Planetary Survival in the 21st Century: Confronting Land Degradation, Biodiversity Loss, and Climate Change

By Ezra Ho
2013, Vol. 5 No. 01 | pg. 2/2 |

Not only does conversions of forest to agricultural cropland affects the climate system, but climate change can destabilize agricultural systems. As GHG emissions accumulate resulting in elevated global temperatures, destabilizing the climate system, extreme weather patterns are predicted to increase in both intensity and frequency (IPCC, 2007). Precipitation patterns shift both in timing and intensity due to changes in evapotranspiration rates, resulting in increased drought stress in major wheat and maize-producing countries like China, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran (Forster et al, 2012). In Sub-Saharan Africa, arid and semi-arid areas are projected to increase by 50% (De Schutter, 2011).

On the other extreme end of climatic events, an increase in the intensity of monsoons could result in flood surges which can destroy entire crops, affecting agricultural systems and livelihoods. Moreover, sea level rise coupled with the acidification of the oceans could lead to increased salinization of the soil, reducing agricultural productivity. Finally pests and disease prevalence are also strongly influenced by changes in weather patterns and could contribute to increased crop losses (IAASTD, 2009; FAO, 2011a). By 2080, 600 million additional people could be at risk of hunger from climate change (De Schutter, 2011).

Aside from affecting food security through climate change impacts, the increased demand for land and agricultural crops by financial markets (Anseeuw et al, 2012) is threatening the food security of millions in the developing world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 870 million people were chronically undernourished between the period 2010-2012 (FAO, 2012). This does not need to be so, and as evidence, the 203 million hectares of land acquired between 2000 - 2010 has the potential to feed all the chronically malnourished people globally (Geary, 2012). Furthermore, up to a third of food produced for human consumption ends up wasted due to logistical or bureaucratic complications (Toulmin et al, 2011).

Thus, most hunger in the world is due to poverty (De Schutter, 2011), which is exacerbated by higher food prices caused by speculative activity. While 70% of the world's rural population belong to the agricultural economy (Adhikari and Nadella, 2011), most small-scale farmers are net-buyers of food since they do not produce enough food for their families (FAO, 2011b). Due to the linkages between agricultural and energy markets, high and volatile food prices caused by speculative activity are depriving millions of adequate food (FAO, 2011a; FAO, 2011b). And because they cannot afford food, people in the developing world are malnourished.

This relationship between poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition creates a vicious poverty trap where people in the developing world are unable to engage in productive activity due to poor health from inadequate nutrition. Moreover, the cycle perpetuates across generations as the impact of malnutrition is even greater on children whose stunted developmental process will effect them for the rest of their adult life (FAO, 2011b). Additionally, poverty also acts as a driver of land degradation as the rural poor often lack the means for sustainable practices such as agricultural knowledge and technology as well as finance.

Finally, land degradation as a result of deforestation also threatens biodiversity. Occupying 30% of the earth's land surface, forests contain more than 80% of terrestrial animal and plant species (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2011). Not only does biodiversity help regulate the climate system through carbon sequestration, but the systemic interaction of flora and fauna contributes to various ecosystem services that are fundamental to human well-being. Services such as the provision of food, water, medicine and fuel; regulation of earth system processes such as the climate and supporting services like nutrient cycling and soil formation (MEA, 2005).

In fact, research has shown that biodiversity loss is as significant to ecosystem health as are other direct global drivers of environmental change such as ozone depletion or elevated CO2 levels (Hooper et al, 2012). However, because of the current drivers of land-use change, such as the increasing demand for biofuels, lush biodiversity-rich forests are being decimated in order to clear land for plantations, which deprives species of their habitat and reduces the integrity of the ecosystem (Gibson et al, 2011; WWF, 2012b). Such loss is particularly detrimental to the rural poor who largely depend on the above ecosystem services to provide for the necessities of life and their livelihoods (MEA, 2005; WWF, 2012a; FAO, 2012).

Indonesia, one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, has lost a significant portion of its rainforests and peatlands in the last 10 years as businesses convert forest into biofuel plantations (Miettinen et al, 2011; Fargione et al, 2008; Anseeuw et al, 2012). Since 1985, the island of Sumatra has lost more than half of its forest cover. As a result, there are only about 400 Sumatran tigers and fewer than 2,800 Sumatran elephants left in the wild and should deforestation continue, it is probable that these species will go extinct (WWF, 2012b). Beyond iconic conservation symbols, the loss of biodiversity and the decay of ecosystems caused by land degradation represents a dire threat to the healthy functioning of the earth system.

Thus far, it is clear that land degradation has far-reaching impacts which interact in complex ways that cut across issues ranging from climate change, food security, poverty to biodiversity loss. If we are to successfully address land degradation, it is clear that an integrated approach to these problems is required. Of the many approaches being taken presently to ameliorate rates of land degradation, most fall under market-based solutions. The first of which is forest certification, which attempts to ensure that forests are sustainably managed for the extraction of timber and non-timber forest products. Labels such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Malaysian Timber Certification Council seek to promote sustainable forest practices that aims to minimize human impacts on the ecosystem.

