India Promotes South-South Cooperation, but Key Questions Unaddressed

Biodiversity, Climate Change, Combating Desertification and Drought, Conferences, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Environment, Featured, Food & Agriculture


Joydeep Gupta is the South Asia Director for the Third Pole.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated, “greater South-South cooperation in addressing climate change, biodiversity and land degradation.” Courtesy: GCIS

At his speech at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) summit in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised South-South cooperation and technology solutions, but issues of land ownership dog the ongoing negotiations.

As the second week of the UNCCD Conference of Parties (COP) kicked off in Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted South-South cooperation and issues of land degradation.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the high level segment, he said that it was increasingly accepted that climate change impacts were leading to a loss of land, plants and animal species, and that it was causing, “land degradation of various kinds (including) rise of sea levels, wave action, and erratic rainfall and storms”.

All of these issues have a significant impact on India, and other developing countries, and as such, the Prime Minister advocated, “greater South-South cooperation in addressing climate change, biodiversity and land degradation.”

He said India would act both internally and externally on this. Domestically, he said that India was increasing its commitment to restore 21 million hectares of land by 2030 to 26 million hectares, an increase of 5 million hectares. The co-benefit of this would be that it would help create a carbon sink for 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon through increased tree cover.

On external action, he said that India was, “happy to help other friendly countries cost-effective satellite and space technologies,” and that it would be creating a Centre for Excellence at the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education in Dehradun to promote South-South cooperation, where other countries could access technology and training.

Hard questions

Nevertheless, this avoids some of the hard questions that have been dogging the UNCCD COP. Who owns the land? Who is responsible when the land is no longer able to support a livelihood, and a farmer is forced to migrate?

These are not questions anyone thought about when they launched the UNCCD 25 years ago. But since degradation of land due to a variety of reasons precedes desertification, these questions are increasingly worrying policymakers, especially from developing countries. At the ongoing New Delhi summit, the issues have come to the fore, and have divided governments along the lines of developed and developing nations, a process familiar to observers of UN climate negotiations.

Despite Narendra Modi’s speech at the high level segment, these issues remained unresolved, with bureaucrats awaiting instructions from the 100-odd ministers gathered at the Indian capital.

The NGOs who work on farming issues are clear that land degradation cannot be halted unless farmers around the world have guaranteed rights over the land on which they grow food for everyone. This may sound like a no-brainer, but estimates show that globally only around 12% of all farmers can claim legal rights over the land they till. To this, experts would like to add the land held in various forms of community ownership, sometimes by indigenous communities. But few countries have strong laws to protect such ownership.

In the first week of the New Delhi summit, developing country governments have wanted this issue of land tenure being discussed at the UNCCD forum, and developed countries – led by the US delegation – have opposed the inclusion. The industrialised countries say it is an issue of different laws in different countries, and discussing it in the UN is not going to help.

Land tenure

But, with land degradation being inextricably tied up with climate change and biodiversity, the urgency of the situation may force UNCCD to discuss land tenure in this and future meetings, and to come up with possible solutions.

The solutions are not always as straightforward as they may seem, warned UNCCD chief scientist Baron Orr in a conversation with Think of what a farmer – especially a smallholder farmer – is likely to do if offered a high price for land. Most of them are likely to sell, as evidenced by the mushrooming malls, offices and homes all around the current summit venue, which was all farmland just about a decade ago. And what happens to our food supply if this replicated globally?

Land tenure is important to halt degradation because people naturally provide better protection to land they own. But it is not enough. A farmer faced with competitors using chemical fertilisers and pesticides is not going to move to organic farming just because that is better for the soil.

Most farmers cannot afford to do that. They need help, as was seen in India when the state of Sikkim pledged to do only organic farming. Sikkim is a relatively small state – replicating that kind of help on a global or even national scale may need far more money than is available for the purpose, as Orr pointed out.

Land tenure is also an area where women face discrimination in a big way. Data journalism site IndiaSpend reported that 73.2% of the country’s rural women workers are farmers, but have only 12.8% of India’s land holdings.

