UN desertification conference divided on land ownership and migration

In his speech in Delhi, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, advocated greater cooperation between developing nations, but land tenure and immigration loom over proceedings

As the second week of a major conference on desertification kicked off in Delhi, Narendra Modi highlighted the importance of cooperation between nations in the Global South to combat land degradation.

Speaking at the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which ran from 2-13 September, Modi said it was increasingly accepted that climate change was leading to a loss of land, plant and animal species, and to “land degradation of various kinds, ranging from rise of sea levels, wave action and erratic rainfall and storms”.

Because all of these issues have a significant impact on developing countries including India, the prime minister advocated “greater South-South cooperation in addressing climate change, biodiversity and land degradation.”

He said that India was therefore upping its commitment to restore land by 2030, from 21 million hectares to 26 million hectares, which would also help create a sink for 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon through increased tree cover.

He declared that India would be “happy to help other friendly countries develop land restoration strategies through cost-effective satellite and space technology,” and that it would be creating a Centre for Excellence at the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education, where other countries could access technology and training.

Hard questions

Yet these statements avoid some of the hard questions that have dogged the conference. Who owns the land? Who is responsible when it can no longer support a livelihood, and a farmer is forced to migrate?

These are not questions anyone thought much about when they launched the UNCCD 25 years ago. But since land degradation precedes desertification, they are increasingly worrying policymakers, especially from developing countries. The issues have come to the fore at the conference, dividing governments along the lines of developed and developing nations, a process familiar to observers of UN climate negotiations.

Modi’s speech did not resolve these issues.

NGOs who work on farming issues are clear that land degradation cannot be halted unless farmers around the world have guaranteed rights over the land on which they grow food, something only around 12% of farmers currently have. To increase the proportion, experts would like stronger laws to protect the ownership rights of land held in various forms of community ownership, including that belonging to indigenous communities.

The governments of developing countries have wanted to make the land tenure issue part of the discussions in New Delhi. Meanwhile, developed countries – led by the US delegation – have opposed its inclusion, saying that different countries have different laws, and a UN discussion is not going to help.

Land tenure

But with land degradation inextricably tied to climate change and biodiversity, the urgency of the situation may force the UNCCD to discuss land tenure in this and future meetings, and to come up with possible solutions.

The solutions are not always as straightforward as they may seem, warned UNCCD chief scientist Baron Orr. He said that farmers – especially smallholders – are likely to sell their land if offered a high price. This is evidenced by the mushrooming malls, offices and homes surrounding the venue of the current conference, which was all farmland about a decade ago. What happens to our food supply if this sell-off is repeated globally?

Land tenure is important to halting degradation because people tend to better protect land they own. But it is not enough. A farmer faced with competitors using chemical fertilisers and pesticides is not going to move to organic farming just because it’s better for the soil. Most farmers cannot afford to do that. They need help. In the Indian state of Sikkim, which has been rolling out organic-only farming since 2003, they have received it. But Sikkim is a relatively small state. Replicating the help the state has given on a national or even global scale may need far more money than is available, Orr pointed out.

Land tenure is also an area where women face serious discrimination. Data journalism site IndiaSpend reported that though 73.2% of the country’s rural women workers are farmers, they have only 12.8% of India’s land holdings.

Migration: the hot potato

Farmers being forced to migrate because their farms can no longer support them due to land degradation and climate change is the hottest potato of them all. Developed countries are united in opposing the existence of this major “push” factor in migration, insisting that people migrate only due to “pull” factors such as better economic opportunities. Developing countries, especially those from the Sahel belt stretching from the western to the eastern coast of Africa, point to numerous instances where farmers are forced off land gone barren, and insist on this issue being discussed by UNCCD.

Former UNCCD chief Monique Barbut has said almost all Africans trying to move to Europe are doing so due to land degradation and drought. Without putting it in such emphatic terms, current UNCCD chief Ibrahim Thiaw has backed the inclusion of migration in the conference agenda.

As conference hosts, India needed all its diplomatic skills to try and untie this knot – an especially tricky manoeuvre because India has consistently refused to accept that immigrants from Bangladesh are entering because their farms can no longer support them.

And it is not just migration between countries. At a meeting organised on the sidelines of the conference by Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), mayor after mayor got up to say farmers are coming into their cities in increasing numbers due to land degradation and climate change, but they have no budget to provide housing, water, electricity, roads or livelihood to these millions of immigrants.

Still, the delegations from developed countries insisted the UNCCD is not the right forum to discuss migration.

Human efforts

At the conference opening, Prakash Javadekar, the president of the conference, had foreshadowed Modi’s sentiments: “If human actions have created the problems of climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss… it is human efforts that will undo the damage and improve the habitats. We meet here now to ensure that this happens.”

He pointed out that 122 countries, among them Brazil, China, India, Nigeria, Russia and South Africa, “have agreed to make the Sustainable Development Goal of achieving land degradation neutrality a national target.”

UNCCD chief, Ibrahim Thiaw, drew attention to the warnings sounded by recent scientific assessments and the growing public alarm at the frequency of weather-related disasters such as drought, forest fires, flash floods and soil loss. He urged delegates to be mindful of the opportunities for change that are opening up, and to take action. The response of the governments of developed countries will determine the usefulness of the current conference.

Much rides on it. The current pace of land transformation is putting a million species at risk of extinction. One in four hectares of this converted land is no longer usable due to unsustainable land management practices. These trends have put the wellbeing of 3.2 billion people around the world at risk. In tandem with climate change, this may force up to 700 million people to migrate by 2050.

This article was first published on the Third Pole