“We have to do a better job of tapping the synergies between the three Rio Conventions”

It is far less in the public eye than its sister conventions on climate change and biodiversity, but no less important: the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). From 9 to 20 May 2022, its 197 parties are meeting for their 15th Conference of the Parties, or COP15. Their goal is to halt desertification, land degradation, and drought, and to preserve land for future generations. WOCAT, a global network hosted by CDE, supports this endeavour by providing best-practice examples of sustainable land management. And, at COP15, CDE will be the first Swiss university institution to be officially accredited as a partner of the UNCCD.

“As an official partner of the UNCCD, CDE can contribute scientific knowledge on issues that the convention must address”, explains Nicole Harari, CDE scientist and member of the executive team of WOCAT, the global network on sustainable land management.

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Up to 40 per cent of the world’s land is degraded. Around half of humanity is directly affected. Why does this crisis – unlike the climate and biodiversity crises – receive so little attention from the general public?

Climate change is something we are all experiencing. It affects us when it doesn’t rain for a long time and the summers keep growing hotter. The biodiversity crisis, for its part, has been flagged by conservation organizations for decades: We all know that numerous species are threatened with extinction. And we’re becoming more aware that this also concerns our native species here in Switzerland.

Land degradation, by contrast, is difficult to grasp, even the term itself. We simply think we’re not touched by desertification and drought. These issues are complex for a general public: it’s hard to imagine how they affect – or may start to affect – our own lives.


“Land still doesn’t have much of a lobby”


Desertification and land degradation are primarily caused by human activities. But this fact seems to be receiving far less attention from policymakers and the media than in the case of the climate and biodiversity crises. Doesn’t land have a lobby?

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification, one of the three Rio Conventions, was adopted in 1994 and provides the legally binding framework for addressing desertification and the effects of drought. The issue of land degradation was gradually taken up over the years as it gained recognition and importance. Land degradation concerns everyone, not just poor areas struggling with drought and desertification: only healthy land can reliably provide us with food, water, biodiversity, and generally a functioning environment in the long run. The UN 2030 Agenda with its Sustainable Development Goals has added further weight to the issue, as the goal “Life on land” includes the target of land degradation neutrality. Many countries have taken action and introduced measures – for example, against deforestation, soil sealing, erosion, and more. But it’s true that land and soil still don’t have much of a lobby.


“It’s about finding the right responses to negative developments”


But it’s not just about preventing negative developments, it’s also about finding the right responses to them. Prevention is one option, of course; another is to halt negative developments, and a third is to reverse the degradation of ecosystems such as wetlands, forests, grasslands, and green spaces. To emphasize the action needed, the UN has designated 2021–2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. (See box below)

At COP15, CDE will be the first Swiss university institution to be officially accredited as a partner of the UNCCD. You are a member of the executive team of the global WOCAT network and have already worked closely with the UNCCD in this role. What does CDE’s accreditation mean?

It means that CDE will become a member of the “Civil Society Organizations” group, together with other research institutions and NGOs. Representatives of this group take part in the official negotiations at the COP. This will allow us at CDE and WOCAT to contribute scientific knowledge on issues that the convention must address. In addition, WOCAT, based on a partnership agreement with the UNCCD signed in 2020, provides the parties to the convention with practical from-the-ground knowledge, technologies for sustainable land management, and tools and methods to monitor and assess land degradation neutrality, enabling countries and relevant actors to exchange and co-design knowledge.


“The WOCAT open access database on sustainable land management is one of a kind”


Can you give an example of a topic where CDE can contribute?

Take land tenure: This was an important issue at the last conference of the parties – UNCCD COP14 in New Delhi. It was strongly pushed by the Civil Society Organizations group. The COP decided that land tenure must be better anchored in the convention. After all, tenure security is a prerequisite for farmers to invest in sustainable practices in the long term. At COP15, we will see the launch of a technical guide to integrating the existing Voluntary Guidelines on Tenure into the implementation of the UNCCD and of land degradation neutrality. This is an issue that CDE can contribute a lot to, based on our research. 

And what has WOCAT, which has long been collaborating with the UNCCD, achieved to date?

WOCAT has been building a database of good practices in sustainable land management since 1992. In early 2014, the UNCCD identified this database as the primary recommended database for best practices on sustainable land management. The parties to the convention are invited to share promising land management practices with a very broad global audience, promoting knowledge exchange among countries. Today, the database contains more than 2,000 practices from over 130 countries. Being open access makes it one of a kind, and anyone can obtain and use the knowledge for planning and designing projects and programmes. It helps planners and users with questions such as: What can I implement? What has worked well, where? How much does it cost, and how do I benefit from it?


“We want to create a women-friendly environment and promote gender equality”


An important topic at UNCCD COP15 is gender equality. What can WOCAT contribute to this issue?

Together with the UNCCD Secretariat, we have developed a new tool to assess the gender-responsiveness of sustainable land management practices. We tested it in 15 countries and are now presenting it. Our main focus is on how to design practices so that women are better able to use them. But we also want to identify which sustainable practices should be promoted and disseminated – namely, those that are particularly accessible to women, for example home gardening, agroforestry, composting, crop rotation, or small livestock farming. 

It is just about agricultural measures?

No, that’s just one of several levels we look at. We also consider social and organizational issues. For example, social norms may prevent women from carrying out a certain practice, even if they could do it just as well as men in terms of the physical strength and knowledge required. We have also found that while women are often asked to participate in events at which the know-how is imparted, they end up being unable to attend – for example, because they need to prepare lunch, or because their children are coming home from school. The new tool covers a broad range of topics related to gender and sustainable land management. Our aim is to create a women-friendly environment in general, and to promote gender equality. (Tool: see box below)


“The various sustainability issues must be linked – also in the reports“


What do you personally expect from the conference?

In general, we hope that COP 15 will support the parties in nearing the 2030 goal of land degradation neutrality. In addition, it’s very important to us that the various sustainability issues are linked and that the synergies among the three Rio Conventions are tapped. This also applies to the reports that the parties write on what they have achieved so far and how they plan to reach the goals. Having to prepare a separate report for each convention is a heavy burden. We’re in the process of working with several countries to simplify this, and to link issues where it makes sense. The conference is an excellent opportunity for these countries, together with WOCAT, to present the tools and methods they have developed, and thus to prompt an exchange among interested countries.

WOCAT/CDE activities at the COP15 in Abidjan

The UNCCD and #GenerationRestoration

The UNCCD is one of the three Rio Conventions, along with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. In addition to combating desertification, drought, and land degradation, the UNCCD aims to restore degraded ecosystems – and thus to strengthen the resilience of land to climate change and prevent biodiversity loss. Its second flagship report on the state of land resources, “Global Land Outlook 2” (GLO2), has just been published. Under its global rallying cry of #GenerationRestoration, the UN has launched the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030. It is a call to action for “anyone and everyone” to prevent, halt, and reverse ecosystem degradation worldwide.

WOCAT – a global network on sustainable land management

The World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) is a global network launched in 1992. Its aim is to improve land resources and ecosystems as well as people’s livelihoods. It seeks to achieve this by sharing, enhancing, and using knowledge on sustainable land management. CDE is represented in WOCAT’s executive team and, as a founding member, has a key role. The WOCAT consortium consists of seven partners: CDE, FAO, ISRIC, GIZ, Alliance CIAT-Bioversity, ICIMOD, and ICARDA. The network is mainly financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).