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Wildlife Conservation Research – To stop land degradation, reject fast fashion and cancel food waste


Wildlife Research

Wildlife Conservation Research – To stop land degradation, reject fast fashion and cancel food waste

Did you know that your choice of food and fashion could be contributing to wasteful land use? To combat desertification and drought, a UN secretary highlights how more responsible consumer choices can help. More than 2 billion hectares of previously productive land is degraded. For Desertification and Drought Day on June 17, DW spoke with Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of…

Wildlife Conservation Research – To stop land degradation, reject fast fashion and cancel food waste

Wildlife Conservation Research –

Did you know that your choice of food and fashion could be contributing to wasteful land use? To combat desertification and drought, a UN secretary highlights how more responsible consumer choices can help.

More than 2 billion hectares of previously productive land is degraded. For Desertification and Drought Day on June 17, DW spoke with Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Read more: Five of the world’s biggest environmental problems

DW: What do you want people to know about this year’s desertification day?

Ibrahim Thiaw: Despite COVID-19, we still need to eat. We still need to have clothes. We still need to feed our animals. And we still need the planet. The planet does not need us.

More than a third of the world’s land is vulnerable to exploitation that can lead to desertification. Where are some of the worst-affected areas?

Wildlife Conservation Research - Ibrahim Thiaw (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen)

Ibrahim Thiaw is UNCCD executive secretary

If you consider the size of the land that is affected by desertification, Africa. But if you consider the number of people that are affected by land degradation, it is Asia. If you include the Americas, both north and south, 40% of land is affected by desertification or susceptible to be affected by land degradation. Europe is not spared either — we still lose a lot of soil here. And Europe has been more vulnerable to drought in recent years because of climate change. 

Read more: After the drought is before the drought

We have one planet, so therefore there is no region in the world that is immune to land degradation or drought.

What do those areas have in common, are there some patterns there?

When you cause land degradation, you are affecting people’s lives: their health, the economy, their security. Land degradation is also having an impact on migration — we will see more migration because people cannot produce anymore in their land. So therefore, it is not biophysical only. It is social. It is economic. It is health. It is our well-being.

What are some steps people can take?

Let us take the issue of fashion. Having our houses full of clothing that we don’t need or we don’t wear, or wear only once and throw away, that is what we call the wasteful economy. It is possible that you and I as shoppers are conscious about how we shop. How many liters are being used by the T-shirt I’m going to buy? How much land is being affected? How many people are being affected by that land degradation? It is important that the consciousness of the people, of the buyers, of the consumers, of the school, children, of the adults, are all at the same level. 

Read more: Zara’s fast-fashion problem in focus

Wildlife Conservation Research - Racks of clothing at H&M (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hitij)

Your impulse clothing purchase could be wasting the land

People often think their changes are not going to make a difference. What do you say to that?

How can you make the change if you don’t vote? How can you make the change in the planet if you don’t buy the right jeans or the right T-shirt? Or if you decide to waste your food. We waste one-third of the food we produce, we just produce it to send to the dustbin. And yet we have 800 million people who are going to bed hungry. Do we live on one planet? Are we one humanity, or is there something wrong?

Read more: Direct-selling helps Indian farmers swerve food waste under lockdown

Is there something that needs to be changed in the way the land is managed?

Yes. The one-third of food we produce each year is equivalent to 1.4 billion hectares. So basically, each year we are wasting the equivalent of 1.4 billion hectares, meaning that we can feed the entire community, the entire world without further degrading on our land, without further clearing our forests, without further affecting our wetlands and our water ponds. We need to be more rational in the way we use these resources. We will have to manage. We should not be considering that these resources are limitless.

Wildlife Conservation Research - Food that has gone to waste (picture-alliance/dpa/F. May)

In Europe, about 88 million metric tons of food are wasted every year

Can you give us a few examples of places that have successfully reversed desertification?

There are many good examples in different parts of the world, including in Germany. The old mine sites that have been rehabilitated, have been regenerated, and are now being used as tourist attractions. 

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - A boy on a boat on Lake Partwitz (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – From mining to tourism

    In the days of the former East Germany, more than 65,000 miners were employed in Lausatia’s coal mining sector. Thousands lost their jobs when mines shut down in the 1990s. To compensate, the region decided to boost its tourism sector, and the transformation has been ongoing ever since. Almost 37,000 acres of land ravaged by mining will eventually become Europe’s biggest water playground.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - The former coal mine in Senftenberg (imago/S. Hässler)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Total transformation

    Today, this former open-pit mine is the site of Lake Senftenberg. It is surrounded by 7 kilometers of sandy beaches and lawns for sunbathing. The East German energy sector relied heavily on brown coal. But after reunification in 1990, dozens of coal pits were shut down. This lake actually formed after the mine started flooding in 1967 and the first ‘beach section’ was commissioned in 1972.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Birds eye view of the Lusatian Lake District (Gemeinfrei)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Water, water, everywhere

    Lake Geierswald and Lake Partwitz are just two of the 25 pit lakes in the area of Lausatia that spans the state borders of Brandenburg and Saxony. To keep their levels steady, water from the rivers Spree, Lusatian Neisse and Black Elster flow into the former mines. Without the artificial flooding, it would take 80 to 100 years to fill a pit naturally with rain and groundwater.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Cornelia Wobar in her vineyard (picture-alliance/ZB/P. Pleul)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Taste of the mines

