In 1994, close to 200 nations from across the globe came together to ratify the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Nevertheless, 25 years later, upwards of 24 billion tons of fertile soil is still lost annually to desertification, and 40% of our planet’s land surface is considered degraded. By 2050, degradation and climate change could reduce crop yields by 10% globally.
In March 2019, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021-2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Ecosystem restoration is the process of reversing ecosystem degradation. It is achieved by allowing the natural regeneration of exploited ecosystems or by planting trees and other plants. This global call-to-action aims to promote political support, scientific research and the financing needed to massively scale up ecosystem restoration.
In China and Africa, massive tree planting initiatives are in place to slow down the rate of desertification--and are largely showing early signs of success. The encroachment of the desert has eliminated vast quantities of farmland and caused huge dust storms. The Green Great Wall in China will ultimately stretch over 3,000 miles along the edge of the giant Gobi Desert.
However, according to Dr. Jonathan Davies, global drylands coordinator with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, "what's needed is not so much a line of trees as widespread adoption of sustainable land management… reviving farming practices that were there in the past and for different reasons, due usually to cultural policies, those practices were eradicated."
China's mass forestation efforts have suffered because of their mono-crop approach. This makes the Green Great Wall susceptible to pests. For example, a particular kind of beetle rapidly wiped out a billion trees. As well, planting the wrong type of trees for the specific environment is counterproductive, as it guarantees that the trees won't live long. A revised approach being used successfully in Africa now focuses on creating a diverse vegetation, matching plant species to the differing environments in need of revegetation.
The African project demonstrates the benefit of integrating both economic and social incentives into environmental projects. In addition to restoring degraded areas, it's essential to harness them to transform the locals’ livelihoods and address food scarcity problems.