[Interview] Land degradation is affecting two-fifths of humanity

A mining pit in Sonshi village. Photo by Pamela D’Mello.

  • The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), in its recently-published assessment report, has concluded that land degradation has reached the point where it has become a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict.
  • Land degradation, and the resultant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world’s annual gross product in 2010..
  • Climate change and land degradation are predicted to force somewhere between 50 to 700 million people to migrate by 2050. This is likely to particularly problematic in dryland areas
  • In an interview with Mahesh Sankaran, one of the lead authors, Mongabay-India looks at the report from an Indian perspective.

Land use change is one of those terms that we read about frequently and gloss over it.

We read about lakes being converted to high rises, forests being turned farmland or grazing land, ponds being made into fisheries – all of this and more. It happens all the time, everywhere. Since we learnt how to grow food, we have been changing this planet’s surface. And over thousands of years, we have extracted, pulled, transformed and moulded land to our needs and benefits. All of this has led to the wide extent of land degradation that we are facing today – that is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity (i.e. 3.2 billion people), driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change. Vegetation loss, forest clearance, wetland drainage, grassland conversion, urban sprawl and pollution, are together leaving a deep impact on human health and happiness. We have substantially transformed 75% of our land surface, which will rise to 90% by 2050.

In the first such evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration released on March 26 in Medellin, Colombia, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has concluded that land degradation has reached the point where it has become a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict. The three-year assessment report by IPBES, which is termed as the IPCC for biodiversity, was led by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries, and distilled information from 3,000 scientific, governmental, indigenous and local knowledge sources. But all is not lost yet. The report emphasises that restoration can help keep our planet below the 2 degree increase on global temperatures, and that benefits are 10 times higher than the cost.

Many key points emerge from the report:

Padmaparna Ghosh spoke to Mahesh Sankaran, an ecologist with the National Centre for Biological Sciences and a co-author of the IPBES Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment Report.


What were the concerns that led to the formulation of this large scale report?

Climate change and biodiversity loss are amongst the greatest ecological threats of our time.  While the IPCC reports have created widespread awareness about the impacts of climate change, both among policy makers and civil society, biodiversity loss has not received as much attention. Biodiversity is being lost and ecosystem services are being impaired at a scale not witnessed before, and collectively these can have huge impacts on human society.  In fact, scientists have concluded that we may be witnessing the 6th mass extinction in the Earth’s history. What the IPBES aims to achieve is to raise awareness about these issues among decision makers and civil society, and potentially influence policy, through comprehensive global and regional assessments of the state of biodiversity, ecosystem services and land degradation.

Mahesh Sankaran.

Is land degradation taken seriously enough by policymakers around the world? Is it a phrase that is yet to gather an urgency?

The scale and impact of all the different aspects of land degradation are not fully appreciated by policy makers currently. And that is one of the main points this assessment makes. Land degradation is pervasive, systemic, wide spread, and occurs in all ecosystems. Part of the problem is the failure to recognise degradation as a serious issue. Unless you recognise it, there will not be action.

What are the implications for South Asia and India?

Although soil degradation has received a fair amount of attention, we do not have detailed estimates and maps of many of the other aspects of land degradation in South Asia, or for that matter, globally.  Land degradation is a multi-faceted problem; it is unlikely to be captured by a single index. For South Asia, the key issues are degradation of soils, loss of productivity, wetland loss, invasive species, sand mining, extractive industries, urbanisation… the list goes on.

Invasive species are increasingly becoming a very, very serious problem, in India in particular. There are very few areas in India that are completely devoid of invasive species. There are a lot of other unrecognised problems too, such as changes in fire regimes in ecosystems. The general thinking is fire is bad everywhere but in many systems fire is a part of the natural process. In these systems if you prevent fire, it is a form of degradation.

Sand being mined from the Kaveri bed. Photo by P. Jeganathan / Wikimedia Commons.

The role of wetlands has been emphasised. Why?

We definitely do not give wetlands the importance they need. One of the points the report has brought out is that wetlands are amongst the worst affected ecosystems globally. It is estimated that 88% of wetland area has being lost globally, over half of which has been lost since the early 1900’s. We have already lost a lot of wetland area in South Asia and in India. One just has to look at Bengaluru or other cities in India for example – wetlands have been drained and built over and these are having huge, widespread impacts. However, people are beginning to recognise these negative effects and hopefully we will have better legislation and enforcement to protect them and restore them where possible. Apart from drainage, there is also a big problem of eutrophication in many water bodies – nutrients in effluents and untreated sewage are entering water bodies, causing algal blooms with a lot of attendant negative impacts.

The report talks about distress migration from land degradation, which we already see in many parts of South Asia and India, and it will probably intensify in the future. What should be the nature of international collaboration?

Climate change and land degradation are predicted to force somewhere between 50 to 700 million people to migrate by 2050.  This is likely to particularly problematic in dryland areas.  Around 4 billion people will be living in and around dry lands by 2050. Migration of these ‘degradation refugees’ can occur both within and across national boundaries, and can lead to conflict in areas where people move to because of competition with residents for finite resources and services provided by the land. International cooperation will certainly be required to deal with these issues when it occurs across national boundaries.  Also, when we talk about international collaboration, it isn’t just restricted to migration or conflict issues alone, but is also needed to deal with the degradation as a whole. Part of the problem is that with increases in globalisation, consumption patterns are changing and much of what we consume is actually produced somewhere else, often in a different country, and so consumers are not aware of degradation impacts of the choices they make.  Ultimately, dealing with the issue of land degradation will require coordinated policy agendas, both across departments within countries, and across governments.

