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Ho, E. (2013). "Planetary Survival in the 21st Century: Confronting Land Degradation, Biodiversity Loss, and Climate Change." Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 5(01). Retrieved from

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

By Ezra Ho
2013, Vol. 5 No. 01

Everywhere, everyday we are reminded of the planetary crisis. Ice caps melt, forests are decimated, species go extinct and extreme climatic changes threaten the survival of human civilization. We desperately need a new narrative – a compelling vision of sustainability where we get a happily-ever-after ending. But where are we now? In the crazed pursuit of financial and material progress, Gross Domestic Product has grown exponentially. But to be sure, the Gross Depletion of the Planet is also at an all time high. Population growth and increasing resource demands are placing ever more pressure on the Earth system, changing vast ecosystems in an unprecedented display of planetary mastery (UNEP, 2012).

Indeed, such is the human prowess that a new geologic era has been coined to reflect the changing times - the anthropocene (Crutzen et al, 2007). Nowhere is this reality more evident than on the surface of the earth- literally. In recent times, the land has decayed. Pressures placed by a growing population, demographic changes and increasing consumption demands are overstraining the land's carrying capacity. From the fossil fuels that provides our cities with electricity, consumer products, mobility to the minerals that constitute our electronics, to our sustenance that fuels our biological metabolism, all come from the land.

“Given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.” - Daniel Quinn

As land use changes to accommodate such shifting patterns, they cumulatively result in the loss of soil integrity and the health of the land with deleterious impacts on both human communities and natural ecosystems- with their non-human inhabitants. Over the next decade, as efforts are taken to address global environmental changes amidst developmental and demographic shifts, the issue of land use will be pivotal.

In this paper, first the drivers then the mechanisms and impacts of land degradation are assessed, together with current and proposed measures to remedy this tragic state of affairs. While it can barely hope to represent a comprehensive picture of land degradation issues, it is hoped that at least an informative snapshot can be obtained.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, fueled by cheap energy and the exponential leaps in technology, the acceleration of human activity has transformed our relationship with the planet, birthing another neologism- “the great acceleration.” As the human population continues its rapid growth, recently reaching 7 billion and projected to hit 9 billion by 2050 (UNDESA, 2004), demand for natural resources is accelerating, placing more pressures on the integrity of the land. In the last century alone, material extraction from the earth increased from 7 to almost 60 billion tonnes (UNEP, 2012).

As a consequence, whole ecosystems are increasingly devastated by extractive activities, mountaintops are blown off, topsoil destroyed, water tables contaminated and vast forests are felled (Sibaud, 2012). In the Amazon, large tracts of protected indigenous lands are being illegally logged to produce wood charcoal, of which 85% is used for pig iron and steel production in car production (Greenpeace International, 2012). Moreover, demographic changes such as the growing middle class in rapidly developing countries are putting more stress on the carrying capacity of the planet.

A case in point is meat consumption: from the beginning of the 1970s to the mid 1990s, the amount of meat consumed in developing countries has grown three times as much as it did in the developed countries. And by 2020, developing countries will expand their share of total world meat consumption from 52% currently to 63% (Delgado, 2003; FAO, 2012). The environmental pitfalls of meat production are well-known. Not only does meat production result in the release of more climate-changing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but it also increases demand for animal feedstock, which competes with agricultural crops for human consumption, intensifying agricultural land demands.

Most importantly, all of the above factors come together in a perfect storm that intensifies land degradation as increased demand for natural resources, coupled with the financialization of the commodity markets, have led to massive land grabs, and hence the intensification of land-use in the developing world. As countries prepare for the transition to a Green Economy where biomass replaces fossil fuels as the basis of industrial civilization, a massive land grab has been sparked off in the developing world which houses most of the world's terrestrial and aquatic biomass with dire implications for food security and land rights (ETC Group, 2011).

This includes agricultural products like plant oils, fibre crops, algae and of course, food crops. Of special mention are biofuel crops such as soy, sugarcane, palm oil and jatropha , which hold the promise of a low-carbon transport sector (Fargione et al, 2008; Murphy et al, 2011; UNEP, 2012). Indeed, the EU’s renewable fuels target requires that 10% of transport fuels be supplied by renewables by 2020, with the expectation that 80–90% of this target will likely to be met by biofuels. Of the 203 million hectares of land (equivalent to the size of North-western Europe) acquired by corporate and national buyers over the last decade, 78% was set aside from agricultural uses, largely for biofuel production (Anseeuw et al, 2012; Geary, 2012). In Indonesia, where logging and conversion of forests to palm oil plantations are the main causes of deforestation, half of the country's 143 million hectares of tropical rainforest have been degraded (Anseeuw et al, 2012).

This development is exacerbated by the deregulation of the commodity futures market. This allowed investors to speculate on the future prices of agricultural products (Knaup et al, 2011). As more money flowing into the market increases the price of such commodities, a vicious cycle develops that incentivizes more speculative activity, and artificially increases demand for biofuel crops (UNCTD, 2011). Worse still is that most of the additional cropland for biofuels production have been shown to come from clearing existing forests (Young, 2009). The end result is that the intensification of such monoculture plantations of biofuel crops will contribute to increasing deforestation. Cumulatively, such anthropogenic drivers create untold pressure on the land, far exceeding its carrying capacity, degrading the land and its ability to nurture life.

