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Rocher de Bouamir Cameroun
The 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification starts this Monday 9 May in Abidjan, one week after publication of the latest UNCCD report. According to the report, 40% of land is now degraded with one in two people being affected by the phenomenon. Solutions do exist however, and the agenda of this COP focuses heavily on adapting to droughts and the transition toward sustainable agriculture. Patrice Berger, President and co-founder of the NGO CARI (Centre d’actions et de réalisations internationales - Centre for International Actions and Achievements) emphasises the importance of this 15th desertification COP and the steps he is taking to propel agroecology to the top of the negotiation agenda, including through his presentation of the outcomes from the AVACLIM project.


Patrice Burger Cari
Patrice Burger - President and co-founder of the NGO CARI


The 15th COP to combat desertification opens in Abidjan. Does holding this event in Africa give it a particular dimension?

Yes, you could say the desertification COP is an African conference. Firstly, because Africa is particularly impacted by desertification and land degradation. But also because this COP is an instrument that Africans lobbied for and negotiated during the 90s. At that time, African countries felt less troubled by climate change and biodiversity issues, so they negotiated the implementation of this Convention specific to desertification, leading to its ratification in Paris in 1994. 
The other reason why this conference has such resonance is that one of its focuses is on drought. During COP14 held in India in 2019, African countries requested a binding instrument on the issue. It is likely that this conference will see the African caucus raise this question again, something to which EU countries, in particular, are opposed. 

According to the United Nations, over 2 million hectares of land are degraded worldwide. Which regions are at risk, and what are the long term consequences for their populations?

There is a huge amount of degraded land - the UNCCD report puts the figure at 40% of Earth’s land area. But what do we mean by “degraded land”? Its definition is complex. Generally, land degradation, across all regions, is the process of degradation of soils’ biological potential, which may be related to natural factors (drought, storm, water erosion) or human ones (soil concretisation, chemical inputs, excessive mechanisation in agriculture). Vegetation cover degrades; water and air no longer circulate as they should, and water runs-off, erodes and evaporates instead of going into the soil. 
The COP desertification instrument is limited to arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. This covers a large number of regions where rainfall is generally 500 millimetres or less. Such regions can be found almost everywhere, including in Europe. The main continent affected today is Asia, followed by Africa and Latin America.
Dry and arid regions are on a knife-edge, particularly the dry savannas which are important agricultural areas. In Africa, it’s the Sahel regions that are directly affected. Often heavily populated, the slightest change in rainfall can make these regions non-productive. This Convention also aims to target these areas, burdened by multiple constraints such as climatic variation which is also making the land more fragile, and rapid increases in population which put pressure on urban areas. 

How does agroecology, and more particularly the AVACLIM project, respond to the challenges addressed in this COP, not only in combating land degradation but also in adaptation to climate change? 

It's worth noting that CARI's roots are in agroecology. In the 90s, we devised the first training course in Europe on agroecology in dry areas. At the time, it was met with a lot of scepticism so it took another 30 years to persuade people to adopt this approach as an answer to environmental challenges. So here are today: agricultural yields remain flat, despite heavy use of machinery, chemical inputs and GMO. Agroecology, which advocates biodiversity protection and working at ecosystem-scale is now finding its place.  
In 2014 we designed the AVACLIM project so that the millions of farmers applying this approach worldwide are given a voice. To strengthen the scientific basis of agroecology, so that policy-makers can consider using it in large-scale agricultural policies. 
That’s the reason at AVACLIM we’ve decided to not only continue with our advocacy work on this, but also to strengthen communities of practice while working on establishing an assessment grid for agroecological practices. We’re going to present the first results of our work at COP15, our goal being that agroecology be more seriously considered in UN discussions. Agroecology really needs to be on the agenda so that one day it’s a tool recognised by the COP in the fight against land degradation.