Migration: the hot potato

Farmers being forced to migrate because their farms can no longer support them due to land degradation and climate change is the hottest potato of them all. Developed countries are united in opposing this major “push” factor in migration, insisting that people migrate only due to “pull” factors such as better economic opportunities. Developing countries, especially those from the Sahel belt stretching from the western to the eastern coast of Africa, point to numerous instances where farmers are forced off land gone barren, and insist on this issue being discussed by UNCCD.

Former UNCCD chief Monique Barbut has said almost all Africans trying to move to Europe are doing so due to land degradation and drought. Without putting it in words that strong, current UNCCD chief Ibrahim Thiaw has backed the inclusion of migration in the conference agenda.

As host government and conference president, India may have to use all its diplomatic skills if this knot is to be untied during this summit – an especially tricky manoeuvre because India has consistently refused to accept that immigrants from Bangladesh are entering this country because their farms can no longer support them.

And it is not just migration across countries. At a meeting organised on the sidelines of the summit by local government organisation ICLEI, mayor after mayor got up to say farmers are coming into their cities in increasing numbers due to land degradation and climate change, but they have no budget to provide any housing, water, electricity, roads or any form of livelihood to these millions of immigrants.

Still, developed country delegations insist UNCCD is not the right forum to discuss migration. What all 196 governments and the European Union agree upon in the next day or two remains to be seen.

Human efforts

Prakash Javadekar, India’s Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the conference president, had said at the opening, “If human actions have created the problems of climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss, it is the strong intent, technology and intellect that will make (the) difference. It is human efforts that will undo the damage and improve the habitats. We meet here now to ensure that this happens.” This foreshadowed what the Prime Minister said today.

He pointed out that 122 countries, among them Brazil, China, India, Nigeria, Russia and South Africa, which are among the largest and most populous nations on earth, “have agreed to make the Sustainable Development Goal of achieving land degradation neutrality a national target.”

Thiaw drew attention to the warnings sounded by recent scientific assessments and the growing public alarm at the frequency of weather-related disasters such as drought, forest fires, flash floods and soil loss. He urged delegates to be mindful of the opportunities for change that are opening up, and take action. The response of governments from developed countries will decide how useful the current summit will be.

The world is in trouble otherwise. The current pace of land transformation is putting a million species at risk of extinction. One in four hectares of this converted land is no longer usable due to unsustainable land management practices. These trends have put the well-being of 3.2 billion people around the world at risk. In tandem with climate change, this may force up to 700 million people to migrate by 2050.

This story was first published on and can be found here.


Achieving Global Consensus on How to Slow Down Loss of Land

Asia-Pacific, Climate Change, Combating Desertification and Drought, Conferences, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Global, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Regional Categories, Sustainability, TerraViva United Nations

Combating Desertification and Drought

India’s minister for environment, forests and climate change, Prakash Javadekar (left), said he would be happy if CoP 14 could achieve consensus on such difficult issues as drought management and land tenure. Courtesy: Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Sep 4 2019 (IPS) – Expectations are high, perhaps too high, as the 14th Conference of the Parties (CoP 14) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), now into the third day of its two-week session, is being held outside the smog-filled Indian capital of New Delhi.

At the inauguration on Monday, India’s minister for environment, forests and climate change, Prakash Javadekar, soon after ceremonies to mark his taking over as president of the Convention for the next two years, said he would be happy if CoP 14 could achieve consensus on such difficult issues as drought management and land tenure.

Other issues on the agenda of CoP14, themed ‘Restore land, Sustain future’ and located in Greater Noida, in northern Uttar Pradesh state, include negotiations over consumption and production flows that have a bearing on agriculture and urbanisation, restoration of ecosystems and dealing with climate change.

According to Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the Convention, CoP14 negotiations would be guided by, its own scientific papers as well as the Special Report on Climate Change and Land of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in August.

The IPCC report covered interlinked, overlapping issues that are at the core of CoP14 deliberations — climate, change, desertification, and degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.

“Sustainable land management can contribute to reducing the negative impacts of multiple stressors, including climate change, on ecosystems and societies,” the IPCC report said. It also identified land use change as the largest driver of biodiversity loss and as having the greatest impact on the environment.