Exploring the mechanisms of land degradation, the term refers to the deterioration of the physical, biological and chemical properties of the soil, caused by wind or water-induced erosion. This brings about a consequent reduction in natural vegetation, stripping the land of its life-sustaining cover (Nyssena et al, 2008). While land degradation is the result of a complex interplay between climatic and anthropogenic factors, most of global land degradation today is due to human impact with agriculture being responsible for approximately 80% of global deforestation (Pimentel, 2000; Kissinger et al, 2012). That being said, a whole host of human activities also contribute to land degradation including harvesting of timber products, mining and livestock grazing. The link between land degradation and deforestation is that land cover is lost, inducing a positive feedback mechanism which further inhibits future plant growth (Mölders, 2012). As trees are cleared from an area due to timber harvesting or to create agricultural land, the effects are two-fold.

First, the water infiltration ability of the soil is impaired due to the loss of tree roots which create conduits for water to flow through, inhibiting healthy plant growth. Secondly, as canopy and ground cover is lost due to deforestation, raindrop impact, runoff and aeolian entrainment contribute to the dislodging of soil particles, resulting in the erosion of the soil (D’Odoricoa et al, 2012). In particular, topsoil, the nutrient-rich top-most layer of organic material is lost, which takes decades to regenerate. It has been estimated that 1mm of topsoil eroded over 1 hectare could take as long as 20 years to recover (Pimentel, 2000).

Moreover, unsustainable agricultural activity as well as the trampling of livestock can also contribute to the erosion of topsoil, degrading the land. For instance, the practice of tilling, overturning the soil as part of agricultural preparation, has been shown to leave the soil unprotected from the elements. Consequently, 80% of agricultural land suffers from modest to severe erosion. Furthermore, it has been estimated that erosion rates are 75 times higher on agricultural ground in comparison to natural forest areas (Pimentel, 2000).

Moreover, the loss of vegetation cover reducing precipitation levels can contribute to desertification. Not only is the water content in the soil reduced, but the amount of water released through evapotranspiration processes are diminished as well. As such, atmospheric humidity in the immediate area is reduced, causing a fall in precipitation levels, and paving the way for further degradation and desertification in arid regions (D’Odoricoa et al, 2012). In one study, air that passed over extensive vegetation over the last few days produced twice as much rainfall than air that passed over little vegetation (Spracklen et al, 2012). Moreover, dust emission from human activity such as livestock grazing, mining or construction can also reduce precipitation over an area, exacerbating land degradation.

Because dust particles can act as cloud condensation nuclei, which facilitates the coagulation of water vapor molecules into rain droplets, they play a vital role in the hydrological cycle. However, excessive cloud condensation nuclei in the atmosphere causes formation of cloud condensation nuclei which are too small to precipitate as rain. As such, rainfall is reduced. In fact, empirical evidence shows an inverse relationship between dust levels and precipitation levels in the Sahel (D’Odoricoa et al, 2012). Finally, loss of vegetation leading to desertification can also be induced by the accumulation of salts or other toxic substances in the soil. There are several ways this can take place. Salts from rain or the weathering of rocks can be introduced into the water table.

Alternatively, low quality irrigation water coupled with inefficient leaching can cause the accumulation of salts in the water table. The presence of salts (referring to sodium ions) in the ground destroys soil structure by reducing porosity, hence reducing water infiltration rate and inhibiting plant growth (D’Odoricoa et al, 2012). This salinization of the soil is a notable problem with 20% of irrigated lands affected by increasing salt content, leading to their diminishing productivity and contributing to the increasing degradation of the land.

As the effects from land degradation interact with biophysical and human systems, a whole myriad of negative impacts, which are interlinked in complex ways, are felt. A classic example of which is the relationship between climate change and land-use change. In line with recent scientific evidence, anthropogenic emissions of GHG are threatening to destabilize the global climatic system through more variable and extreme weather patterns (IPCC, 2007). As the international community struggles to limit GHG-induced temperature rises that would result in catastrophic impacts on human and natural ecosystems (UNFCCC, 2009), the drivers of land-use change and degradation as outlined above threaten to derail them.

On a very basic level, soil and plant biomass sequester about 90% of the carbon in global vegetation (Dale, 1997). Land-use changes like deforestation that disturb forest cover releases this stored carbon, which enhances anthropogenic-induced climate change. The loss of maturing forests and grasslands also foregoes ongoing carbon sequestration as plants grow each year, and this foregone sequestration is the equivalent of additional emissions. In all, GHG emissions from land-use change is estimated to contribute from 10- 30% of global GHG emissions (Barker et al, 2007; IAASTD, 2009; GRAIN, 2011)

As pressures on the land grow, so will GHG emissions. Indeed, from 1970 – 2004, GHG emissions from land-use change have increased 40% (Mölders, 2012). In recent years, a prime driver of deforestation has been the conversion of forests to cropland to grow biofuels, particularly in Indonesia and Brazil. While biofuels are potentially a low-carbon energy source, carbon savings depend on how they are produced. Increasingly, it is being discovered that biofuels production take place on converted rainforests and peatlands (Young, 2009).

Such developments result in a carbon debt as their production releases more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than what they reduce by displacing fossil fuels (Searchinger et al, 2008; Fargione et al, 2008). For instance, converting lowland tropical rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia to palm biodiesel would result in a biofuel carbon debt that would take 86 years to repay (Fargione et al, 2008).

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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