By Rachel Kohn
World peace. The expressed wish of everyone from small children to beauty pageant contestants to world leaders, the desire has become a truism. It is a goal made safe from disappointment by being unattainable.
Or is it?
There is no magical lever to pull that will untangle the mélange of conflicts being waged around the world today and give people tools for a brighter tomorrow. Research has revealed, however, that there is one common factor at the root of over 70 percent of these conflicts, directly impacting the lives of almost a third of the planet’s population.
This threat is land degradation. Doesn’t ring a bell? While the problem is serious, thankfully this is no doomsday verdict. The people behind the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security, taking place this week in Caux, Switzerland, believe that uniting knowledge with capital can not only reverse land degradation, but serve as a vehicle for trust-building and economic development.
Land degradation is the product of multiple factors, such as infrastructure projects that disrupt ecosystems and farming practices that exhaust the land. Increasing populations and unfavorable changes in weather patterns are also major contributors, says Dr. Alan Channer, a documentary filmmaker and research scientist. “The availability of automatic weapons means that competition for scarce resources can easily become deadly,” he says.
“Human security is related to land security because such a huge percentage of conflict occurs on degraded land,” says Jennifer Helgeson, environmental economist and head of outreach for the Caux Dialogue. “No matter race, religion, whatever the other issues are, if you bring people together to work the land, it allays whatever conflicts there are.” While many aid groups have a specific aspect of conflict they specialize in, be it gender issues, land disputes, or water security, Helgeson says a closer look at individual cases reveals that the state of the land people are living on is an incredibly powerful underlying factor in every aspect of conflict.
A 2011 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, World Resources Institute, and University of South Dakota found that two billion hectares– think the entire area of South America– can be restored to productive use. The techniques required are already in use in grassroots projects, and success would enhance food security for millions of people and be worth $85 billion (USD) per year to national and global economies.
The Caux Dialogue is drawing a group that reflects the convergence of interests on this issue. An estimated 300 to 400 people are expected to participate, including representatives from international organizations like the UN, transnational corporations, state governments, domestic NGOs, and hands-on field experts. Each group has a stake in the stability, security and economic and human capital threatened by land degradation.
The presence of the business world at the discussion table is a major coup. “This is uncharted territory in many, many ways,” says Helgeson. “I know a couple of groups that tried to have round tables with business on these issues” and ultimately failed.
Participating in efforts to address land degradation are not just a matter of public relations, but smart business. “Groups like Nestle, these groups own a large percentage of the world’s water supply, you’re going to have to somehow engage,” she says.
One corporate panelist is from a company Helgeson delicately describes as “not known as the most environmentally-friendly.” Why is he participating?
“He knows that he is in a safe space,” she says. “This isn’t the G8 meeting or something, there won’t be people picketing outside. This is a gathering that provides knowledge exchange for groups with means and people with on the ground experiences.”
The Caux Dialogue on Land and Security is organized by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD); Land, Lives, Peace; and Initiatives of Change.
About the Writer
A native Michigander, Rachel Kohn is completing her Masters in International Media at American University. Before moving to the DC area, she ran her own small business as a public relations consultant and freelance writer in Jerusalem, Israel. She graduated from Brandeis University in 2007 with a Bachelors degrees in Political Science and Environmental Studies, two of her passions. While attending a religious studies program in the West Bank town of Elkana from 2002-2003, she volunteered as a foreign correspondent for her hometown paper, reporting on the Second Intifada and life in the shadow of the U.S.-Iraq War. Rachel thinks that knowledge through contact is the key to understanding and coexistence. She also tends to dance in her chair if music is playing.
Photos courtesy of CAUX-Initiatives of Change