UNCCD photo contest 2013© Khalid Rayhan Shawon

By Barbara Bendandi

Desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) driven by erosion, deforestation, poor agricultural practices and the increased pressure of a growing population destroy land and livelihoods. These phenomena are closely connected to migration, both as a cause, and as a consequence. Estimates suggest that as many as fifty million people are at risk of displacement in the next ten years, if land degradation is not appropriately addressed.[1]

DLDD contributes to food insecurity, famine and poverty. It can also lead to social, economic and political tensions causing conflict. Poverty and land degradation form a vicious cycle. Land that becomes unprofitable to farm can induce an exodus. As a consequence, people moving from a degraded area increase land stress in a neighboring region ill-prepared to accommodate new migrants.

It is clear that the effects of climate change are likely to affect population distribution and mobility. Monique Barbut, the new Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is convinced about the need to address this challenge: "Migration is often used as a coping strategy when land is degraded. With a better understanding of how closely migration and land management are linked, we should be able to strengthen community resilience and build a more secure future." 

At UNFCCC COP 16, Parties recognized desertification as one of the “slow onset events” to be considered in the work programme on loss and damage.[2] These slow-onset processes can affect more people, over a longer period of time, than extreme events with losses having significant and potentially irreversible impacts on people’s lives.In the case of land degradation, fertile topsoil takes centuries to form and can degrade in few seasons. Responding to population movements related to slow onset events is part of IOM’s programs, as reflected by its three core objectives: (i) preventing forced migration, (ii) assisting and protecting vulnerable mobile populations -including displaced persons- in the immediate to long-term, and (iii) promoting migration as an adaptation and livelihood strategy. These objectives can be directly relevant to addressing economic, social and cultural loss and damage related to the negative impacts of climate change on land productivity and human mobility.

Human mobility is crucial in determining ecosystem dynamics, with special relevance for land. It has a great potential for increasing land and community resilience in the face of a changing climate. Remittances -considered as the transfer of money by foreign workers to their home countries- are recognized as being an important source of resilience for households, especially in light of the fact that the monetary value of remittances to Africa now exceeds that of aid.[3]

Remittances as a resilience builder and as an innovative financing mechanism for sustainable land management (SLM) have already been included in the UNCCD Global Mechanism’s strategies for resource mobilization. From January 2014, IOM and GM will jointly implement the Italian-funded project West Africa: Promoting sustainable land management in migration-prone areas through Innovative financing mechanisms in Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso. Through field research, training and policy dialogue activities, the project will pave the way for designing effective policy incentives to channel remittances and increase investments on SLM.

In light of the strong links between land and human mobility, UNCCD and IOM recognized the need to identify areas of common interest, and to jointly address challenges, such as security, land tenure and climate change adaptation. The land-migration nexus also offers several opportunities that are yet to be appreciated, for instance in the context of on-going international processes, such as the post 2015 development framework and the definition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UNCCD and IOM are currently developing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which will identify areas of synergy and coordinate joint institutional work, building on good practices and lessons learned by both organizations.

 The challenge that IOM and UNCCD have to face by working together is transforming the vicious cycle of land degradation-migration-land degradation into a virtuous cycle. Securing land productivity is the first step to grounding opportunities for people in their home and land communities. It is the essence of truly sustainable development.


By Barbara Bendandi, Migration, Environment and Climate Change Consultant, IOM Rome


[1] UNU, 2007, Re- thinking Policies to cope with Desertification


[2] UNFCCC, Decision 1/CP.16, footnote

[3] UNU, 2012, Migration, Remittances and Resilience in Africa