A Basis for Action: PPBES Report – Worsening Worldwide Land Degradation Now ‘Critical’, Undermining Well-Being of 3.2 Billion People

Press release from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – March 2018 – see: https://www.ipbes.net/news/media-release-worsening-worldwide-land-degradation-now-%E2%80%98critical%E2%80%99-undermining-well-being-32
“Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached ‘critical’ levels in many parts of the world, the report says. According to the authors, land degradation manifests in many ways: land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and fresh water, as well as deforestation.”
“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.”
“In just over three decades from now, an estimated 4 billion people will live in drylands,” said Prof. Scholes. “By then it is likely that land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, will have forced 50-700 million people to migrate. Decreasing land productivity also makes societies more vulnerable to social instability – particularly in dryland areas, where years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict.”
  • Most future degradation is expected to occur in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
  • Land degradation and climate change are likely to force 50 to 700 million people to migrate by 2050.
  • By 2050, land degradation and climate change will reduce crop yields by an average of 10% globally, and up to 50% in certain regions.
“ The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem, and that many well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, can avoid or reverse degradation.”
Opportunities to accelerate action identified in the report include:
  • Improving monitoring, verification systems and baseline data;
  • Coordinating policy between different ministries to simultaneously encourage more sustainable production and consumption practices of land-based commodities;
  • Eliminating ‘perverse incentives’ that promote land degradation and promoting positive incentives that reward sustainable land management; and
  • Integrating the agricultural, forestry, energy, water, infrastructure and service agendas.
The report found that higher employment and other benefits of land restoration often exceed by far the costs involved.  On average, the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs (estimated across nine different biomes), and, for regions like Asia and Africa, the cost of inaction in the face of land degradation is at least three times higher than the cost of action”.
Fully deploying the toolbox of proven ways to stop and reverse land degradation is not only vital to ensure food security, reduce climate change and protect biodiversity,” said Dr. Montanarella, “It’s also economically prudent and increasingly urgent.”
The IPBES report was the background for an exchange about the challenges ahead in attempting to take the corrective measures (for the Uruguay River Basin) with regard to my experience in the introduction of the Vetiver System.  I share it below:
“ …… I have in the past been involved with other basin authorities (Blue Nile and Lake Victoria) and in both instances the authorities and agencies that support them (such as the World Bank) don’t appear to show much interest in the Vetiver System, even though as in the case of the Blue Nile it was clearly demonstrated to the Authority the effectiveness of vetiver (in Ethiopia) for erosion control at scale over other technologies (in this case stone contour bunds, fanya ju). The Panama canal Authority was another disinterested organization even though it was looking for solutions to sustain an effective rainfall runoff regime to assure the replenishment of the canal lakes.
It appeared to me that the common denominators of disinterest in the vetiver as a bioengineering solution were: preference for hard engineered (and more costly) solutions; the lack of awareness of the benefits of vetiver as a bioengineering solution by Basin, consultants, governments, and development agency staff; the lack of clear government policies to erosion control and basin management; funding constraints; and the general enormity of tackling the problem.
There are many aspects of basin management flood and erosion control that amongst others include: construction of dams; rehabilitation of degraded lands; reforestation; on farm soil and moisture conservation; and point source mitigation that includes mine, infrastructure – roads etc , and building sites. 
I was involved, when working for the World Bank, in the design of the Loess Plateau Rehab project that included many of the foregoing activities and has I believe been quite successful.  The success can primarily be attributed to the Chinese – I believe only they can do something at the scale and in the timeline that was accomplished (I met one official in the project area who was responsible for the administration of 1 million people involved in community work), and, they used tried and well tested technology developed, over the millennia, in China. (I would have included vetiver into the design had the climate allowed it). The World Bank guaranteed the funding, and supported a new land tenure policy that provided long term land management/ownership rights to the land.
