Over-exploitation has degraded billions of hectares of land

The poor stewardship of the planet’s resources means countries must commit to restoring at least one billion hectares of degraded land in the next decade, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The UNEP found that an estimated €40-billion economic loss in Africa was caused by land degradation in 2019; globally the loss to degradation is €400-billion in the same year.

Ecosystem restoration is the process of halting and reversing degradation, resulting in cleaner air and water, extreme weather mitigation, better human health and recovered biodiversity, including improved pollination of plants, said the UNEP. Restoration will have positive outcomes for food security, economic opportunity and health.  

In South Africa more than 0.7-million hectares of land is eroded, 4.61-million hectares of indigenous forests, woodlands, and grasslands are degraded, and 0.19-million hectares are degraded by mine tailings, waste rock dumps and surface-based mining, according to the environment department. 

Further afield on the continent, the World Resources Institute found land degradation to negatively affect 8% of Niger’s GDP; 9% of Burkina Faso’s and up to 30% in some areas in Mali. 

Nearly two thirds of Africa’s land is degraded, hindering sustainable economic development and resilience to climate change. Countries suffering the harshest effects of land degradation include Ethiopia, where projects have helped people to benefit from land restoration. 

The Humbo Forestry Project ensured that a dry, barren landscape became richer in biodiversity and offset carbon when trees and other vegetation was planted. 

The project document says that less than 3% of Ethiopia’s indigenous forests remain as a result of over-exploitation. Deforestation in Humbo threatens groundwater reserves, which more than 65 000 people depend on for potable water. 

The project was part of a carbon trading programme where new funding streams such as the clean development mechanism — in which carbon credits for CO2 absorption by the forest are earned — generate an income for residents, such as those living in Humbo. 

The document said the sale of carbon credits will eventually provide an additional income stream to facilitate sustainable local development.

“The Humbo project uses FMNR [Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration], an innovative technique developed by World Vision’s natural resources specialist, Tony Rinaudo. While conventional approaches to reforestation require the costly replanting of trees from nursery stock, over 90% of the Humbo project area is being reforested from the stumps of previously cut down (but still living) trees,” it said. 

The initiative has also resulted in more than 400 000 seedlings produced to continue planting. 

People are using about 1.6 times the amount of services that nature can provide sustainably, according to the UNEP’s recent report, Becoming #GenerationRestoration: Ecosystem restoration for People, Nature and Climate. This means conservation efforts alone are insufficient to prevent large-scale ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss. 

“This report presents the case for why we must all throw our weight behind a global restoration effort. Drawing on the latest scientific evidence, it sets out the crucial role played by ecosystems, from forests and farmland to rivers and oceans, and it charts the losses that result from a poor stewardship of the planet,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen wrote in the report’s foreword.

“Degradation is already affecting the well-being of an estimated 3.2-billion people — that is 40% of the world’s population. Every single year we lose ecosystem services worth more than 10% of our global economic output.” 

He said that huge gains will be made by reversing these trends.

Actions that prevent, halt and reverse degradation are necessary to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C, the UNEP said.

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