Global Soil Week 2015: Soil. The Substance of Transformation.
Chairman’s Conclusions
Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies
22 April 2015

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Transformation is needed – transformation is possible

Our commitment to transformation. While we discuss soils here in Berlin, the world around us is in turmoil. People flee from their home countries and die on their way to Europe. Conflicts prevail in many countries making considerations on long-term development pathways an elusive goal. In the Anthropocene – our age of mankind – the degradation of natural ecosystems often goes unabated. This is true for the non-renewable resource soil specifically. Some studies say that certain soil types even go extinct. Further degradation of ecosystems has already contributed to loss of productive rural employment and to increased migration. Today, malnutrition and hunger exist alongside affluence and abundance and the gaps between rich and poor countries are increasing. Moreover, we are discussing some of these trends since the Brundtland Report has been published in 1987, but without enough progress despite awareness and access to solutions. Development pathways that foster inclusion and the protection of our environment often seem to face a rather harsh political climate.

However, there are a wealth of policy initiatives and concrete local actions available and we do dispose of the necessary scientific knowledge. Civil society movements, private sector actions and concrete case studies demonstrate that transformation is possible. Experience shows that development pathways are not carved in stone but malleable. Alliances across different stakeholder groups can achieve remarkable changes. More than 600 participants from 80 countries from around the globe met in Berlin at the occasion of the third Global Soil Week “Soil. The Substance of Transformation“ to discuss ways to attain sustainable soil management and responsible land governance. The discussions I have witnessed during these days leave me encouraged that by continuing to work together we can move towards more sustainable development pathways.

An emerging consensus. In human time frames, soils are a non-renewable resource. At the same time, soils are under ever-increasing pressure. Competing demands we are placing on our soils often result in rapid degradation and loss. The resulting scarcities are often exacerbated by prohibiting and dispossessing people from access to land and fertile soils. Hence, sustainable soil management and responsible land governance have a great potential for being one of the corner stones of transformations towards sustainability. Our knowledge is advancing to move our approaches “from silos to systems” thinking and to engage on equal footing with partners in the sustainability agenda. We need to link short-term action with a long term strategy to build up resilience. These transformation processes need not only be knowledge-based, it is through the engagement in these transformation processes that new research agendas will arise.

Against this backdrop, I draw the following conclusions:

1          Sustainable soil and land management contribute to achieving several of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, such as food security, land degradation neutrality and an ambitious climate and biodiversity agenda. These agendas, SDGs and Climate, would benefit from being thought and worked upon together. And soils can contribute to solutions in both agendas.

Soils – and the need for their sustainable management – cut across a range of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals. If we do not protect and sustainably use our soils, essential ecosystem services such as food security, sustainable freshwater management or the protection of the oceans will not be achieved. Soils are the largest terrestrial carbon storage. Sound soil management holds the potential to increase the soil organic carbon content and thereby adapting to and mitigating climate change while increasing productivity. This must well be acknowledged in the way heading up to Paris as well as in the outcome of COP 21.

The negotiations of a Post-2015 development agenda, the negotiations to strike a new climate deal and the finance for development process must be conducted in a coherent way. However, we run the risk of not making use of the synergies that exist between these political agendas. Considerations on a “4 pour 1000“ (4 per thousand) initiative – referring to an increase in parts per thousand of soil organic carbon – currently being proposed by France is a valuable exception in this regard as it is truly pointing towards a systems approach and addressing multiple agendas. I very much welcome it.

At the same time achieving food security and the right to food means securing access to land for the billions of smallholder farmers who are the primary investors in their own agriculture.

These global agendas require mechanisms for their implementation at regional, national and local levels. Adoption of sustainable land management on sub-national and local level needs urgent attention. I am therefore particularly grateful to the secretariats of UNCCD and UNFCCC that took part in the discussions on mitigation and adaptation to climate change through an increased adoption of sustainable soil management that we held in the context of this Global Soil Week. This sends a strong signal.

2          Investments in soil rehabilitation have various benefits, from food security to the mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

In a world of 9 billion people we cannot afford to further loose our fertile soils. We must halt degradation processes. The degradation of soil and land resources is threatening livelihoods and the provision of ecosystem services in many parts of our world. This is a global concern.

To attain national food security goals and the objectives of the Zero Hunger Challenge the rehabilitation of degraded soils is therefore key. Measures to restore soil fertility are not only important to achieve food security, they also increase the soil organic carbon content. Soil rehabilitation policies therefore offer a great opportunity to link the Post-2015 development agenda and the negotiations on an ambitious climate agreement while advancing food security through restoration of soil quality. The newly established Green Climate Fund could and should be used by soil related programmes, which can demonstrate that their implementation contributes to the soil and climate agenda alike. The same applies to the Global Environment Facility and other sources of financing. In these efforts, we must not forget that responsible investments respect the human rights, including the right to food, of local communities.

Discussions emphasized that investment in soil rehabilitation needs to be scaled up. The work by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative shows that the costs of inaction on land degradation are significantly higher than the costs of investing in sustainable land and soil management. Bringing this message and the first results from the project The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity in the Food and Agriculture Sector (TEEB) to decision makers in policy and private sector is key. Next to investments, we have to address the question of adoption. To implement soil rehabilitation measures on landscape level, we need to understand obstacles within the social, economic and political context. Particular attention needs to be paid to the land rights regime. The identification of implementation pathways through multi-stakeholder processes assumes particular importance in this regard. An open dialogue and participatory processes at the local level on soil rehabilitation measures is also key to ensure that proposed measures match local realities, that they correspond to people’s needs. The third Global Soil Week contributed to make exchanges such as these come about.