Javadekar said he saw hope in the fact that of the 196 parties to the Convention 122, including some of the most populous like Brazil, China, India, Nigeria, Russia and South Africa have agreed to make the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of achieving land degradation neutrality (LDN) targets by 2030 as national objectives.

But the difficulty of seeing results on the ground can be gauged from India’s own difficult situation. Nearly 30 percent of India’s 328 million hectares, supporting 1.3 billion people, has become degraded through deforestation, over-cultivation, soil-erosion and wetland depletion, according to a satellite survey conducted in 2016 by the Indian Space Research Organisation.

A study, conducted last year by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, estimates India’s losses from land degradation and change in land use to be worth 47 billion dollars in 2014—2015.

The question before CoP14 is how participating countries can slow down loss of land and along with it biodiversity threatening to impact 3.2 billion people across the world. “Three out of every four hectares have been altered from their natural states and the productivity of one every four hectares of land has been declining,” according to UNCCD.

Running in parallel to CoP14 is the 14th session of UNCCD’s committee on science and technology (CST14), a subsidiary body with stated objectives — estimating soil organic carbon lost as a result of land degradation, addressing the ‘land-drought nexus’ through land-based interventions and translating available science into policy options for participating countries.

On Tuesday, as CoP4 launched into substantive business, the participants at the CST and other subsidiary bodies began to voice real apprehensions and demands.

Bhutan representing the Asia Pacific group, highlighted the need for cooperation at all levels to disseminate and translate identified technologies and knowledge into direct benefits for local land users.

Bangladesh pointed out that LDN targets are sometimes linked to transboundary water resources and also called for mobilising additional resources for capacity building.

Colombia, speaking for the Latin America and Caribbean group, appreciated the value of research by the scientific panels, but urged introduction of improved technologies and mitigation strategies to reduce the direct impacts of drought on ecosystems, starting with soil  degradation.

Russia, on behalf of Central and Eastern Europe, mooted the establishment of technical centres in the region to support the generation of scientific evidence to prevent and manage droughts, sustainable use of forests and peatlands and monitoring of sand and dust storms.

Civil society organisations, led by the Cape Town-based Environmental Monitoring Group, were also critical of the UNCCD for putting too much emphasis on LDN and demanded optimisation of land use through practical solutions that would ensure that carbon is retained in the soil.

“Retaining carbon in the soil is of particular value to India and its neighbouring countries, which presently have the world’s greatest rainwater runoffs into the sea,” says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a New Delhi based NGO, working on the water and environment sectors.

“What South Asian countries need to do urgently is to improve the rainwater harvesting so as to recharge groundwater aquifers and local water bodies in a given catchment so that water is available in the post-monsoon period that increasingly see severe droughts,” Thakkar tells IPS. “This is where governments can be supportive.”

Benefits such as preventing soil degradation and consequent landslides that have become a common feature in South India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

A study published in May said half of the area around 16 of India’s 24 major river basins is facing  droughts due to lowered soil moisture levels while at least a third of its 18 river basins has become non-resilient to vegetation droughts.

Responding to the suggestions and demands the Secretariat highlighted  recommendations to ensure mainstreaming of LDN targets in national strategies and action programmes, partnerships on science-policy to increase awareness and understanding of LDN and collaborations to assess finance and capacity development needs.

In all, the delegates, who include 90 ministers and more than 7,000 participants drawn from among government officials, civil society and the scientific community from the 197 parties will thrash out 30  decision texts and draw up action plans to strengthen land-use policies and address emerging threats such as droughts, forest fires, dust storms and forced migration.

“The agenda shows that governments have come to CoP14 ready to find solutions to many difficult, knotty and emerging policy issues,” said Thiaw at the inaugural session. The conference ends with the parties signing a ‘New Delhi Declaration’ outlining actions to meet UNCCD goals for 2018-2030.


