4 ways to reverse land degradation this World Environment Day 

In recognition of World Environment Day, we wanted to focus on those inspiring positive change and celebrate the power of all of us to create a more sustainable world. This year the World Environment Day theme is ‘restoration and resilience’, so we are looking at four ways we can help restoration, and the actionable steps we can all take to make a difference. 

What is land degradation? 

Land degradation is caused by multiple forces, including extreme weather conditions, particularly drought. It is also caused by human activities that pollute or degrade the quality of soils. Desertification is a form of land degradation by which fertile land becomes desert. It is a global problem that affects everyone through food scarcity, higher food prices, climate migration, and the loss of biodiversity. The main causes are:  

  • Deforestation around the world, but particularly in rainforests. Agriculture is the key driver of this with cattle grazing, soy for animal feed, and palm oil being responsible for 60% of tropical deforestation.  
  • Unsustainable agriculture practices such as monocropping (rather than crop rotating), excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and overgrazing.  
  • Climate change makes it all worse as increased temperatures dry and erode the soil, high rainfall washes topsoil away, and sea-levels rise in coastal areas. 

Step 1: Land Restoration 

Countries around the world are actively engaging in various land restoration efforts to combat environmental degradation and promote sustainability. Initiatives include large-scale reforestation to halt desertification, sustainable agricultural practices to restore soil health and reduce erosion, and conservation programs to protect and rehabilitate natural ecosystems, such as wetlands and mangroves, which are crucial for biodiversity.  

The Great Green Wall is one such movement, with the epic ambition to grow an 8,000km natural wonder across the entire width of Africa. A decade in and roughly 15% complete, the initiative is already restoring Africa’s degraded landscapes on an unprecedented scale, providing food security, jobs, and a reason to stay for millions along its path. Taking root in Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, one of the poorest places on the planet, the Great Green Wall is on the frontline of climate change. Persistent droughts, food shortages, conflicts over dwindling natural resources, and mass migration to Europe are some of the devastating consequences faced by locals. Yet, communities from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East are fighting back. Once complete, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. 

Here are 3 steps you can take as an individual: 

  • Compost your food waste. Finished compost is a natural fertiliser packed with nutrients that improve soil health, structure, and drainage. Making your own compost will save money as you don’t need to buy fertiliser. 
  • Support local schemes. Community gardens, local parks, urban tree planting and more. They all need your support. 
  • Choose organic. Organic food is better for biodiversity, better for soil health and avoids artificial fertilisers and pesticides. 

Step 2: Protect the Forests 

Planting forests is crucial for combating climate change, preserving biodiversity, and maintaining ecological balance. Forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing significant amounts of CO2, which helps mitigate global warming. Reforestation is particularly important as around 70% of deforestation is driven by agricultural expansion, notably for soy (often used for animal feed) and palm oil (used in processed food and cosmetics). By restoring forests, we can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, protect wildlife habitats, and ensure the sustainability of natural resources. 

And great things are happening with reforestation. France has more trees today than it had in 1600, with forests now covering 31% of France, a remarkable transformation largely due to concerted reforestation efforts and improved forest management practices. After centuries of deforestation for agriculture, fuel, and construction, there have been significant reforestation programs. One of France’s newest regional natural parks, the Baronnies Provençales, spreads across 1,800 square kilometres (700 square miles) of the Drôme and Hautes-Alpes. With a mix of pine, oak and beech, fully 79% of the park is covered by forest, and this share is growing. 

Here are 3 steps you can take as an individual: 

  • Avoid Palm Oil. Palm oil has been a key driver of deforestation. Go sustainable or palm oil free. You are most likely to find palm oil in cakes, biscuits, chocolate, bread, shampoo and shower gel. 
  • Plant Trees. More forests help to protect animals and biodiversity. Scientists have found that we could plant 1 trillion trees without affecting crops and homes. 
  • Protect the forests. Protecting forests, especially rainforests, is key. This could be indirect support through your choices but also direct support to charities and NGOs. 

Step 3: Sustainable Food 

Sustainable labels such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) provide consumers with reassurances that their food is produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. These certifications follow strict standards that ensure sustainable practices are implemented throughout the supply chain. Fairtrade promotes fair wages and ethical working conditions for farmers and workers, and the Rainforest Alliance focuses on conserving biodiversity and promoting sustainable land use. These labels help consumers make informed choices that support sustainability and protect ecosystems. 

There are also projects such as the UN’s flagship restoration projects which helps small farmers improve the environment and their incomes. One example is Thanh’s tea farm which had been growing tea for more than 25 years, but decades of poor soil management had caused her tea bushes to turn into ragged stumps with thin, red leaves that failed international trading standards. It’s a pattern seen throughout the tea-growing highlands of Vietnam, a nation where more than 30% of all land is either already degraded or at risk of degradation – much of it due to unsustainable farming practices like the overuse of chemical fertilisers, exacerbated by more extreme weather. Thanh’s farm now produces thick, green leaves across her two-hectare plantation, demonstrating that sustainable agriculture can be a win for farmers and a win for the environment. 

Here are 3 steps you can take as an individual: 

  • Cut back on food waste. Food waste has a double impact on carbon emissions. Not only is all the carbon from making the food and getting it to the shops wasted but food in landfill also releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. 
  • Eat the seasons. In season produce allows nature to do most of the hard work heating and watering the food you eat. Seasonal produce is often grown closer to where it’s eaten meaning less carbon emissions from transport. 
  • More plants. Switching to a more plant-based diet saves on the amount of land needed for your food and can reduce demand for some of the high-risk ingredients, like soya for animal feed, that lead to deforestation. 

Step 4: Bring back the Buzz 

Bees are under significant threat due to the widespread use of pesticides and the impacts of climate change. Pesticides harm bees’ nervous systems, leading to disorientation and even death. Climate change exacerbates these threats by altering blooming times and reducing the availability of flowers, disrupting bees’ feeding and pollination patterns. This decline in bee populations is alarming, as almost 90% of wild plants and 75% of leading global crops depend on animal pollination. Pollinators like bees are crucial for maintaining biodiversity and ensuring food security, making their conservation vital for ecological health and human agriculture. 

However, there are lots of projects across the world that are helping bring back pollinators. One great example is the Elephant and Bees Project in Kenya. They use beehive fences – a natural deterrent of elephants – to keep elephants off of farmland, reducing crop damage. This not only increases protected habitats for bees, but also helps educate farmers on the relationship between bees and crop health. The project supports increased bee populations and works in multiple countries throughout Africa. 

Here are 3 steps you can take as an individual: 

  • Plant flowers. Plant flowers that provide food for pollinating insects such as Primrose, Lavender or Honeysuckle. It could be in a window box, garden or at work.  
  • Support policy. Support policy which bans the most damaging pollinator pesticides. Perhaps contact your local, or national, representative. The more your representative hears about climate issues the more they should be pushing for policy change. Elected officials are there to represent your interests.  
  • Go organic (again). When you can, choose organic, as pesticides are not allowed. Organic farms have 50% more plants, insects and wildlife. And go for local honey if you can! 

Why not join the millions of others who are celebrating World Environment Day by trying one of the steps above, or perhaps by sharing your favourite steps with your friends and colleagues? Together we can restore the land and help our planet!