Friday, July 15, 2011

The Caux Forum for Human Security today examined the urgent challenge of erosion and soil degradation, which is destroying the equivalent of three Switzerlands of productive land every year. Luc Gnacadja, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification which has the job of mobilizing organizations and people to turn back the world’s man-made deserts was the main speaker.

Luc Gnacadja (Photo: Tanya Wood)

‘We are the desert-making species on earth,’ Gnacadja said. ‘We are the planet’s skin disease.’ The lands most vulnerable to erosion are under ‘water stresss’ in ‘drylands’, and this is one third of the world’s land surface which produces 44% of the world’s food, he went on. Millions there are being forced to move to more productive land, and this is a major cause of conflict.

‘So much depends on so little, and we are not really tackling the root causes,’ he continued. Humanity must double its food production to feed 9 billion people, as the ‘vicious cycle of poverty’ worsens. Eight out of ten conflicts in the world are in dryland areas. ‘We need to take action, but the good news is that people are taking action at a grassroots level. There is land improvement in many dryland areas, because people are striving to adapt. We need to support their efforts.’ He called for a governance for ‘holistic management’, and a greater focus on ‘the forgotten billion’, the poorest people in the world. The costs of inaction were far higher than action, he warned. Desertification and land degradation was closely related to the problems of food security, and political stability, a complex mix that all went in to ‘human security’.

Luc-Marie Gnacadja who is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was for six years Minister of the Environment, Housing and Urbanism in Benin and was the candidate of the Envol Movement in the March 2006 Presidential election. He was awarded the 2002 Green Award by the World Bank.

Photo: Tanya Wood

Clare Short, who since 2010 has chaired the Caux Call to Action Steering Council, introduced Gnacadja. Short served as Secretary of State for International Development in the UK from 1997 to May 2003. She had herself seen at first hand the ethnic and religious conflicts in Northern Nigeria, the conflicts between pastoralists and cultivators in Darfur, the signs of degraded lands, drought, and climate change in so many parts of the world, leading to the famine affecting 10 million people in the Horn of Africa today. ‘The OECD rich countries see themselves as the high-point of human civilization and development,’ Short said, ‘but at the same time, there are more and more problems of obesity, mental illness and addictions and as societies, we’re in trouble.’ People can feel that something’s wrong, the current development doesn’t make people happy, she continued. One purpose of this day, she said, was to show the work that is being done. ‘There are answers, and they can rapidly reverse the mess we’re making. We must start to put things right,’ she concluded.

The special day at the Caux Forum attracted a number of experts and grass roots activists and farmers. ‘There is hope,’ was a theme echoed throughout the day. Audience participation saw a forest of hands and questions, along with examples. Gnacadja spoke of the ‘many success stories and best practices’. But such successes were always site-specific and often culture-specific too. His advice to his experts going into the field was always: ‘Cut and paste will not work. Keep your mouth shut and listen, why do the local people do what they do?’ And only then give their scientific advice. Short warned that experts and governments must not play off city and slum dwellers. ‘We must care for people where they are.’

Chris Reij (Photo: Cécile De Nomazy)

Chris Reij, the well-known expert in sustainable agriculture and Professor at the Centre for International Cooperation of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, also underlined positive developments. He gave examples from the Sahel, the 3 million square kilometres south of the Sahara. This region is affected even more than others by a changing climate and ever increasing food prices. ‘But there is hope’, said Reij. A good example was the re-greening of parts of Niger conducted by peasant farmers of the region. ‘In the past 20 years, 5 million hectars have been re-greened. This means food for 2.5 million people,’ said Reij. He continued: ‘Food security has improved, and even in longer dry seasons people have something to eat because they can sell firewood.’ The challenge was now to raise the awareness of such success stories from Niger and other regions, and to implement the same methods in more regions. ‘We can improve the lives of millions of African farmers and shepherds,’ he concluded.

Yacouba Savadogo (Photo: Cécile De Nomazy)

One man who has already had some success is Yacouba Savadogo from Burkina Faso. He is the protagonist of the documentary film ‘The man who stopped the desert’, which was shown in the afternoon. A peasant farmer, he had suffered from hunger when he was a child. ‘Before we start doing anything else, we have to deal with the food security,’ he says in the film.

Savadogo changed the traditional way of farming and that’s how he managed to re-green some of the soils which had been abandoned by other farmers. ‘In the beginning, people thought I was mad,’ says Savadogo. His biggest problem was the resistance from the local people, who did not want to change the traditional ways of farming. But Savadogo continued and also began to export his methods to neighbouring regions. Thanks to Chris Reij’s organization ‘African Re-greening Initiatives’, the method was spread even into other countries. With Savadogo’s method, tens of thousands hectars of soil that seemed to be lost were re-greened. This has helped prevent conflicts and stop rural exodus. Young people now have a reason to stay in the villages they were born in.

 >> Further information about the International Caux Conferences 2011

>> Further information about the film "The man who stopped the desert"


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