In doing so, consumers are informed as to the sustainability of the said product, and by voting with their dollar, they can promote more sustainable businesses practices. Requirements can include measures like reduced-impact logging, which seeks to minimize the impact of logging on the soil and forest ecosystem by regulating the area of logging and the planning of roads and landings. In fact, a landmark study found that forest management practices associated with forest certification significantly benefited biodiversity and ecosystem health (van Kuijk et al, 2009). At the same time, more research is needed to enhance the understanding of species response to managed logging since every forest has different variables. While biodiversity and ecosystems are negatively impacted by logging no matter how sustainably managed it is, we require such ecosystem services for the continual functioning of our society.

Barring systemic shifts that allow us to align our consumption patterns with the Earth's carrying capacity, we will have to balance the managed use of such natural resources with conservation strategies. The second approach that is dominant in present discourse is the integration of sustainable land practices with climate change mitigation and conservation efforts. Under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) framework, local communities will receive payments of carbon credits through the government for the sustainable management and conservation of forests as a carbon sink towards climate change mitigation (Thompson et al, 2012).

While the idea has been popularized as an excellent approach to integrating natural capital valuation into decision-making, there have been practical obstacles and limitations in translating the framework into practical policies. To begin with, it is highly ironic that market-based solutions are being applied to solve the world's largest market failure. While appearing sound in theory, REDD+ has aggravated land degradation plus resulting in human rights violations. Because most REDD+ proposals take place in developing countries with weak governance institutions and capacity, corruption is often a barrier towards sound enforcement of conservation imperatives and including local communities in sharing the financial benefits (Karsentya and Ongolo, 2012).

Moreover, under the UNFCCC framework definition, monoculture plantations growing biofuels qualify as natural forests (Huettner, 2012). Consequently, companies are buying up vast tracts of land for their carbon sequestration potential, in the process side-lining indigenous communities and customary law (Anseeuw et al, 2012; Thompson et al, 2012). In order for REDD+ to constitute an effective measure against land degradation, the rights and customs of indigenous peoples have to be respected while ensuring that governance structures are democratic, robust and transparent (Schroeder, 2010; Thompson et al, 2012; Huettner, 2012).

In contrast to the top-down approaches that have characterized mainstream approaches to combating land degradation, an emerging idea in development circles is to promote locally-controlled forestry. Not only is it based on experienced management, meaning that local communities are able to better conserve the land through accumulated knowledge, but it also paves the path for equitable development as communities are able to benefit from their natural resources. Because they are directly invested in the continual integrity and sustainability of the land, there are significant social, economic and environmental benefits from local management.

In Java, Indonesia, community-based forestry contributed to an increase in forest cover by 6 million hectares from 1985-1997 (Macqueen at al, 2012). Building on the importance of local management, improving women's rights in developing countries would also help to promote natural resource management, not to mention food security and developmental goals (FAO, 2011a). Although women constitutes almost half of the agricultural workforce in the developed world, they are often discriminated against because of rigid gender roles. As a result, they have restricted access to agricultural resources and technology, financial services and legal representation.

This inequitable situation, if bridged, would allow agricultural output to rise 2.5-4%, reducing the number of malnourished people by 100-150 million people (FAO, 2011a). Moreover, it has also been demonstrated that women make more productive use of resource as the primary care-givers of society, having a greater influence on the education, health and the welfare of the family (Mehra, 1997; Bernasek, 2003). Tapping this largely ignored segment of the population would greatly improve the developmental process of a country. Hence, in combination, promoting the local management of natural resources plus empowering women is an effective strategy in land conservation as well as alleviating poverty.

Lastly, promoting small-scale, agroecological solutions would greatly improve food security, climate resilience and land management. While agriculture has been attributed a significant portion of GHG emissions, the elephant in the room is that it refers to the industrial farming monopolized by large agricultural and chemical corporations (ETC Group, 2011). In contrast to the picture of small-scale ecological farming in developing countries, this impact is largely due to industrial farming practices which rely heavily on fossil fuel-based inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and long-distance transport.

On the other hand, agroecology practices such as agroforestry are based on patterns found in natural systems. In a food forest for instance, a dense arrangement of trees and crops ensure a biodiverse environment where plants, animals and insects support each other. All inputs are recycled as in natural systems, leaving no waste behind. Hence, they are sustainable by design. And because they leverage on natural synergies, such practices are able to achieve a higher net agricultural output compared to industrial farming systems (De Schutter, 2011). Moreover, agricultural diversity also allows for greater resilience against climate change by promoting healthy soil conditions.

In closing, land degradation is a complex environmental issue that involves social, economic and political drivers that cannot be addressed without an integrated approach. Cutting across food security, poverty, climate change and human rights, addressing land degradation and biodiversity loss requires an multidisciplinary approach and multi-stakeholder integration. At a time where the stakes are hundreds of millions of starving people and the long term survival of our planet, we require a new narrative.

A vision of small-scale, inclusive and ecologically sound agriculture promises to lift the world out of poverty, inequality and hunger. Now, we only need the courage to stand against the intransigent guardians of the status quo. In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." And so, we must.


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