstream information flows?

SKBP Pilot partners can eventually also benefit from this initiative. With so many competing global needs, it’s sometimes hard for sustainable land management knowledge providers to know which information land managers actually need. In order to better align supply with demand, a more mature version of the SKBP Pilot will aim to offer its partners information on user search trends, user site behaviour and general information needs.

Fine-tuning in time for the big decision

The project’s pilot phase successfully ended in August. “The SKBP Pilot, consisting of interactive web maps containing over 200 knowledge bases and a functional search portal prototype, provided us with important insights into the portal’s long-term running costs, technical requirements and the conditions required to support knowledge-sharing partnerships,” says Rita M. Benitez.

So what’s next? A presentation about the SKBP Pilot is planned for the UNCCD Conference of the Parties in Turkey in 2015, where a decision will be made on how the SKBP may be further developed in 2016.

The SKBP Pilot is an example of how the UNCCD aims to broker land degradation resources, bringing together information providers and users to support implementation in the field. In the long term, land users, practitioners and country Parties confronted with land degradation challenges will determine the extent to which the SKBP can support their needs. Based on reactions at CST-11 in Windhoek, many country Parties envisage that examples of good practice from other parts of the world will inspire cross-country collaboration and increased action at the front line against land degradation.


Land for Life Award 2014: making a difference to the land

Innovation and dedication to green solutions can be found everywhere around the globe, even in remote areas such as the mountains in central Afghanistan and the Mongolian steppe.

The winners of the Land for Life Award 2014 are:

Each of the winners receives prize money of USD 35,000.

The village of Adi Shimhabty in Eritrea received a special mention from the jury for its achievements in involving the community to regenerate degraded land in Eritrea’s dryland areas.

“These are the people, mostly fantastic civil society leaders, who promote grassroots action and keep the land healthy and productive,” says Monique Barbut, UNCCD Executive Secretary.

Land for Life Quick facts: Land for Life Award

The Land for Life Award was launched in 2012 with a total prize fund of up to USD 100,000. In 2014, 76 initiatives entered the competition. The programme is a joint initiative between the UNCCD and the Korea Forest Service, Elion Resources Group, China, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Global Environment Facility, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Qatar National Food Security Programme.

This year’s winners were selected by a jury of experts in sustainable land management, including Professor Joachim von Braun, Director of the University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research (ZEF), Dr Dennis Garrity, former Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, Dr Uriel Safriel from the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research in Israel, and Dr Mary Seely from the Desert Research Foundation, Namibia.

Land for Life Award Winner 1: Green Asia Network (GAN)

Back to life: restoring barren land in Asia

Facing poverty after a severe frost killed his livestock, Mongolian pastoralist Tseebel Bulgan Khishig left his home village in the district of Bayannuur to earn a living as a construction worker in the capital Ulaanbaatar. When he returned four years later, he could hardly believe his eyes: “The land was transformed. I saw countless trees and plants instead of desert.” What had happened during his absence was the result of the Green Asia Network’s commitment to stop land degradation and restore degraded land in Mongolia.

Since 2000, the South Korean Green Asia Network (GAN) has planted 450,000 trees on 450 hectares of degraded land. For this vast project, GAN recruited more than 25,000 volunteers from Mongolia and the Republic of Korea. According to the Japanese National Institute for Environmental Studies, the restored land produces 3.2 tonnes of grass per hectare and year, while the untreated and therefore continuously degrading land produces no yield at all.

Tseebel Bulgan Khishig wanted to find out how GAN had managed to turn the previously barren land into a luscious landscape. So, like 2,800 other local people, he participated in GAN’s training courses in forestry practices and sustainable agriculture. “I enjoy this work, because I can make a difference for the environment and for my people,” he says.

Mongolia urgently needs such action because 78 per cent of the country is affected by desertification. Bayannuur, the district where Tseebel lives, was once known for its abundant water resources, fruit farming and hay. “Bayan” means “many”, and “nuur” means “lake” in Mongolian, but today, all that’s left of these natural resources is the name. Once, there were 15 lakes here; today, only six remain. It’s a similar story in many other parts of the country: Around 900 rivers and streams, 2,000 springs and more than 1,000 lakes and ponds have disappeared, according to the Government of Mongolia.

78 per cent of Mongolia’s land is degraded.

The key to success: involve local communities

Founded in 1998, the Green Asia Network first concentrated on restoring degraded land and preventing degradation. But its leaders soon realised that lasting success would only be possible if local people were fully engaged in the initiative. GAN refined its management model and now makes local community participation a priority at its six sites across Mongolia.

So how did Tseebel get involved? GAN recruits local people affected by land degradation to become field workers in the project and acquire the skills and knowledge to cultivate trees and make a living from agriculture and agroforestry. Like Tseebel, many of the field workers were environmental migrants who had gone to the city and then returned to their villages. Tseebel is now one of the field staff and leads a group of volunteers assigned to him for training and skills development. Activities vary between the different sites. In Bayannuur, for example, GAN is rehabilitating a lake and installing a solar plant, while reforestation and fruit tree cultivation are important for income generation. In urban areas, however, there is a stronger focus on afforestation.

