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Combating Desertification and Drought

Q&A: Land Restoration can Help Restore Post-COVID-19 Economy

Degraded farmland is being restored in Mahbubnagar district of Telangana state in India. Investing in sustainable land management and reversing land degradation will help build economies post-COVID-19 and help poor people increase their incomes. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Degraded farmland is being restored in Mahbubnagar district of Telangana state in India. Investing in sustainable land management and reversing land degradation will help build economies post-COVID-19 and help poor people increase their incomes. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

HYDERABAD, India , Sep 11 2020 (IPS) - Investing in sustainable land management and land restoration will help build economies post-COVID-19 and help poor people increase their incomes as the destruction of global food chains by the pandemic provides a chance for ensuring diversity in production through ensuring the inclusion of local producers.

It also provides an opportunity to repurpose incentives for subsidies so that they deliver more common benefits for everybody without impacting the bottom line for the farmers, says Louise Baker the Managing Director of the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Baker is the first woman to hold the position in the U.N. agency and was appointed by UNCCD’s Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw in June.

Originally from England,. Baker joined the UNCCD secretariat in 2011 and had been serving as Chief of the External Relations, Policy and Advocacy unit since 2014.

In an interview with IPS, Baker talks about the current global status of land restoration and identifies the areas where more work is needed. She also candidly shares her own vision of a future where sustainable land management is considered a new normal and used widely by nations across the world to create employment and gender equity and to improve the quality of life of the poor. Excerpts of the interview follow.

Louise Baker Managing Director of the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

IPS:  How does it feel to be the first woman MD of Global Mechanism and what excites you about your new role?

Louise Baker (LB): It is exciting for me to move over to Global Mechanism.

I think, what’s interesting about my role is putting policy into action. If the countries use the policy, start writing projects, start doing it on the ground – kind of making it happen, then it feels like there is a momentum behind the work of UNCCD now and there is a sense of direction. So, I am excited that all the work I have been doing in policy, now I can see it on the ground, transforming people’s lives.

IPS: In the next 10 years, what would you like to change or like to see changed?

LB: I would see the cross-sectoral nature of land being taken seriously, not just in silos that says “this is an environmental issue or agricultural issue”, because it’s not. Its culture, agriculture, its land, its water, urban development, rural development, women …so I think it should find its place like climate does – find its place in multiple sectors. People need a more holistic approach. So, I would like to see that.

I would like a conversation around what we spend on issues that impact the land. We spend a lot, globally, on incentives in agricultural sector. We sponsor fertilisers, we sponsor pesticide, we provide inputs in the agriculture.  I think there is an opportunity to repurpose those incentives, those subsides so that they deliver more common benefits for everybody without impacting the bottom line for the farmers.

I would like to see – flagships. I would like to see things like the Great Green Wall of Africa. I would like to see the Ganges rehabilitated, I would like to see things that rub people’s imagination, I would like to see people inspired to do something about this.

I would also like to see, in terms of access to financing, the least developed countries getting a bigger share of the financing.

IPS: How can least-developed countries get enough financing?

LB: You quite often see the big financing processes – the countries that are able to write fabulous proposals, get the lion’s share of the money from the international processes. And those countries that are without the in-house capacity to wade through the difficult proposal writing processes, often don’t get the money they need. So, the people who are the least able to write the proposals are the ones who need it. An international effort to start the pipeline of bankable projects for countries who need it the most would be important and I think that goes across the private sector.

The public sector has got quite a high standard in terms of what it demands for financing – all these requirements and then you need to make a profit. So, it gets even more complicated to get incentivise, de-risk and get a pipeline of projects particularly in vulnerable communities for the private sector to take a risk on. So, I think ensuring the quality of those proposals and building the capacity of people to get those proposals in would be really important.

IPS: What is reverse land degradation and build back better? How can this help restore the economy impacted by the pandemic?

LB: In terms of the post-COVID-19 world, I think its critical that we do build back better. People who are most affected by COVID-19 – people who are in most precarious situations, people who don’t have fixed term jobs, don’t get a salary at the end of the month to get what they need and rely on natural resources to pay for what they need. There’s an opportunity I think for the first time in  terms of the incentives plans to build the economy back, to invest in these natural resource base, to invest in many countries for the survival of the poor people so they can increase incrementally their incomes.

It means things like value chains which were destructed during COVID-19 are shorter. You can work with local producers. Global value chains often cut out local producers, so you want to ensure diversity in your production, you want to ensure, for example, it’s not a value chain that is just producing food for export and there is no local production of food.

Q: What kind of returns can come from investing in sustainable land management and reverse land degradation?

LB: It’s very site-specific. In general, if you invest a dollar, the economic return is between $5 to $10 in the restoration economy. And that’s across the board, so it’s an average number.

But actually there are economic benefits in terms of the eco-system services provided: if you sustainably manage the land in a dryland area, you will get more water and therefore your crops will grow better and therefore you will not suffer from dried crops so much.

There is an economic benefit in terms of new value chains, that you can now grow crops in certain areas where you couldn’t before. And if you are smart about it then there are green products that you can sell to new value chains, local or international. For example, food like Moringa and Baobab are now considered “super foods” in many countries. And so, you can create a market and high-income jobs as you go down the chain. So, there’s marketing, packaging, design, production – it’s all tied onto the natural base. So, there is a return in the investment into the eco-system services. The big win is if you can leverage that into an economic opportunity that creates more jobs, creates different types of jobs.

IPS: How can land restoration empower the youth or contribute to gender equity?

LB: Young people are really enthusiastic about changing the world and they have got brilliant ideas to change the world but they need to be given the space to do it and the space isn’t necessarily being a farmer or what their grandparents did. They need to have their creativity, they need to bring in new technologies, new innovations like drip irrigation, drone technology, planting by drones, designs for groundwater recharge. new ways to working their new models. And I think that needs to be encouraged as well. In terms of gender, women hold valuable knowledge on land use and management, especially in the rural areas.

Therefore, using gender‐specific ways of documenting and preserving women’s knowledge should be central to sustainable management and restoration efforts. Increasing women’s presence in decision-making will play a pivotal role in closing the gender gap in land ownership and management and help create a land degradation neutral world that is gender responsive.

IPS: What is the global status of the promises made by the nations in the last UNCCD COP on land neutrality?

LB: Numbers or countries committing are still quite high. Barbados joined last week. And so, Barbados is committed to set up its target. Globally if you add up the other programmes’ voluntary contributions it’s a lot of land the countries have committed to move into sustainable management.  I think there’s still some work to do on the targets to identify geographically where the work will happen, and there’s quite a lot to do to ensure the benefits of land restoration is enjoyed by all segments of  society.

We are quite excited to work around gender. We have seen some very generous funding from the Canadians to work on mainstreaming gender into our work. So, I think there’s progress definitely, but there’s still a way to go.

The big challenge is – and we have spoken about capacity building in proposal writing – translating the targets into bankable projects. It’s a work that’s ongoing. A couple of countries -Armenia and Turkey – have actually gone through the process for some adaptation funding by GEF.

IPS: Women are disproportionately affected by climate change yet underrepresented at the decision-making table. Can your appointment be looked at a part of the growing trend of change the picture?

LB: The credit of my appointment goes to Ibrahim Thiaw – the Executive Secretary of UNCCD who has also recently appointed Tina Birmpili of Greece as the next Deputy Executive Secretary of UNCCD. I don’t think we are appointed because we are female, but of course I see this as an opportunity to do more work and contribute more to building of the momentum that UNCCD now has.

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