There are many  demonstrations of the value and usefulness of vetiver when applied at large scale.  These include mine rehabilitation and infrastructure stabilization by Hydromulch (South Africa) in a number of sub Saharan countries (see our new Vetiver Tracking app at: http://ivgt.ldd.go.th/vetivertrack/index.html). Ethiopia and Thailand are excellent examples of how vetiver can be used by many farmer communities to reduce erosion, rehabilitate wetlands (helps to improve the flood hydrograph), improve ground water and so on. Thailand is one example where the Government actually has a “ vetiver” policy. The commercial/industrial and community efforts if brought together and supported by sound government policies provide an effective way of moving  forward.
It takes many years/generations to create the change that  we need right now. We have been developing and promoting the Vetiver System for 30 years now and progress is still slow!!  Other technologies such as zero tillage have taken just as long, but have become popular particularly when agro business companies (fertilizer/herbicide manufacturers) have jumped on to the band wagon to help promote the technology to their benefit (Borlaug’s success  with wheat in Mexico was greatly enhanced through support of the fertilizer companies.)  Vetiver does not have that sort of appeal. In fact it is it is generally the opposite in that it does not directly benefit agrochemical businesses and in most instances displaces the need for some of them (eg. vetiver and rice stem borer control in China).
The  bottom line is that individual companies are very unlikely to create the climate for policy and investment changes necessary unless the authorities, in this case a river basin authority, see the need as a priority and can persuade Governments  to establish land use policy and provide the necessary incentives for land users in all sectors to take action. If plans and incentives are put in place then of course commercial operators and others will be responsive.  Vetiver should be one of the tools – but even this is not guaranteed.
Over the years I have become pretty disillusioned (there are a few exceptions) with many of the national governments and officials as well as with the many multilateral agencies that support them. I have found local level governments more responsive.  Thus The Vetiver Network has focused on working with the private sector, local communities and NGOs —  using social media as the main means of communication — this seems to get results. 
I generally agree with the IPBES conclusions, and of course Vetiver is such an all embracing technology with tremendous cross sector applications that it is a “ must use” technology. One can virtually apply it to remedy so many land and water problems, and at low cost. Thus allowing  a fairly quick introduction. It can be applied to deal with highly complex waste water pollution problems to more simple on farm soil erosion problems. The complex applications require well trained “engineers’, the more simple conservation systems are well in the realm of small farmer capability with minimum training – after all that is where it originally came from!  
From what I see major conservation programs are required. Conserving a 1000 Km2 of degraded land at 5% slope would require 50,000 km of vetiver hedgerow or 300 million vetiver slips and would cost planted about US$ 30 million (labor at about UD$5 per day). For this sort of program one initially needs large propagation units – A Guatemala sugar company had an extensive vetiver program for the plantation and was producing (in vitrio)18 million plants a year back in 2012. A Chinese company currently produces about 7 million a year.  So it is possible to get into gear if the market is created.  These vetiver programs provide good employment opportunities. When applied to infrastructure vetiver reduces both initial investment costs of the infrastructure and the long term maintenance costs, as well as reducing sediment flows from that infrastructure. When applied to agriculture vetiver provides not only soil and water conservation needs, but soil fertility improvements, pest control, and removal of agrochemical contaminants.
Apart from the technology, land management policies have to be created that assures that the land owners manage their soil and water resources in a proper manner. (some of the old English landlord/tenant agreements were very specific as to tenant responsibilities regarding soil conservation, hedge and drain maintenance). Without such policies and agreements many of the technology improvements would likely be overtime discarded.
The Vetiver Network because of the way it has been set up and because of funding constraints operates as a knowledge based organization that networks information.  We try to get others to do research and develop new initiatives. For example the Thais developed the online Vetiver tracking system that when fully used will I hope demonstrate the global application  of vetiver and will allow special vetiver based projects to monitor application sites in real time. We have also encouraged the establishment of an online “Vetiver Institute” for vetiver system training. This is being done in Colombia and is currently stuck in the development stage – too bad as it has potential, and would be needed in the event that IPBES based initiatives were to emerge.
In 2020 the Thais will be hosting the 7th International Vetiver Conference – an opportunity to address the global problems and vetiver’s potential role for dealing with the long term land degradation problem.  The theme of the conference will specifically focus on Soil and Water Conservation and their broader links. This could be an opportunity for people with policy influence to attend.