Goal 15: Sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems – antidote of desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss

Goal-15

BY DECHEN RABGYAL

At no point in time did the issue of fast degrading terrestrial ecosystems receive such an attention than from the latter half of the twentieth century. And it continues to be high on the agenda at various national, regional and global forums. It has come about by the fast deteriorating terrestrial ecosystem attributed to human activities giving way to climate change, land degradation, desertification, and biodiversity loss, consequently impinging human life and larger ecosystem.

Human activities such as illegal logging and settlements, shifting agriculture, population growth, oil and mining industries and rapid urbanization have unintentionally contributed to desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss. Otherwise, ecosystem has provided us with source of livelihood – water, air, food, home and friendly neighbours in different species of fauna. In addition, varieties of flora, fast flowing river systems and land features have added much to the aesthetics of human settlement.

In retrospect, humans, in our attempt to live happier and wealthier lives, have pursued ill-conceived course of action threatening not only the lives of fellow beings but also of self. Between 1990 and 2005, the rate of deforestation has averaged about 13 million hectares a year, occurring mostly in tropical countries. That translates into loss of about 200 square km – an equivalent of 18,100 soccer playing fields – daily. Congo basin forest with total area of 2 million square kilometers is losing 1.5 million hectares – half of Lesotho – every year attributed to human activities, namely logging, population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices and mining. At this rate, with growing population against already limited forest resources fueled by unsustainable development practices, experts estimate that in 2030, the demands for energy will rise 50%, food 45%, and water 30%. It is also expected that continuing land degradation will drive 700 million people out of their homes. Figures are alarming!

The price we have paid for unsustainable use of terrestrial ecosystem has been huge. Threat to human settlement brought about by climate change, floods, erosion and drought is more pronounced than others. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that 75% of genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost and 75% of the world’s fisheries are fully or over exploited. Desertification-related processes such as reduction of vegetation cover, for instance, increase the formation of aerosols and dust. As a result, the human well-being of dry land people, about 90% of whom are in developing countries, lags significantly behind other areas. Evidently, poor and developing countries bear the maximum brunt as agriculture happens to be main source of livelihood for majority of the populace.

The negative impact of unsustainable management of terrestrial ecosystem transcends human life. Studies have found out that damage to larger ecosystem has been beyond repair as 1 out of 8 birds, 1 out of 4 mammals, 1 out of 4 conifers, 1 out of 3 amphibians and 6 out of 7 marine turtles are facing the fate of unfortunate extinction. Biodiversity loss is immense. Why should we bother of biodiversity loss? Biodiversity loss not only affects the very species itself but also larger ecosystem and human lives. For instance, great apes play a key role in maintaining the health and diversity of the ecosystems, usually through seed dispersal and creation of gaps in the forest canopy, thus reaching fruits and nuts to faraway places which human can harvest for their livelihood. On the other hand, uncontrolled human encroachment have caused land degradation and desertification whereby vegetation disappear and water source dry up pushing lives to the limit. Interconnectedness of biodiversity loss, desertification and climate change and subsequent affect upon human lives can be better understood from the diagram below.

Responding to the fast losing ecosystems and species thereof, efforts were made at various levels to protect terrestrial ecosystem, reverse desertification and prevent biodiversity loss. Rio Summit of 1992 – the Earth Summit’s adoption of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and subsequent signature of Kyoto Protocol testifies that the environmental sustainability is and should be at the core of development. However, critics are cynical of not being done enough to translate promise into practice. Notwithstanding the said pitfalls, specific conventions, namely, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the Convention on Migratory Species have been put in place. With these, need based interventions are expected to be programmed. The future we see convinces us to be optimistic, at least on paper.

In addition, continued and concerted efforts are being made in the field of desertification and land degradation. A UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN REDD) is one such example to emulate. If implemented well, the UN REDD would help halve deforestation by 2030, and cut emissions by 1.5 Gt of CO2 per year. While statistics are appealing, investment is also considerable. It is estimated that the programme would cost from US$ 17.2 – 33 billion per year. This is huge but can we afford to turn blind eye to these figures and leave alone organizations such as World Wildlife Fund (WFF) and Green Peace International to fight the already losing battle? Should richer countries and firms work in collaboration with organizations like United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN and commit part of their resources, the estimated benefit in reduced climate change is US$ 3.2 trillion. When the world is at crossroads, key decisions are crucial to make the earth better place not only for humans but also for fellow beings.

Effective restoration and rehabilitation of desertified dry lands require a combination of policies and technologies and the close involvement of local communities. Integrated land and water management are key methods of desertification prevention. Sustainable land use can address human activities such as overgrazing, overexploitation of plants, trampling of soils, and unsustainable irrigation practices that exacerbate dry land vulnerability. At the household level, adoption of mixed farming practices whereby a single farm household combines livestock rearing and cropping would allow a more efficient recycling of nutrients within the agricultural system. Examples of measures to restore and rehabilitate include establishment of seed banks, restocking of soil organic matter and organisms that promote higher plant establishment and growth, and reintroduction of selected species. Investing in land through practices such as terracing and other counter-erosion measures, control of invasive species, chemical and organic nutrient replenishment and reforestation are some of the solutions to reverse desertification.

Further, protection of vegetative cover can be a major instrument for prevention of desertification as it would protect soil from wind and water erosion while providing home for different species of flora and fauna. For instance, Bhutan’s constitution mandates that there shall be minimum of 60% of forest cover at all times to come. Such constitutional requirements help keep vegetation and ecosystem intact. Attributed to such noble commitment, Bhutan continues to be the home of some of the globally endangered species like tiger, black-necked cranes and while bellied heroine.

Terrestrial ecosystem, land degradation and biodiversity loss are inherently linked each other, hence careful management of the former would help prevent and reverse desertification and assure safe home of endangered species.

