In mid-June, the world marked the global Day to Combat Desertification. The commemoration served as a reminder one month after the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) COP 15 about the critical issue of land degradation and deforestation. 

This year’s conference, which drew more than 7,000 attendees, took place over two weeks in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire with plenary sessions, side events and open forums led by experts in ecosystem restoration, landscape finance and sustainable development. The 2022 theme, Land, Life, Legacy, highlighted the urgent need to safeguard our land against the impacts of continued drought and desertification. 

People have already drastically altered over 70% of the earth’s land cover from its natural state, according to a UNCCD report released ahead of the event. Human activities could degrade another 11% by 2050 if we don’t reform our land-use practices and policies. Communities would feel the brunt of this worsening state in food insecurity, livelihoods, biodiversity and climate change impacts.

Armed with the urgent warning from the new report and the pressing mandate set by the United Nations to achieve the global goal of restoring 1 billion hectares of land by 2030, leaders and policymakers attending the COP outlined 38 measures to build more resilient and productive landscapes. UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw stressed the need for “transformational, not incremental” changes in the global approach to land restoration and management. 

In his opening remarks, Thiaw noted, “If we are unable or unwilling to avert the severe alterations we are inflicting on the planet, let’s be prepared to confront the new reality. Indeed, we need to protect and manage the land. Without healthy and productive land, livelihoods and jobs will become increasingly precarious.”

Public policy can drive landscape-level change

1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion People (1000L) partners UN Development Programme (UNDP), Rainforest Alliance, World Resources Institute and EcoAgriculture Partners traveled to Abidjan with a bold plan to address Thiaw’s call for transformational change. They wanted attendees to understand that local partnerships pursuing integrated landscape management (ILM) are among the most powerful solutions the world has at hand. To push this concept forward among convention goers, the alliance held two side events to advocate for this approach in combatting large-scale land degradation.

During each event, experts emphasized the need for more cohesive, holistic policies to address land use changes and mobilize actors from all sectors. With instances of drought and desertification increasing worldwide, collaborative action to halt ongoing land degradation is essential. In the first of these discussions, Public Policy to Support Landscape Partnerships: Strategic government actions to scale local solutions for drought and landscape restoration, panelists explored key takeaways from a new paper outlining the policy support that landscape partnerships need and what that support looks like on local, national and global scales. 

Tom Derr, EcoAgriculture Partners’ 1000L Program Coordinator,  set the context for the discussion, highlighting the need to critically examine the governance and coordination structures of national land-use policies and determine how to design landscape partnerships that foster meaningful change. 

Panelist Marie-Laure Mpeck Nyemeck, the Land Degradation Program Advisor of the Global Environmental Facility’s Small Grants Programme, stressed the importance of designing policies that strengthen local land ownership and help communities access training and financial support that may be available to them. 

“In some countries, local communities do not have access to loans and financial infrastructure to implement something like ecotourism projects,” Nyemeck said. “Without formalized land tenure, access to loans or any government program in place for local resource mobilization is not useful because they can’t even have the ownership of the land. The right policy solutions can help address these interlinked challenges.” 

Mieke Bourne, Engagement Process Specialist at World Agroforestry, emphasized that policymakers need to integrate traditional and indigenous knowledge in their land restoration efforts. Incorporating this knowledge into the design of landscape partnerships can strengthen local institutions as well as attract more holistic landscape-level funding opportunities, she noted.  

Brian Cohen, Senior Director of Environment and Climate Change at the U.S.-based nonprofit ACDI-VOCA, spoke about the funding challenges many landscape actors face when attempting to implement ILM. Specifically, he citied the piecemeal nature of funding received by many landscape management plans in territories such as Colombia where ACDI-VOCA has worked. 

Empowering landscape leaders through tech, tools and finance 

The second side event focused on the steady progress 1000L is making in designing a suite of tools and services to help landscape leaders build their own successful landscape partnerships. Around 100 representatives of countries, nonprofits and UN agencies attended and asked questions.

1000L’s Tom Derr opened the discussion by sharing the collaborative’s goals and the advances the team has made in creating capacity development and finance tools and the Terraso digital platform. As evidence for the global need for 1000L’s offerings, he described 17 landscape partnerships in 13 countries that have already joined the initiative as codesign partners since the program’s inception in 2020. Though each landscape has unique characteristics, the impacts of land degradation as a result of desertification are far-reaching. Presenters took the time to share how the initiative is supporting landscape partnerships in implementing large-scale, coordinated solutions. 

“Every landscape partnership takes a different journey, but there’s an overall uniform set of elements that partnerships tend to follow, and that starts with the partnership itself,” Derr said. “Our goal is to work with a geographically diverse set of partnerships, to learn from their expertise and to collaborate throughout the design process to effectively embed their needs and interests directly into our tools.” 

Next, UNDP Senior Technical Advisor Phemo Kgomotso argued for the value of stakeholders collaborating to collect important data that could help fund and implement environmental, economic and cultural activities across landscapes. Once the data and knowledge exist, she said, it’s critical to help stakeholders find and use tools and technologies a challenge that digital platforms like Terraso are working to solve. 

“We are in an age where technology and understanding the use of technologies are essential to bridging communications that can help stakeholders make informed decisions,” Phemo said. “Coordinating different systems in the landscape is critical to designing and implementing the right solution. It requires awareness and education on what the results are going to be and what the impact is going to look like over time.” 

UNCCD takes action

Of the many revelations that emerged from this year’s negotiations, one stood front and center – the urgent necessity for collaborative solutions that address the many challenges landscapes face as a result of drought and desertification. Among the 38 measures adopted at the end of the sessions, several called for structural and systematic improvements in land-use management from multiple sectors. Decision-makers placed special emphasis on accelerating new models for landscape investments,  enhancing capacity building and strengthening public policy, all of which 1000 Landscapes aims to address in the near future. 

With these renewed commitments to combatting land degradation and its corresponding challenges, policymakers, governments and NGO leaders have a unique opportunity to harmonize commitments to truly pave the way for a positive land-use legacy. Landscape partnerships built around ILM solutions hold the potential to achieve the world’s climate, biodiversity and land restoration goals. It is largely, as Secretary Thiaw saids, a matter of uniting behind a collaborative effort to drive change.

“Sustainable land management can multiply the chances of recovery and pull millions back from the brink of poverty, hunger and forced migration,” Thiaw said. “To tackle today’s interlinked crises, we need to find solutions that are mutually reinforcing and create a virtuous cycle.”

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