There’s No Continent, No Country Not Impacted by Land Degradation

Biodiversity, Climate Change, Combating Desertification and Drought, Conferences, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Global, Headlines, Regional Categories, Sustainability, TerraViva United Nations

Combating Desertification and Drought

On all continents you have the issue of land degradation, and it requires governments, land users and all different communities in a country to be part of the solution. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah /IPS

ANKARA, Jun 17 2019 (IPS) – The coming decades will be crucial in shaping and implementing a transformative land agenda, according to a scientist at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) framework for Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN).

UNCCD-Science Policy Interface co-chair Dr. Mariam Akhtar-Schuster, who spoke with IPS ahead of the start of activities to mark World Day to Combat Desertification (WDCD) on Monday, Jun. 17, said this was one of the key messages emerging for policy- and other decision-makers.

This comes after the dire warnings in recent publications on desertification, land degradation and drought of the Global Land OutlookIntergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration, World Atlas of Desertification, and IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

“The main message is: things are not improving. The issue of desertification is becoming clearer to different communities, but we now have to start implementing the knowledge that we already have to combat desertification,” Akhtar-Schuster told IPS.

“It’s not only technology that we have to implement, it is the policy level that has to develop a governance structure which supports sustainable land management practices.”

IPBES Science and Policy for People and Nature found that the biosphere and atmosphere, upon which humanity as a whole depends, have been deeply reconfigured by people.

The report shows that 75 percent of the land area is very significantly altered, 66 percent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and 85 percent of the wetland area has been lost.

“There are of course areas which are harder hit; these are areas which are experiencing extreme drought which makes it even more difficult to sustainably use land resources,” Akhtar-Schuster said.

“On all continents you have the issue of land degradation, so there’s no continent, there’s no country which can just lean back and say this is not our issue. Everybody has to do something.”

Akhtar-Schuster said there is sufficient knowledge out there which already can support evidence-based implementation of technology so that at least land degradation does not continue.

While the information is available, Akhtar-Schuster said it requires governments, land users and all different communities in a country to be part of the solution.

“There is no top-down approach. You need the people on the ground, you need the people who generate knowledge and you need the policy makers to implement that knowledge. You need everybody,” the UNCCD-SPI co-chair said.

“Nobody in a community, in a social environment, can say this has nothing to do with me. We are all consumers of products which are generated from land. So, we in our daily lives – the way we eat, the way we dress ourselves – whatever we do has something to do with land, and we can take decisions which are more friendly to land than what we’re doing at the moment.”

UNCCD-Science Policy Interface co-chair Dr. Mariam Akhtar-Schuster says things are not improving and that the issue of desertification is becoming clearer to different communities. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

UNCCD Lead Scientist Dr. Barron Joseph Orr said it’s important to note that while the four major assessments were all done for different reasons, using different methodologies, they are all converging on very similar messages.

He said while in the past land degradation was seen as a problem in a place where there is overgrazing or poor management practices on agricultural lands, the reality is, that’s not influencing the change in land.

“What’s very different from the past is the rate of land transformation. The pace of that change is considerable, both in terms of conversion to farm land and conversion to built-up areas,” Orr told IPS.

“We’ve got a situation where 75 percent of the land surface of the earth has been transformed, and the demand for food is only going to go up between now and 2050 with the population growth expected to increase one to two billion people.”

That’s a significant jump. Our demand for energy that’s drawn from land, bio energy, or the need for land for solar and wind energy is only going to increase but these studies are making it clear that we are not optimising our use,” Orr added.

Like Akhtar-Schuster, Orr said it’s now public knowledge what tools are necessary to sustainably manage agricultural land, and to restore or rehabilitate land that has been degraded.

“We need better incentives for our farmers and ranchers to do the right thing on the landscape, we have to have stronger safeguards for tenures so that future generations can continue that stewardship of the land,” he added.

The international community adopted the Convention to Combat Desertification in Paris on Jun. 17, 1994.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Convention and the World Day to Combat Desertification in 2019 (#2019WDCD), UNCCD will look back and celebrate the 25 years of progress made by countries on sustainable land management.

At the same time, they will look at the broad picture of the next 25 years where they will achieve land degradation neutrality.

The anniversary campaign runs under the slogan “Let’s grow the future together,” with the global observance of WDCD and the 25th anniversary of the Convention on Jun. 17, hosted by the government of Turkey.