The loss of productive land means the end of freedom of choice

by Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary, UN Convention to Combat Desertification
Thursday, 16 June 2016 14:39 GMT

A Sudanese refugee rides his donkey at dusk as he crosses a dry riverbed near Bredjing camp in eastern Chad. Photo: Radu Sigheti Reuters

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

Access to productive land is key to freedom

The refugees from Syria, the crisis in Darfur and the mass movements of people within many regions are somber reminders that for the world’s poorest people, the loss of productive land is very often the loss of the freedom to choose. That is why access to and ownership of land is still such a vital asset for the world’s poorest people whether men or women. In fact, all rural societies have developed and earned the freedom to choose their futures, on the back of productive land.

Access to productive land or its resources is the basis of our freedom to choose how we want to live. What we eat, what we drink, where we build our homes, how we spend our time, when we can marry, have our children, set up our businesses, the opportunities we can pursue, and much more.

Today, nearly 1 billion people, or 1 in 7 people, are poor. They have little or no freedom to make these most basic life choices. For the 2 billion people, who depend on just 500 million small scale farms for their incomes and food security, even these limited freedoms are in jeopardy due to climate change. By 2050, the global population will be nearly 10 billion. For these, and many future generations, the ability to enjoy the freedoms we have also depends on us.

Extreme, frequent and erratic weather events are degrading productive land swiftly and on a large scale in most regions of the world. Droughts, flash floods and sand and dust storms are eroding fertile soil. High temperatures are killing biodiversity and degrading ground water sources.

These impacts are a threat to the future of hard-working rural populations and our own future freedoms as well. We can continue on the path we are treading or change course by taking all the measures needed to preserve the land. What is clear is that more than any other generation before or after us, we have the best chance to secure the land we all depend on for these freedoms.

Governments have the lead responsibility by triggering change through policy. They did so with the adoption of a Sustainable Development Goal with a target to ensure land degradation neutrality is achieved by 2030. The target commits countries to ensure the productive land available in 2015 stays the same or increases by 2030. In essence, they will avoid new degradation, ensure every hectare or acre that is degraded is balanced by restoring an equal amount of degraded land, and as much as possible of already degraded is rehabilitated.

Governments did so again when UNCCD parties agreed to set voluntary national targets on land degradation neutrality. More than 90 countries are already setting their targets. They did so, yet again, under the 2015 Paris Climate Change deal, with more than 100 nations pledging to mitigate climate change through land-based action. More than 100 nations also pledged to take land-related adaptation actions too.

These policy decisions show governments want to make the changes needed for present and future generations to enjoy the same freedoms we have. Public and private organizations are starting to align their work for change. It is not happening fast enough. If everyone who enjoys the freedom to choose joins the movement for change, we will achieve land degradation neutrality faster and affordably.

Best of all, we can secure the livelihoods of 2 billion people and make their freedom secure. We can improve the chances of the poor gaining freedoms and bequeath the freedoms we have to our and their children.

With nearly 170 countries affected by desertification or drought, we all have the opportunity to support actions to achieve land degradation neutrality in our community. Make your observance of the World Day this year the start of a lifelong commitment to engage in the fight for these freedoms. A small investment to secure productive land now will impact generations to come.

Together, we can change the course of history for those who have never enjoyed the freedoms we have, for those whose freedoms are increasingly in jeopardy, and for future generations.

Monique Barbut is Secretary, UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and has more than 30 years experience in sustainable development, international diplomacy, governance and financing.