An interview with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Ocean & Climate Platform (OCP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)

On the occasion of World Environment Day 2017, this interview offers a three branched reflection on how people and nature connect through the lenses of the land, oceans and migration.


1. Can you explain what is the importance of migration, oceans and land on today’s World Environment Day:

Ambassador Laura Thompson, the Deputy Director General of the UN Migration Agency (IOM):

The theme for World Environment Day (WED) 2017 is “Connecting People to Nature”. History has shown how people have always been connected to nature, as well as the impact that human activity has upon it. People have always been moving due to environmental reasons, whether it was to avoid negative environmental changes, or in search of better surroundings. More recently, we are witnessing that people are increasingly displaced by natural disasters, as well as migrating pre-emptively out of harm’s way. On the other hand, people and migrants have an impact on the environment and their natural surroundings, which may not always be positive. These environmental factors have been for long neglected in migration debates as it took 16 climate conferences to have the first formal mention of migration in an adaptation to climate change negotiated text at the 16th Conference of Parties (COP) in 2010). This development prepared the ground for the inclusion of migration into the 2015 Paris Agreement. I am extremely happy to see that WED 2017 speaks of both people and nature, because we cannot envisage one without the other.

Monique Barbut, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD):

Land is the wellspring of life. Investing in this most precious asset will place us on the development path that will lead us towards our shared global vision of prosperity, health and dignity for all the world’s citizens.

Today, many people living in developed countries and in large urban centers give little thought to where their food and water comes from, and their migration behavior is only infrequently directly shaped by land changes. However, in less developed parts of the world, and in rural areas especially, access to basic livelihood needs is often insecure and migration patterns continue to be strongly influenced by variations in land conditions. In the Sahel region, for example, more than 80% of people work in agriculture, and when land is degraded, agricultural yields and incomes fall precipitously.

Françoise Gaill, renowned oceanographer and Coordinator of the scientific board of the Ocean & Climate Platform (OCP):

While we do have a separate World Oceans Day just after WED on 8 June, World Environment Day should still consider the ocean as one of the most important parts of the environment! It is often forgotten.

2. How is climate change reshaping priorities for you and your organization?


Climate change will exacerbate land degradation in many regions, with both direct and indirect effects on rural household incomes, increased risks of crop losses, and fluctuating commodity market prices. At COP 21 in Paris, land was acknowledged to have an important role to play in mitigating Climate Change. For the first time the carbon sequestration capacity of land was recognized, which is a major advance towards making sustainable land management a global priority.


For a long time, oceans were also neglected in the climate change negotiations. Like land, it is only at COP 21 in Paris, that the ocean was considered one of the first times. Fortunately, we recovered some of the delay as ocean related commitments were incorporated into the Paris Agreement. Since 2015, the ocean has been considered an even more important factor in climate regulations. The work done by the Ocean Climate Platform and other actors such as the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) resulted in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreeing to produce a Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. At COP 22 in Marrakech, the ocean was included even more in the global climate agenda, and since then we have been discussing opportunities of constructing an alliance in areas that would allow us to make links between initiatives dedicated to the ocean and climate domains.


It is also important to note that land is the second largest carbon sink, after the oceans. Restoring the soils of degraded ecosystems has the potential to store up to three billion tonnes of carbon annually. This is equivalent to storing up to 30 per cent of annual CO2 fossil fuel emissions! Land is therefore pivotal in the implementation of Article 5 of the Paris Agreement on carbon sinks.


Climate and weather-related events have displaced an average of 22.5 million people every year since 2008, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Climate change will be exacerbating the frequency and intensity of both sudden-onset and slow-onset events, with the potential to lead to displacement and migration. Policies must be in place to address this phenomenon, followed by operational actions to prevent displacement when possible, assist when it occurs, and to facilitate migration as an adaptation strategy. IOM has an important role to play in raising awareness of its Member States and assist them to respond adequately to these challenges through its Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division.

3. When did your organizations begin collaboration on the migration-environment nexus?


Since the beginning of 2010, we started exploring in greater depth the impacts of slow onset processes, the progressive degradation of the environment and the loss of productive land and ecosystems as key triggers of population movements. We immediately realized that we need to engage with relevant environmental and climate specialists. It is interesting to note that land degradation due to desertification, drought, and deforestation, as much as loss of maritime ecosystems and changes in the nature of oceans have an equal negative impact on people’s livelihoods, jobs and homes. In turn, this can lead either to trapped populations living in zones exposed to major risks, or to migratory strategies - be they forced or voluntary, or somewhere in between- as so many migration choices are just be constrained. The examples of specific groups such as pastoralists and fishermen who live out of lands and oceans resources shows how much climate change impacts may lead to loss of traditional migratory routes or be a trigger for new migration.

