By Robin Gomes
“Humanity is waging a relentless, self-destructive war on nature. Biodiversity is declining, greenhouse gas concentrations are rising, and our pollution can be found from the remotest islands to the highest peaks. We must make peace with nature.” The warning and appeal come from the United Nations chief in his message for World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on Thursday.
Land – “greatest ally”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres notes that land, humanity’s greatest ally, is suffering. Land degradation, resulting from climate change and the expansion of agriculture, cities and infrastructure, he says, “undermines the well-being of 3.2 billion people”. Land degradation “harms biodiversity and enables the emergence of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19.”
Restoring degraded land would remove carbon from the atmosphere, help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change, and could generate an extra $1.4 trillion dollars in agricultural production each year, the UN’s top official says.
Guterres also points out that restoring land is simple, inexpensive and accessible to all. “It is one of the most democratic and pro-poor ways of accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals,” he says, referring to the 17 targets that leaders of UN members states in 2015 committed themselves to achieving by the year 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone and everywhere.
First observed on June 17, 1995, World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought was instituted by the UN General Assembly on January 30, 1995.
Impact of desertification
Desertification is not the natural expansion of existing deserts but the persistent degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid eco-systems by climate change and mainly human activities, such as unsustainable farming that depletes the nutrients in the soil, mining, overgrazing, and stripping the land of tree and plant cover that bind the soil together.
Wind and water erosion aggravate the damage, carrying away topsoil and leaving behind a highly infertile mix of dust and sand. It is the combination of these factors that transforms degraded land into desert.
Desertification is a global issue, with serious implications worldwide for biodiversity, eco-safety, poverty eradication, socio-economic stability, and sustainable development. Some two billion people depend on ecosystems in dry land areas, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries. Some 50 million people may be displaced within the next 10 years as a result of desertification.
To meet an ever-growing demand for food, raw materials, roads, and homes, humans have altered nearly three quarters of the earth’s surface, beyond land that is permanently frozen.
Restoring degraded land brings economic resilience, creates jobs, raises incomes and increases food security, according to the UN. Moreover, it helps biodiversity to recover and locks away carbon, while lessening the impacts of climate change and underpinning a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Reminding all that 2021 marks the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres invites all to make use of the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought to “make healthy land central to all our planning”.
Pope John Paul II and desertification
A decade before the establishment of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, the Catholic Church was already fighting the phenomenon.
When Saint Pope John Paul II made his first visit to the African continent in 1980, he saw first-hand the ecological desolation of the Sahel Countries ravaged by an implacable drought. Thus, setting foot on Sahelian soil on May 10, he raised his voice to awaken the conscience of an indifferent world to the conditions of populations living in those lands.
In 1984 he established the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel, with its headquarters and secretariat in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
With the collaboration of the Italian Episcopal Conference, the Church and the local community, the Foundation is committed to giving testimony of the Pope’s closeness to the people living in the poorest areas of the planet, by promoting projects to fight desertification, in areas such as the environment, agricultural development, water pumping systems and renewable energy. The Foundation also trains specialized technical personnel, who can operate at the service of their Country.
Over the years, the Foundation has become an instrument of inter-religious dialogue: the majority of the beneficiaries are, in fact, Muslim. The John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel includes the 9 countries that are part of the Sahel area: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Chad.
Pope Francis too has been an ardent champion of the environment and the planet. In his landmark encyclical, “Laudato si’ – on care for our common home”, the Pope denounces unbridled consumerism, irresponsible lifestyles and development models that lead to environmental degradation, global warming and social injustice.
The 2015 encyclical calls on all to take "swift and unified global action" to save “our common home”. “Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” the Pope says in his encyclical.
To mark the fifth anniversary of this encyclical, a special Laudato si' Anniversary Year was observed by the worldwide Catholic Church from 24 May 2020 – 24 May 2021, with numerous initiatives emphasizing “ecological conversion” in “action”. However, the Laudato si’ campaign is not over. The Vatican has come with the Laudato Si' Action Platform (LSAP), “a seven-year journey towards an integral ecology.” Each of the years has a specific goal, namely: Response to the Cry of the Earth, the Response to the Cry of the Poor, Ecological Economics, Adoption of Simple Lifestyles, Ecological Education, Ecological Spirituality, and Community Involvement and Participatory Action.
Pope Francis also sent a message to the launch of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which took place on World Environment Day, June 5. He stressed the importance of urgent action in humanity’s collective response to the environmental crisis.
He said, “We see the destruction of nature, as well as a global pandemic leading to the death of millions of people. We see the unjust consequences of some aspects of our current economic systems and numerous catastrophic climate crises that produce grave effects on human societies and even mass extinction of species.”
The Holy Father stressed that “the current environmental situation calls us to act now with urgency to become ever more responsible stewards of creation and to restore the nature that we have been damaging and exploiting for too long.”