How can we make this happen?

There is need for awareness of course. It will play a huge role in our ability to deal with these problems. Perceptions have to change, and individuals and civil society has a big role to play here. We need to know the land degradation impacts of our consumption choices, and accordingly make wise decisions. I believe that if people know of these impacts, they will tend to make right choices. There is also the option of internalising the cost of degradation into products. But we don’t know how that will play out. There is definitely a lot to do in India in terms of awareness. But I am hopeful. One has to be.

Land degradation is usually of low priority in many countries including India. How can we change this?

Once again, awareness is the key here.  Civil society and decision makers have to recognise that land degradation is a widespread, pervasive problem and in turn effect appropriate policies to avoid, reduce and reverse degradation.  Protected areas have traditionally been the approach to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystem services, but we now also need to move outside of the protected area network to conserve biodiversity and deal with issues of land degradation across the country.  In addition to raising awareness, this will require concerted and cooperative action across ministries and civil society.  This is not an issue that can be solved by the environment ministry alone, but will require the involvement of other ministries, for example, those that deal with agriculture, water, extractive industries, urbanisation, education and so on. Essentially, it needs a landscape level approach to deal with both direct and indirect drivers of degradation.

Ecosystem services / natural capital – should these be incorporated into national decision making?

The valuation of natural capital and ecosystem services is not easy; it is loaded with several issues. How do you valuate biodiversity or cultural services or a sense of place or belonging? But if you’re thinking of internalising environmental cost into pricing and so on, then there needs to be effort towards this.

There are various levels of land degradation – what is the right time for an intervention?

The right time for intervention is now. But the nature of the intervention will depend on the context. We are going to have to feed 9 billion people and this will likely require transformation of natural land for other uses, which is a form of degradation.  I don’t think one can say that you cannot transform land at all. That’s a decision society needs to make, as to how much land should be converted. Most of our land has already been transformed. And we started this process a long time ago when we cut down the first forest. Even when you look at transformed land – land that has been farmed and grazed for decades and decades – these are being degraded too, and we need to take immediate efforts to reduce and reverse this degradation.  We need to be judicious about how we are changing land going forward and keep up restoration efforts. We are, after all, impacting 75% of the land’s surface, and by 2050 it will go up to 90%.  Given this, it becomes particularly important that we strengthen protected area networks to the maximum extent possible.

Land cleared for Jhum, a type of shifting cultivation practiced in North-east India. Photo by Prashanth N. S. / Wikimedia Commons.

What is the timeline of restoration? Do we have time?

When it comes to land degradation, prevention is better than cure, and even though it may not always be possible to fully cure the system, attempting a cure is better than doing nothing at all.  Given that the economic benefits of preventing and halting degradation exceeds the cost, it makes sense to avoid it in the first place.  Restoration undoubtedly brings benefits, but it takes time. If we want to meet Sustainable Development Goals targets by 2030 then we need to act now. We are not yet past the point where the effects of restoration will not be felt by 2030. In some areas sure, it might be impossible to restore systems to their original states.  For instance, where invasive species have come in and changed the dynamics of ecosystems across large scales, it may not be possible or cost effective to remove invasives. But in many cases restoration is a viable option. And we have several success stories from a range of ecosystems, and there is a lot of scope and opportunity for restoration outside protected areas (PAs) including urban environments. Overall, there is much more biodiversity and wildlife outside PAs in India than within, and the scope for restoration to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services in these landscapes is immense.  We also don’t pay as much attention to urban biodiversity as we should, but there is a lot of opportunity there too, not just for conserving biodiversity and nature, but for benefitting people too.

What are we restoring to?

There isn’t a singular target for restoration. In many cases, we can’t go back to the natural state or may not want to. For example, if you want to restore or rehabilitate agricultural lands, the target would be a pre-degradation state that is still agricultural lands and not the natural state, which would be a forest. We can’t restore all farmland to forest. However, in other cases, the target might be the ‘natural’ state of the land, which might be forest or grassland or savannah. Ultimately, it depends on the context. The situation becomes a bit more complicated when we factor climate change into the equation.  If we are restoring a patch of barren land in an area, should our target be the vegetation state that existed in the past before humans impacted the system, or what the vegetation is likely to be in the future given the change in climate.  In fact, we are already witnessing biome shifts in the world with wetter vegetation replacing drier vegetation, and vice versa, in response to changing climate rather than direct human impacts. Then which way do you go? Backwards or forwards? There isn’t a single answer here. I guess it depends on what people want from a piece of land.

Meat-based diets to plant-based diets – is that the answer here?

I think the need here is for a shift towards less ‘land-degrading’ diets, whatever that may be in any given context.  Currently, about 30% of cropland is used to grow animal feed and this is increasing. At a global scale, we need to move towards more plant-based diets. However, there are many parts of the world, particularly dry areas, where having cattle or livestock is a more viable option than converting it to cropland, unless you are growing really drought resistant crops. Otherwise, you will need to pump in water, probably use a lot of fertilisers and so on, all of which serve to degrade land and can also lead to conflict with local wildlife that are attracted to these crops. So it isn’t that growing vegetables is always better than having livestock. This varies from place to place, and the focus needs to be on shifting towards less land-degrading diets and land-use as appropriate for any given location.

Exit mobile version