 

At no point in time did the issue of fast degrading terrestrial ecosystems receive such an attention than from the latter half of the twentieth century. And it continues to be high on the agenda at various national, regional and global forums. It has come about by the fast deteriorating terrestrial ecosystem attributed to human activities giving way to climate change, land degradation, desertification, and biodiversity loss, consequently impinging human life and larger ecosystem.

Human activities such as illegal logging and settlements, shifting agriculture, population growth, oil and mining industries and rapid urbanization have unintentionally contributed to desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss. Otherwise, ecosystem has provided us with source of livelihood – water, air, food, home and friendly neighbours in different species of fauna. In addition, varieties of flora, fast flowing river systems and land features have added much to the aesthetics of human settlement.

In retrospect, humans, in our attempt to live happier and wealthier lives, have pursued ill-conceived course of action threatening not only the lives of fellow beings but also of self. Between 1990 and 2005, the rate of deforestation has averaged about 13 million hectares a year, occurring mostly in tropical countries. That translates into loss of about 200 square km – an equivalent of 18,100 soccer playing fields – daily. Congo basin forest with total area of 2 million square kilometers is losing 1.5 million hectares – half of Lesotho – every year attributed to human activities, namely logging, population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices and mining. At this rate, with growing population against already limited forest resources fueled by unsustainable development practices, experts estimate that in 2030, the demands for energy will rise 50%, food 45%, and water 30%. It is also expected that continuing land degradation will drive 700 million people out of their homes. Figures are alarming!

The price we have paid for unsustainable use of terrestrial ecosystem has been huge. Threat to human settlement brought about by climate change, floods, erosion and drought is more pronounced than others. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that 75% of genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost and 75% of the world’s fisheries are fully or over exploited. Desertification-related processes such as reduction of vegetation cover, for instance, increase the formation of aerosols and dust. As a result, the human well-being of dry land people, about 90% of whom are in developing countries, lags significantly behind other areas. Evidently, poor and developing countries bear the maximum brunt as agriculture happens to be main source of livelihood for majority of the populace.

The negative impact of unsustainable management of terrestrial ecosystem transcends human life. Studies have found out that damage to larger ecosystem has been beyond repair as 1 out of 8 birds, 1 out of 4 mammals, 1 out of 4 conifers, 1 out of 3 amphibians and 6 out of 7 marine turtles are facing the fate of unfortunate extinction. Biodiversity loss is immense. Why should we bother of biodiversity loss? Biodiversity loss not only affects the very species itself but also larger ecosystem and human lives. For instance, great apes play a key role in maintaining the health and diversity of the ecosystems, usually through seed dispersal and creation of gaps in the forest canopy, thus reaching fruits and nuts to faraway places which human can harvest for their livelihood. On the other hand, uncontrolled human encroachment have caused land degradation and desertification whereby vegetation disappear and water source dry up pushing lives to the limit. Interconnectedness of biodiversity loss, desertification and climate change and subsequent affect upon human lives can be better understood from the diagram below.

Responding to the fast losing ecosystems and species thereof, efforts were made at various levels to protect terrestrial ecosystem, reverse desertification and prevent biodiversity loss. Rio Summit of 1992 – the Earth Summit’s adoption of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and subsequent signature of Kyoto Protocol testifies that the environmental sustainability is and should be at the core of development. However, critics are cynical of not being done enough to translate promise into practice. Notwithstanding the said pitfalls, specific conventions, namely, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the Convention on Migratory Species have been put in place. With these, need based interventions are expected to be programmed. The future we see convinces us to be optimistic, at least on paper.

#15

In addition, continued and concerted efforts are being made in the field of desertification and land degradation. A UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN REDD) is one such example to emulate. If implemented well, the UN REDD would help halve deforestation by 2030, and cut emissions by 1.5 Gt of CO2 per year. While statistics are appealing, investment is also considerable. It is estimated that the programme would cost from US$ 17.2 – 33 billion per year. This is huge but can we afford to turn blind eye to these figures and leave alone organizations such as World Wildlife Fund (WFF) and Green Peace International to fight the already losing battle? Should richer countries and firms work in collaboration with organizations like United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN and commit part of their resources, the estimated benefit in reduced climate change is US$ 3.2 trillion. When the world is at crossroads, key decisions are crucial to make the earth better place not only for humans but also for fellow beings.

Effective restoration and rehabilitation of desertified dry lands require a combination of policies and technologies and the close involvement of local communities. Integrated land and water management are key methods of desertification prevention. Sustainable land use can address human activities such as overgrazing, overexploitation of plants, trampling of soils, and unsustainable irrigation practices that exacerbate dry land vulnerability. At the household level, adoption of mixed farming practices whereby a single farm household combines livestock rearing and cropping would allow a more efficient recycling of nutrients within the agricultural system. Examples of measures to restore and rehabilitate include establishment of seed banks, restocking of soil organic matter and organisms that promote higher plant establishment and growth, and reintroduction of selected species. Investing in land through practices such as terracing and other counter-erosion measures, control of invasive species, chemical and organic nutrient replenishment and reforestation are some of the solutions to reverse desertification.

Further, protection of vegetative cover can be a major instrument for prevention of desertification as it would protect soil from wind and water erosion while providing home for different species of flora and fauna. For instance, Bhutan’s constitution mandates that there shall be minimum of 60% of forest cover at all times to come. Such constitutional requirements help keep vegetation and ecosystem intact. Attributed to such noble commitment, Bhutan continues to be the home of some of the globally endangered species like tiger, black-necked cranes and while bellied heroine.

Terrestrial ecosystem, land degradation and biodiversity loss are inherently linked each other, hence careful management of the former would help prevent and reverse desertification and assure safe home of endangered species.

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