12 million hectares of productive land are degraded annually across the globe but targets for restoring ‘degraded’ territory could lead to global land-grab. At the recent UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Ankara many NGO delegates expressed concern that the convention’s proposal to rehabilitate degraded land globally could have negative, if unintended, consequences.
“Land degradation neutrality” relates to the situation that degraded land often emits CO2 but restored land not only increases food productivity but also stores carbon so it could have an impact on how emission reductions are negotiated in Paris and beyond.
However, there is a serious snag in the proposal. Land rights activists argue that it needs to be hedged by much clearer definitions of “degradation”, and accompanied by legal recognition for the world’s many millions of untenured small farmers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples. Otherwise, it could accelerate the current trend towards ‘land-grabbing’ by states, corporations and private individuals.
Michael Taylor, director of the International Land Coalition, told the conference that as much as 65 per cent of the Earth’s land surface is claimed by indigenous peoples and local communities, through customary usage and management. But only 18 per cent of this land is acknowledged as communally owned by governments.
“This is a concern,” he said, “because it is land on which up to 1.5 billion people live and use, but over which they have no legal control. In other words, they are legally squatters on land that in most cases has been theirs for generations. As competition for this land increases, and this competition becomes increasingly unequal, so does their risk of dispossession.”
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim represents the Congo Basin region on the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee and campaigns for land rights for her pastoralist Mbororo people. She believes grazing and cultivating communities can benefit each other, in a traditional seasonal synergy. “It starts with cowshit,” she explains disarmingly. The dung dropped by the Mbororo’s cattle, roaming vast areas across Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, is an essential source of fertility for crops after they have moved on. But problems arise when the Mbororo retrace their steps, and find land they have grazed for centuries fenced off for exclusive cultivation, often without even a corridor for their cattle to pass through, and with no prior negotiation. Ibrahim argues that customary communal use of land should recognised as a legal right worldwide.
Michael Taylor explains “Hindou’s people know the land they graze as very productive on a seasonal basis,” said Taylor after listening to our interview, “but a government or a corporation might say it can only become fully productive if it is irrigated.”
Forcing unsuitable land into industrialised agricultural production, however, often exhausts the soil. It can destroy its productivity long term through salinisation. So we are left with the paradox that, unless there are clear guidelines, efforts to restore land wrongly considered degraded could lead to the degradation of productive land.