GAN’s approach is truly community-centred, because the profit from the harvest is saved in a collective fund managed by an informal cooperative. Eventually, this money will be used as seed capital to establish a community cooperative. There are also tangible economic benefits: For around 70 households, sales revenue from the project provides an annual income of USD 1,383 – equivalent to the minimum wage per household in Mongolia.

GAN’s approach is truly community-centred.

More than just planting trees

While planting and sustainably managing trees is a key part of GAN’s work, the NGO pursues a broader goal. Kyung Hee Kim, manager of GAN’s Global Programme Department, explains: “We aim to create a sustainable environment for all North East Asians to live in an eco-friendly community and work together towards our common future.”

Spreading the word

However, there is much more degraded land than the six GAN sites, so it is vital for GAN to share its knowledge and best practices with others, particularly partner NGOs. Manuals on afforestation and agriculture and a variety of educational programmes such as eco-clubs and student volunteer groups throughout Mongolia and in the Republic of Korea serve this purpose. But GAN also thinks beyond the Asian continent: “This model can be applied to areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America with similar conditions,” said GAN’s Secretary General, Ki-Chul Oh.

Because much more land is degraded than the six GAN sites, it is vital to share knowledge and best practices with others.

Working on the principle that seeing for oneself is always the best proof, GAN operates eco-tours so that people can observe the impacts of climate change for themselves and take practical action against it. Each year, more than 600 South Koreans and 3,000 Mongolians take part in the eco-tours, learning about climate change and desertification. They also have the opportunity to work with local people on a forestry project.

Heading towards Myanmar

Land for Life Award in Myanmar

GAN is currently expanding its activities to Myanmar. The Land for Life Award prize money came at just the right time. “Myanmar ranks second on the list of 10 countries hit hardest by climate change, with 12.8 per cent of the country undergoing desertification,” says Kyung Hee Kim. Urgent action is needed. The money will be used for developing infrastructure such as tube wells, generators, water tanks and fencing, for afforestation and buying seedlings and fertiliser, wages for local staff, outreach, and construction. “We are very grateful for the award money, because it enables us to establish a strong foundation for our work in Myanmar,” says Kyung Hee Kim.

GAN has great ambitions in Mongolia and Myanmar, so there is genuine hope that in a few years’ time, an environmental migrant might return to his home village in Myanmar to see barren land transformed into a luscious landscape – making not one but two happy endings to the story.

Land for Life Award Winner 2: Conservation Organisation for Afghan 
Mountain Areas (COAM)

Not high tech, but green tech: award-winning Afghan cookstoves

What are most Afghans worried about? Clearly, they are concerned about insecurity, armed conflict and the daily struggle of a life in poverty. But in the mountainous Bamyan region, another major threat to livelihoods is looming, although more silent and slow: land degradation. The Conservation Organisation for Afghan Mountain Areas (COAM), a local NGO, is taking matters into its own hands, offering green solutions to protect the fragile land from desertification. In recognition of its innovative and successful activities, COAM received the UNCCD 2014 Land for Life Award.

“Like shaved heads, most of the hillsides are bare, with just the occasional stubble of green.” This is how BBC South Asia correspondent Andrew North describes the remote valleys of the Bamyan region in central Afghanistan. The area suffers from land degradation, erosion and decreasing soil fertility, posing substantial risks to people’s livelihoods. Yields are decreasing, and smallholder farmers have had to reduce or dispose of livestock. Malnutrition and poverty are on the rise.

COAM’s founders realised that much of the land degradation was caused by excessive firewood harvesting, resulting in the loss of vegetation cover. Today, villagers have to walk around three times farther to gather the same amount of shrub and bush compared with 30 years ago. 97 per cent of the rural population have no access to electricity and lack alternatives to biomass as a primary energy resource. The consequence is obvious: the land is barren.

Much of the land degradation was caused by excessive firewood harvesting.

But there is another life-threatening hazard. Burning wood and dung indoors is extremely harmful to health. Indoor air pollution from smoke-filled kitchens has become a serious problem in Afghanistan, causing more than 50,000 deaths every year, mainly among women and children, according to the World Health Organization.

Entry point: green cooking

COAM therefore chose cooking as an entry point for its contributions to sustainable livelihoods and combat desertification. After exploring people’s needs, the NGO designed various prototypes for green cookstoves, which need up to 40 per cent less fuel than regular stoves and also draw off smoke and toxins. “They eclipsed other stoves in terms of performance and local popularity,” says Mark Witcomb from the EU-funded Panj-Amu River Basin Programme (P-ARBP), who officially endorsed COAM’s nomination for the Land for Life Award.

Next, COAM started developing a solar water heater and a briquette-maker. The solar water heater does not use any solid fuel. Its design is as simple as it is appealing: A 1 m dish is lined inside with a reflective metallic coating which concentrates the rays of the sun to a central point where a small platform supports a kettle or pot of water. The stove boils 12 litres of water in 40 minutes in winter and in just 20 minutes in summer.

