Land decay to displace tens of millions, global survey warns


Medellín (Colombia) (AFP)

Land degradation will unleash a mass migration of at least 50 million people by 2050 -- as many as 700 million unless humans stop depleting the life-giving resource, dozens of scientists warned Monday.

Already, land decay caused by unsustainable farming, mining, pollution, and city expansion is undermining the well-being of some 3.2 billion people -- 40 percent of the global population, they said in the first comprehensive assessment of land health.

The condition of land is "critical," said the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

"We've converted large amounts of our forests, we've converted large amounts of our grasslands, we've lost 87 percent of our wetlands... we've really changed our land surface in the last several hundred years," IPBES chairman Robert Watson said of the findings.

"The message is: land degradation, loss of productivity of those soils and those vegetations will force people to move. It will be no longer viable to live on those lands," he told AFP.

"Between now and 2050, we estimate the number could be 50 (million) to some 700 million people."

The lowest number is a best-case-scenario projection, said Watson.

It assumes "we're actually starting to be much more sustainable, we've really tried hard to have sustainable agricultural practices, sustainable forestry, we've tried to minimize climate change."

The upper end of the range is based on a "business-as-usual" approach.

The main drivers of land degradation, said the report, were "high-consumption lifestyles" in rich countries, and rising demand for products in developing ones, fueled by income and population growth.

- Last frontier -

The problem of land decay does not only impact the people who live on it, the assessment underlined.

It threatens food security for all Earth's citizens, as well as access to clean water and breathable air regulated by the soil and the plants that grow on it.

Yet less than a quarter of land has managed to escape "substantial impacts" of human activity -- primarily because it is found in inhospitable parts of the world.

And even this small repository is projected to shrink to less than 10 percent in just 30 years' time.

"People are pushing into those frontiers," said Bob Scholes of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, a co-author of the paper.

"One of the consequences of global warming is that we are moving agriculture into areas" such as the icy, subarctic Boreal region, he told AFP.

"Tropical rainforests historically have had low human populations because it's hard to get in there -- we are now building roads into them, we are putting agriculture into them," Scholes said.

"In the extreme desert areas we are finding deep aquifers, and we're pumping up, unsustainably, ancient water resources to irrigate."

By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands, said the analysis.

Crop and grazing lands now cover more than a third of the Earth's land surface.

This means not only a loss of soil, but also populations of wild plants and animals, and forests that suck up planet-warming carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

The IPBES assessment took 100 volunteer experts from around the globe three years to compile, analyzing all the available scientific data.

The end product covers the entirety of Earth's land, as well as the lakes and rivers it supports.

- Tenth of GDP -

The analysis estimated that land degradation cost the equivalent of 10 percent of global economic output in 2010.

Degraded land yields less, and polluted water has to be purified at high cost.

"If we did not have land degradation across the world our economy would be 10 percent stronger," Watson elaborated. "This is a major economic issue for the world."

The report identified land degradation as a major contributor to climate change.

Deforestation alone contributes to about 10 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

And by releasing carbon once locked in the soil, land decay was responsible for global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year between 2000 and 2009.

In 30 years from now, an estimated four billion people -- about 40 percent of the projected population by then -- will live in "dryland" areas, arid and semi-arid places with low agriculture productivity, said the report.

Today, the number is just over three billion.

"Implementing the right actions to combat land degradation can transform the lives of millions of people across the planet, but this will become more difficult and more costly the longer we take to act," concluded Watson.

The land report, which cost about $1 million (810,000 euros) to prepare, is meant to inform government policy-making.

It was approved by government envoys at a week-long meeting of the 129-member IPBES in Medellin.