3          Soil protection and soil rehabilitation policies need to be based on a human rights framework, principally emphasizing land rights for marginal and vulnerable groups in society.

A focus on soil rehabilitation holds great potential. We need to be aware, though, that technologies for soil rehabilitation are not neutral. This applies in particular to large-scale rehabilitation efforts. Technologies might favour some groups in society over others or might even have outright negative implications for some. As a principle, soil rehabilitation measures must contribute to the progressive realization of the right to food. Soil protection policies in general need to be based on a human rights framework.

Investments in soil rehabilitation tend to increase the value of the land. In addition, certain approaches to land rehabilitation may require large investments in expensive technologies. In a context of insecure or unclear land rights, these investments might lead to some groups losing the access to their land. Hence, soil rehabilitation needs to be accompanied by measure to increase tenure security of intended beneficiaries, as well as to prioritise those approaches and technologies that can be implemented and owned by small-scale farmers.

Common lands including pastures and forests, require particular attention, as it is often the most vulnerable and marginal groups in society who live on these lands. Measures to increase tenure security in common lands must be developed in a participatory way to ensure that they are in line with the perceptions and needs of the intended beneficiaries.

The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land provide the necessary principles for pro-poor land and soil policies. Discussions at the Global Soil Week emphasized the need to further work on the application of the Guidelines at national and sub-national levels as well as to respond to the extraterritorial obligations laid out in the guidelines. Multi-stakeholder learning processes are a useful approach in support of their adoption.

4          Towards a consistent approach to implementing the SDGs by focusing on soils, protecting soils by investing in a holistic approach to sustainable soil management.

In terms of our soil resources, the SDGs run the risk of not being sustainable. We might need more land to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) than we have available. Balancing competing demands on soils and the bio-resources they sustain is a necessary step to achieve consistency across the goals. At the same time, we can protect our soil resources by investing in other goals. For instance access to education is a very important example and fostering health care support farmers to maintain sound land management and productivity, and reduce migration pressures. Reducing food waste and increasing resource efficiency are other important examples. Soils must be seen in a Nexus and soil protection must be approached by cross-sectoral policies.

5          To make the transformational potential of the SDGs work, we need to set up institutions and processes at national level that will allow a public debate on the post-2015 development agenda.

In implementing the SDGs we have to put in place national level processes and institutions, in all countries and, if relevant, at regional level to set priorities and to balance potential conflicts between the goals. These processes will also help us to better understand negative externalities within and beyond our own countries. We need public fora that allow for debates on what type of development we want to see for our societies. The Global Soil Week contributed to the development of the Brazilian Seminar on Soil Governance, which calls for the establishment of such a forum on national level in Brazil. These public fora also assume particular importance in monitoring, review and accountability of the Post-2015 development agenda. In times in which we are developing new types of international agreements on sustainable development, the need for participatory forms of review and accountability is not confined to the Post-2015 development agenda only. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions under UNFCCC are another case in point.

While soils and land are managed locally, their ecosystem services are globally relevant. Soil use and land degradation have transboundary characteristics. Virtual land imports or land based pollution of our oceans are just two examples in this regard. National level processes to implement the SDGs must take these transboundary effects into account. In effect, soil protection cannot be confined to the national level only. Sustainable soil management and responsible land governance must move centre stage within the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

We, hence, need to focus on processes to implement the SDGs by and in countries. Given the potential of sustainable soil management and responsible land governance for achieving the SDGs, I propose to pilot such processes focusing on soils – not least in Germany itself.

6          We need to build on the diversity of available knowledge and improve ways to articulate scientific knowledge with societal decision-making in order to identify responses to the pressing challenges of soil and land degradation.

The Global Soil Week appreciates the advances by the soil science community – represented by the IUSS – and broader interdisciplinary studies on sustainable soil management and responsible land governance. The successful implementation of the Post-2015 development agenda must be knowledge-based. For this to come about, we need to better articulate science with policy processes. This involves actual engagement of science in transformation processes. In return, it is through this involvement that relevant research questions emerge. Our research agenda hence needs to be informed by the Post-2015 agenda and its implementation. We will not only require an interdisciplinary dialogue but also a dialogue – on equal footing – between science and other stakeholders. This exchange must include traditional knowledge and would benefit from citizen science that goes beyond citizens as implementers of pre-defined research questions. In our knowledge democracies, we need to conduct science with society.

The first joint meeting of the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils of the Global Soil Partnership and the Science Policy Interface of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification demonstrated the possibilities that are available when we join forces.

To support transformations, to address questions of “how to make change happen” we need to expand research on implementation. This research agenda on implementation needs to be action-oriented and become engaged with actual transformations processes.

In conclusion. The many topics that were discussed at the Global Soil Week require continued attention: It remains a challenge to set the often forgotten resource soil on the political agenda. Giving marginalized voices an opportunity to speak up and potentially influence policy processes on soil and land is an equally demanding task. Sometimes, this implies the need to overcome vested interests. Hence, we need a broad alliance of different stakeholder groups represented at the Global Soil Week to achieve change. This Global Soil Week has shown its great potential in facilitating this much needed exchange between these different stakeholder groups. In the International Year of Soils, our awareness raising activities have contributed to a change in perception of the importance of soils. The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies will therefore continue to further the science-policy – society –action interface on sustainable soil management and responsible land governance. We can only do so through broad partnerships and it would thus be an honour to continue doing so with you. Let us show that the goals described above are within reach, if we sustain the momentum and continue to work together.