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2020 Desertification and Drought Day: Food. Feed. Fiber. – Sustainable Production and Consumption

Compiled by Rodrick Moyo-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association and Bruce Ndeke

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

Since the adoption of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Paris on the 17th of June 1994, the day has been observed annually as one meant to Combat Desertification. Due to the pressing effects of climate change which are threatening natural systems and exacerbating the desertification problem it is now being commemorated as Desertification and Drought Day with 2020 having focused on changing public attitudes to the leading driver of desertification and land degradation: humanity’s relentless production and consumption as declared by Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, Zimbabwe adopted this year’s theme to focus on Food, Feed and Fiber, its major concern being sustainable production and consumption of food justifiably by the frequent weather hazards which have left more than 4.3 million[1] people severely food insecure in rural areas and 2.2 million[2] cereal insecure in urban areas. Although sustainability is an important factor under consideration, the country is facing pressing issues which are fighting back the good cause added to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

A reality for Africa and Zimbabwe

Desertification is perceived differently from other global environmental problems such as climate change, mitigation or biodiversity management. This is due in part to the fact that the negative impacts of desertification are confined to a given region and do not affect directly all countries. It is nevertheless slowly being recognized that degradation in dry land is for instance a significant factor of biodiversity loss.[3][4] The causes of dry land degradation are complex including, the impacts of drought; overgrazing of rangelands; unsustainable agricultural practices; deforestation; unfavorable land tenure rights; under-valuation of land resources and pricing failures coupled with other numerous social and economic processes. Moreover, some may say desertification of a dry land ecosystem caused by certain factors such as climate change and human activities of transforming fertile land into non fertile land due to resource scarcity.

Considering that desertification in Africa is a major cause and consequence of poverty and resource depletion, socio-institutional and economic development should be at the center of addressing the extension of this problem. The issue is two sided where desertification is causing food insecurity and at the same time food insecurity is causing desertification. In many African countries poverty and desertification are expected to rise during the twenty first century given that most governments are unable to increase expenditure on economic and agricultural production to drive rural and urban economic development and reduce the dependence of the poor on the natural environment, a process that exacerbates desertification and poverty.

While a lot is known about the mechanisms of how desertification is being caused by factors such as agricultural operations, by contrast, much less attention is paid to the root cause of such factors[5]. The concept of sustainable development that constitutes the focus of much of the recent environmental policy making implies that environmental problems cannot be tackled without taking into account the broader development framework into which they fall. While this is true for most environmental issues, desertification is even more closely associated with the development process in so far as it impacts on people’s livelihoods much more directly than other environmental problems. In particular there are close links between dry land degradation and food production. In Zimbabwe, the fight between conserving the environment and providing food at the table is a reality. Some areas which depend on agriculture specifically tobacco farming are at risk of desertification. Local people in those areas claim that they will not earn a living from seeing trees growing but rather using them economically. Given that the satisfaction of basic food needs for an increasing population constitutes one of the central challenges of environmental management in the coming years, the loss of productive land is of major concern in a world where hundreds of millions of individuals already go hungry today.

Institutional approach to addressing desertification

Environmental Management Agency was given the mandate to ensure that everyone looks after  the environment in Zimbabwe and is the custodian of the Environmental Management Act of 2002. The agency has been trying to stop desertification through issuance of penalties, awareness campaigns among other efforts. However, at a local level the enforcers of law are being overridden by powers that are vested in some community leaders such as village heads and village chairpersons. Their voice is heard more than the law offenders and they may authorize cutting down of trees posing a challenge to the law enforces.

The Forestry commission is also one of the government of Zimbabwe’s institutions that is spearheading environmental protection specifically in terms of protecting the forest resources. However, most of the times the Commission is then left in the middle of a concrete and a hard rock in solving the challenge. People in rural areas will claim not to have resources to build houses, to cure their tobacco and for firewood later on destroying the forest at the expense of the environment. This challenge can be addressed by promoting plantations in rural areas to replace those trees that are destroyed including harmonization of the Forest Act.

Challenges and strategies going ahead towards implementation of the UNCCD in Zimbabwe

  • A limited financial base and institutional capacity to facilitate the formulation, implementation and monitoring of desertification projects at the local level, thus the implementation lacked budgetary support from the government, the private sectors and the lack of international support to implement the UNCCD objectives exacerbated the problem.
  • Since a large percentage of Zimbabwe’s population live in rural areas and depend directly on forests for firewood, timber for construction, food and fodder. However, the open access to forests in these areas results in over exploitation due to lack of accountability. This is worsened by lack of alternatives for people, poor enforcement of the communal lands forest produces act and appropriate rural district by laws. This however needs a collaborative approach between the conservatism and the local people in policy formulation to come up with policies that will in turn save the environment at the same time flexible to the economic traits of the local people.  
  • Lack of understanding of the impacts of land degradation and desertification among certain individuals is another challenge as they will continue to degrade the environment. In Zimbabwe some individuals will just clear the land unnecessarily; some even burn the forests for hunting. This is a clear indication that knowledge on the consequences of such predicaments is not known and there is need to increase awareness campaigns.
  • The erosion powers of the traditional leaders. Loss of cultural values and economic hardship have led to the breakdown of some positive conservation practices for example there was harvesting of trees and non-use of certain species such as hissing tree and pepper bark which were considered sacred.
  • Climate change – evidence on the ground shows a decline in tree species after droughts for example the severe prolonged early 1990’s in Zimbabwe lowered the capacity  of savannah  vegetation to support  animals  resulting  in wide spread  death  of animals  and trees[6]. Consequently, going forward there is need for an integrative policy and legal framework which incorporates weather and climate change information.

“If we keep producing and consuming as usual, we will eat into the planet’s capacity to sustain life until there is nothing left but scraps. We all need to make better choices about what we eat and what we wear to help protect and restore the land.” Ibrahim Thiaw.


[1] Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis (2020)

[2] Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) (2020)

[3]Feresu S.B. (ed.) (2017). Zimbabwe Environment Outlook 2: A Clean, Safe and Healthy Environment. Governmentof the Republic of Zimbabwe, Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate, Harare, Zimbabwe.

[4] The State of the World’s Forests 2020 (SOFO 2020) FAO Forestry Policy and Resources Division in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

[5] Van Engelen, V.W.P., Mantel, S., Dijkshoorn, J.A. and Huting, J., 2004. The impact of desertification on food security in Southern Africa: a case study in Zimbabwe. UNEP Wageningen, The Netherlands, Tech. Rep. FP/1000-02-0-2201.

[6] Anna.Braizer, (2015) Climate Change in Zimbabwe: Facts for Planners and Decision Makers Research Advocacy Unit: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung 26 Sandringham Drive, Alexandra Park, Harare

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