Overcoming harsh conditions and reluctance

But things didn’t always run smoothly. Finding innovative and qualified metal engineers to run COAM’s design lab proved to be a real challenge, and high-quality materials and tools were rarely available in the bazaars of Bamyan. Potential users were initially reluctant to invest in a new stove and women had to be convinced of the improvements offered by the new cooking methods. But they quickly learned to appreciate the benefits. However, one disadvantage of the solar water heater is that it is quite expensive, costing around USD 100. But the investment reduces the need for firewood by 100 per cent.

The new briquette-makers compress dung, which has always been an important fuel source, into small cubes. This extracts the moisture and compacts the dung. The briquettes burn much more efficiently than traditional dung patties, so less fuel is needed. Apart from the economic benefits of reduced fuel use, switching to these briquettes cuts carbon emissions and air pollution. The briquette-makers are also easy for the women to handle and offer them a new source of income from the sale of briquettes.

Training supports roll-out in other villages

COAM always thinks ahead and is working to improve the current generation of stoves and develop new green technologies. For this purpose, it has established a design school, which incorporates an internship programme for unskilled young men. One of them is Mohktar, who never had the opportunity to attend school, as his father needed him and his brothers to work in the fields. He says: “After I graduate from COAM Design School, I will go back to my village. I want to open a shop and make good stoves for people, and if people want to learn skills, I will teach them those too.” Mohktar and his colleagues are not only making provision for their own future: they are also helping to spread COAM’s green technologies throughout the province.

Interns help to spread COAM’s green technologies throughout the province.

From stoves to fruit orchards and pumps

Although the new cooking methods reduce the pressure on the fragile environment, COAM is also eager to directly improve the land’s health and has therefore established several tree plantations. “Fruit orchards provide an alternative source of income which is six times more economically viable than conventional farming of wheat and potatoes. This reduces erosion and helps to prevent landslides and flooding,” explains COAM’s Executive Director Amiri Habiba.

Snow from the Koh-i-Baba mountains should provide all farmers in the area with plenty of clean water, but many fields are dry and unproductive. The problem is that they are located above the highest irrigation channels. COAM’s design team addressed this issue and came up with the idea of a cyclic hydropowered water pump, which can pump water more than 50 m uphill. With this locally adapted technology, known as a ram pump, land previously not used for farming can today be cultivated with the help of an irrigation system. Natural vegetation can also recover, and the land’s water retention potential is increased.

A new irrigation system makes land arable.

An new irrigation system makes land arable.

With all these activities, COAM is pursuing a broad approach, which can only work if all stakeholders are truly committed to the project. “The excitement and energy of the young and experienced Afghan team has to be seen to be believed,” says Andrew Scanlon from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Afghanistan Office. “The local staff, communities, government institutions and policy-makers were central to the project activities. At the same time, international partnerships have been forged, not only with UNEP, but also with the World Food Programme, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and others to ensure that global environmental issues are also considered.”

More to come

COAM seems unstoppable: It is already exploring other new areas of activity. It has set up an Environmental Centre to raise awareness, acquired several prefabricated biogas units, and encouraged local women to join a beekeeping project.

COAM is already exploring other new areas of activity.

COAM already has plans for the Land for Life Award prize money of USD 35,000. Amiri Habiba explains: “The most talented design lab interns will be hired to provide training in other districts and provinces. There, we want to distribute clean cookstoves, briquette-makers and solar water heaters to disadvantaged rural women. In exchange, they will have to restore rangeland and re-seed barren land.”

In addition, COAM wants to install ram pump-driven irrigation in at least three districts of Bamyan so that women can set up small market gardens. They will then be able to sell their produce – fruit, seeds and fuel – which will give them a secure and sustainable livelihood.

Finally, a small proportion of the funds will be used to investigate the potential for carbon financing and PES schemes in the project area. The aim is to leverage future funding and explore conservation options to combat desertification.

It’s clear that the Land for Life Award will make a real difference to many people’s lives in the Bamyan region by catalysing positive change towards sustainable development on healthy land.


About the UNCCD

Developed as a result of the Rio Summit, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is a unique instrument that has brought attention to the land degradation affecting some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems in the world. The UNCCD has 195 Parties (194 countries plus the European Union) and is one of the three Rio Conventions, along with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UNCCD is increasingly recognised as an instrument that can make an important contribution to the achievement of sustainable development and poverty reduction.

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Photo credits: Contents: G. Smith/CIAT, Max Edkins, Earth Policy Institute, UNCCD, COAM; Editorial: UNCCD, Milo Mitchell/IFPRI; In focus: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR, UNCCD, CGIAR, Chalee Srinakorn/dreamstime.com, Milo Mitchell/IFPRI, G. Smith/CIAT; Interview: Earth Policy Institute, Arby Reed/flickr.com, Emilio Labrador/flickr.com, Shared Interest/flickr.com, Christopher Herwig/UN Photo, John Isaac/UN Photo; Kibae Park/UN Photo; Science: UNCCD, A. Camacho/Biodiversity International, C. Schubert/CCAFS; Practice: 4x Green Asia Network, Tracy Hunter/flickr.com, 5x COAM.