Iceland has suffered acute land degradation problems of its own and has become skilled in soil restoration research and techniques.
With a host of international partner institutions, Iceland is marking the centenary of its Soil Conservation Service by convening about 150 world scientists, policymakers, land users and business leaders in Selfoss from August 31 to September 4.
The international forum will highlight the fundamental roles land care and soil conservation play in climate change, biological diversity, food and water security, economic and social progress and in the successful implementation of global multilateral environmental agreements.
'Iceland has for well over a century fought the largest desert in Europe and understands well the urgent need to conserve soil and vegetation and to restore land. This will be of fundamental importance for the future of human livelihood,' said Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, patron of the forum.
While caused in part by global warming, land degradation and desertification also contributes to climate change. It is considered by some scientists to be responsible for about 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas releases, as well as alterations in the water, temperature and energy balance of the planet.
'It is well known that soil and vegetation is being lost at an alarming rate around the globe, which in turn has devastating effects on food production and accelerates climate change,' said President Grimsson.
'I hope the discussion between world class scientists, experts and policy makers in Iceland, and the pioneering efforts we have undertaken in the course of a century of soil conservation, can serve as a motivation for constructive and immediate action around the globe,' he said.
Forum delegates will consider propositions for an International Year of Land Care to focus attention on soil stewardship, which affects food and water security worldwide. They will discuss policy and legal challenges, knowledge management, and indicators for measuring sustainable land management.
Andres Arnalds, assistant director of the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service and chairman of the forum's organizing committee, said, 'Information on the health of international soil resources is not exact but we know soil and vegetation is being lost at an alarming rate in many areas. Some estimates claim that an area almost the size of Iceland loses its vegetation every year.'
'Land degradation and desertification may be regarded as the silent crisis of the world, a genuine threat to the future of humankind.'
Dr. Arnalds points out that between 1980 and 2000, the global population rose from 4.4 to 6.1 billion and food production increased 50 percent.
With world population predicted to increase by another three billion by 2050, more food has to be produced within the next 50 years than during the last 10,000 years combined, he says.
Meanwhile, many countries are now starting to meet energy needs by growing biofuel crops, a trend many experts expect to accelerate, Dr. Arnalds notes.
'The inevitable losers in such conflicts of competing interests are the environment and poor people,' he says. 'Unless destructive forces can be halted and land quality restored where possible, securing food in many places will become a crisis of growing proportions.'
The same applies to many of the various services provided by the interlinked ecosystems of the world, such as water storage and biological diversity.
Soil and vegetation act as a sponge that holds and gradually releases water, says forum partner Zafar Adeel, director of the United Nations University’s Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health.
Forests and woodlands are being reduced at an alarming rate in many parts of the world, and large areas are being overgrazed, says Dr. Adeel. The weakening of vegetative cover reduces the resilience of the ecosystems to further stress and degradation.
'Policy changes that result in improved conservation of soil and vegetation and restoration of degraded land are fundamental to humanity’s future livelihood. This is an urgent task, as the quality of the land for food production, as well as water storage, is fundamental to future peace,' says Dr. Adeel.
Securing food and reducing poverty, especially in the drylands, can keep people who live in these areas in their homes so that they are not forced to become environmental refugees, ever on the move in search of food and water.
Land degradation is among the world’s greatest environmental challenges, reducing environmental security, destabilizing societies, endangering food security and increasing poverty, according to the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, another forum partner, warns that the inter-linkages between global environmental problems are profound.
Land degradation is directly linked to global climate change in many ways. It reduces the carbon sequestration capacity of land, particularly as a result of soil erosion and loss of vegetation, Lal says, and it creates adverse local weather patterns through loss of vegetation cover.
In turn, climate change worsens land degradation, through changes in precipitation and evaporation-transpiration patterns, coupled with more extreme weather events.
More floods, cyclones, droughts and fires result from a warming climate, and land degradation accelerates.
Loss of soil and vegetation, or changes in soil nutrients and moisture, can lead to a loss in biodiversity. This in turn can reduce production and accelerate land degradation, and constrain human capacity to respond positively.
Forum partner Maryam Niamir-Fuller of the UN Development Programme sees a ray of hope in this grim picture.
'There is significant potential to harness carbon finance for restoration of land in such a way as to ensure triple benefits from climate mitigation, climate adaptation and sustainable development,' says Niamir-Fuller
'Biological sinks have the potential to capture 10 to 20 percent of anticipated net fossil fuel emissions between now and 2050,' she says.
But she warns that the rules and transaction costs for carbon sequestration projects under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism have skewed the market towards projects that are large-scale and favor private developers.
'Such projects usually do not produce high sustainable development outcomes for the poorest of the poor,' she says.
The Clean Development Mechanism allows industrialized countries legally bound to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets under the protocol to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries as an alternative to more expensive emission reductions in their own countries.
'The key principle of land care is that the people at a grassroots level, whose everyday decisions and actions affect the condition of land and water resources, have to be involved in designing and implementing soil conservation measures,' says Andrew Campbell, Australia’s first National Landcare Facilitator.
Campbell is one of the architects of the landcare program that now involves almost half of all Australian farmers and many other people in rural, urban and coastal communities.
'Addressing these problems at a larger scale requires work at the community, village or neighbourhood level,' he says.' We need to bring a whole community along the journey to more sustainable ways of living on Earth.'