Furthermore, in both cases as much for land degradation as for sea level rise and the loss of maritime ecosystems, we can only state how many people are exposed to the risks and leave in vulnerable areas. We know for instance more than a billion people, most of them in Asia, live in low-lying coastal regions and that the total drylands are the home to one in three people in the world today according to United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification. However, it is difficult to make clear migration projections concerning these populations because migration is such a complex phenomenon. Indeed, macro and micro factors count, policies and perceptions, demography as much as economic and political triggers pull and push factors. So our objective in engaging with the oceans and the land specialists is to be able to link scientific evidence to a balanced migration perspective, where we raise awareness without harmfully alarmist projections, given that we know that migration is also a powerful driver of development.


Forced migration as a geopolitical consequence of land degradation was first recognized by UNCCD COP in 2003 in Havana, and then reiterated by the Parties in many following COPs. Operationally, UNCCD and IOM signed a partnership agreement in 2014 to develop a structured collaboration on the land and migration nexus. In these three years, IOM and UNCCD have made important progresses towards achieving the goals established for the partnership. While in the last couple of years the issue of migration driven by desertification, land degradation and drought has been widely recognized by the international community, UNCCD and IOM have renewed their commitment in delivering joint messages on the importance to address the environmental root causes of human mobility and displacement. In terms of research and knowledge sharing, UNCCD has contributed to IOM’s Atlas of Environmental Migration and IOM has provided substantial input for the Global Land Outlook.

The “3S” Initiative on Sustainability, Stability and Security in Africa launched at COP 22 in Marrakesh has been a stepping stone in relaunching the partnership, both at advocacy and operational level. The 3S aims at addressing the root causes of instability in Africa related to natural resource degradation by providing alternatives to forced migration. In terms of advocacy, IOM has actively supported the UNCCD Secretariat in promoting the initiative at Global Forum on Migration and Development. Operationally, the two organizations are collaborating to implement the 3S demonstration projects to create land-based jobs for migrants hosted in the IOM Transit Center in Agadez, Niger to help reintegrate them in their countries of origin.


After COP 21 in Paris, we tried to make connections to the “burning questions” of the day, like those surrounding migration. As scientists, we were more interested in animal migration, and we did not work as much on human migration except in the field of anthropology. The meetings we had with the IOM were really successful, and we started a new work area where we can join forces. For us, these questions are really important and sensitive, and must be deeply analyzed in the context of climate change.


To add to Ms Gaill’s point, the partnership with OCP is one of the first to focus solely on the migration dimensions of oceans and marine ecosystems, and it has succeeded in bringing increasing visibility to a little known topic. In addition, IOM supported the first meeting of the Ocean and Climate Initiatives Alliance held in Paris in March 2017. This new initiative seeks to drive a momentum for concrete action and solutions and federate existing initiatives on issues related to climate and ocean.

IOM and UNCCD and IOM and OCP also published together respectively a human mobility and land and a human mobility and ocean Info sheet and we are actively preparing together a Side event at the UN Oceans Conference and at the UNCCD next COP. Our common objectives are to also transform the advocacy into action and we are discussing pilot projects aiming to support the reintegration of migrants via land rehabilitation and management projects in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger.

4. What are the most pressing policy priorities in the migration-environment-climate change nexus from your point of view?


The most pressing policy priority is to be able to compare and contrast the points of view from different countries about how to handle migration, and then to prepare for future potential migrations so that they may have support in planning. Migration is often seen as a negative action or failure, but it can also be a positive solution to growing problems – especially looking at adaptation in Polynesia in response to sea-level rise. In Europe by contrast, it is often a negative movement.


It is certainly key to underscore the importance of the peace-security-development nexus by integrating the environmental triggers of migration, conflicts and instability in the international policy processes, including the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the African Union/European Union Summit on Youth Employment, and the G7/G20.

Developing countries have a high dependency on their land, and if it is not well managed, it can risk amplifying the vulnerability of millions of people. The mismanagement and over-exploitation of land and water resources, causing land degradation and desertification, have been identified as increasingly contributing to distressed migration, poverty, and conflicts in Africa. Within the next 15 years, some 375 million youth will become of working age in Africa. These young people will all be seeking income-generating activities and 200 million will be living in rural areas. With the current desertification rates affecting around 45 per cent of Africa’s land area, the magnitude of this problem suggests that the targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be elusive unless there is significant and coordinated action to address the youth employment challenge in the region.


Environmental migration is often a story of either too much water (floods, erosions, sea level rise) or not enough water (drought, desertification, hydric stress) and some of the challenges are in fact common to land and oceans, such as sea level rise leading to coastal erosion or salinization of lands. We need to think out of the boxes we ourselves created in our respective policy areas and to make sure we make the right connections as people do in their daily lives.

From IOM’s side we want to make sure that land and oceans perspectives are now considered in the discussions of the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) and in IOM’s migration policies dialogues and activities. One of the most pressing issues is to be able to work together and speak a common language that goes beyond policy areas and silos. Too often humanitarian and development issues are disconnected and even environmentalists and human rights activists do not collaborate. With our partnerships we aim to overcome these divides and to also help states address them and work across ministries, hence one of our leading activity on the topic is a capacity building programme for policymakers and practitioners on migration, environment and climate change.

5. What is one key message and/or one key wish that you have for World Environment Day regarding the migration-environment nexus?


Migration needs to understood and be considered as a set of solutions to climate change.


The path to a peaceful and secure future is paved with decisive action against losing more productive land.


The World Environment Day is a reminder of the interconnectedness between humans, mobility and environment. My message is that if we care for nature, we care for people and we care for migrants and their communities. My wish is that thanks to this special day, we can raise awareness that no matter whether endorsed and promoted by public policies or not, migration will be one of the ways in which people will deal with increasingly hostile and unfriendly environments.



Monique Barbut, Secretary General of UN Convention to Combat Desertification

Monique Barbut, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), has over 30 years’ experience in sustainable development, international diplomacy, governance and finance. From 2006 to 2012, she was Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and

World Bank Vice President. Prior to that she was a UNEP director, preceding which she oversaw diverse functions in the French Aid system, ranging from aid evaluation to serving as Executive Director of Agence Française de Dévéloppement. She played a key role in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit finance negotiations and GEF’s creation thereafter.

Françoise Gaill has been involved in the field of marine biology, with a specific interest in the thermal adaptation of deep-sea animals. Ms Gaill has joined the French CNRS (The French National Center for Scientific Research) in 1973, in charge of CNRS’s foreign affairs in the department of life sciences, and eventually the chair position of the department of environment and sustainable development. And in the following years, she was the Director of the CNRS Institute of Ecology and Environment

Françoise Gaill, renowned oceanographer and Coordinator of the scientific board of the Ocean & Climate Platform (OCP)

Françoise Gaill is currently Coordinator of the scientific board of the Ocean & Climate Platform and a scientific advisor of the CNRS INEE. She is also the vice chair of the “Biodiversity National Foundation” (AFB), chair of the scientific council of the Fondation de la mer and has contributed to several United Nations negotiations as part of the French delegation, such as the Word Ocean Assessment, the SDGs UN reports especially the goal 14 dedicated to the oceans, and the BBNJ PREPCOM.

She has undertaken more than 30 oceanographic campaigns, and with her team she has developed specific tools for studying marine organisms in deep water environments and has published over 130 publications.

This scientist has been awarded the French National Order of the Legion of Honour as “Commander”.

Laura Thompson, Deputy Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Laura Thompson is the Deputy Director General of the UN Migration Agency (IOM). She is responsible for assisting the Director General in administering and managing the Organization; conducting the political dialogue and building IOM relationships with governments, UN agencies, civil society and the private sector; as well as in defining policies, strategies and prioritized action.

Prior to this position, Laura Thompson was the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the UN and other International Organizations in Geneva. She also served at the Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva in a prior occasion and at the Delegation to UNESCO. In addition to her diplomatic experience, Laura has held posts as Legal Officer in two UN Organizations.

Laura Thompson obtained a Master’s degree in international relations, with a specialization in international law, from the Graduate Institute for International Studies of Geneva and holds a degree in law from the University of Costa Rica. She has also completed Executive Education at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and INSEAD. In addition to Spanish, which is her mother tongue, Laura Thompson is fluent in English, French and Greek, and has a basic knowledge of Italian and Portuguese.