    Johanniter or Pinotin? Cornelia Wobar grows both grape varieties on the only steep slope in Brandenburg, above the former open-cast mine that is now Lake Grossräschen. Wine experts say Brandenburg’s intensely acidic soils have excellent potential for viticulture. The first wine produced from grapes grown on a former strip mine hit the market in 2008.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Lake Partwitz from the air (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Almost like the Caribbean

    The glowing turquoise color of Lake Partwitz comes from quicklime added to the waters to neutralize acidity — a legacy of the mines. As a result, there is little plant and animal life, but the lake is safe for swimmers. Lake Partwitz was built on the former lignite mine at Geierswalde, a village in Lower Lusatia, and was fully flooded in 2015.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Lake Ostsee near Cottbus begins to flood (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Germany’s biggest swimming lake

    In early 2019, the energy group LEAG began flooding Lake Ostsee near Cottbus. Altogether, a million cubic meters of water will have to be added before the lake opens to the public. That’s supposed to happen by 2025. LEAG had to stop its first trial flooding in 2018 after an exceptionally dry summer; the Spree River water levels were too low.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Machinery compressing the group of a future lake (picture-alliance/dpa/P.Pleul)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Preparing the ground

    Turning a former coal pit into a lake isn’t as simple as just opening the floodgates. First, loose soil needs to be compressed to avoid the risk of landslides. Special vibro-compression technology, like this soil compactor working the former surface mine in Jänschwalde, near the city of Cottbus, are put into action.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Site of the accident at the Concordia-See in Nachterstedt (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Wolf)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Disaster in Nachterstedt

    Without proper precautions, disaster can strike. On July 18, 2009, a massive landslide on the southern shore of Lake Concordia in central Germany carried three houses away, killing three people. An investigation found that high pressure in the aquifer, combined with loose dump material underwater, were to blame for the accident. The area is still being redeveloped.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - An illustration of a proposed renewable energy lake (Greenpeace Energy eG)

    Splashing about in the coal pit

    Wildlife Conservation Research – A renewable future?

    Greenpeace Energy has another vision for the former coalfields. As of 2020, it wants to buy open-cast mines from the RWE Group, shut them down by 2025 and build large-scale renewable energy plants that would generate roughly a quarter of the power RWE currently produces in the Rhineland mining region. To date, RWE has not agreed to sell its land.

    Author: Theresa Krinninger


You have examples in many parts of Africa where land that was degraded is now being reconstituted and managed for wildlife conservation. You have put tourists back in countries like Niger, one of the poorest nations on earth, they have decided to manage the land, and now you have giraffes. And when you have giraffes, you have tourists. When you have tourists, you have economic activity. So regeneration is something that can be positive to the economy, can be positive for communities. 

Wildlife Conservation Research - Giraffes in the Kouré Giraffe Reserve of Niger (Getty Images/AFP/B. Hama)

Giraffes have become a vulnerable species due to habitat destruction and poaching

More than 80 countries have pledged to regenerate 400 million hectares by 2030. It is not something that can be done only by experts, scientists or naturalists or biologists. It should be done by everybody.

Read more: What happened to Africa’s ambitious green belt project?

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You come from a region that has been dealing with desertification for decades. Is this somehow a personal issue for you?

It is, and I hope it is for you as well. It is a personal issue for me because my family has suffered, because my village has suffered, because my community, because my region, because my continent, because my world, my planet … when you see all the consequences that land degradation is having in the world, you should be concerned. And as a citizen of the world, you should be really conscious of the fact that there is something I can do about it. You are an actor, you are not a spectator.

Do you foresee that the pandemic will have an impact on desertification?

Why do we have that virus? Because we changed the land use. Because we, as human beings, have been in places where we should not have been, because we have taken species out of their ecosystems and because we are using them, we are over-consuming. So COVID-19 is one of the consequences of our new lifestyle. We hope that people will take some steps back and we learn lessons from it, and we hope that the post-COVID-19 world will be a world that is more sustainable. We hope that we will not have a repeat of the pandemic.

Read more: Opinion: Let’s not return to business as usual after coronavirus

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - A lone man walking at dawn, smog covers the cityscape in the background

    Coronavirus and the environment: 7 changes to expect

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Better air quality

    As the world grinds to a halt, the sudden shutdown of most industrial activities has dramatically reduced air pollution levels. Satellite images have even revealed a clear drop in global levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas which is primarily emitted from car engines and commercial manufacturing plants and is responsible for poor air quality in many major cities.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Gases stream out of a coal power station in Germany. 

    Coronavirus and the environment: 7 changes to expect

    Wildlife Conservation Research – CO2 emissions fall

    Like NO2, carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) have also been slashed in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. When economic activity stalls, so do CO2 emissions — in fact, the last time this happened was during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. In China alone, emissions have fallen by around 25% when the country entered lockdown, according to Carbon Brief. But this change is likely to only be temporary.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - A hedgehog peers out from beneath some flowers in the grass.

    Coronavirus and the environment: 7 changes to expect

    Wildlife Conservation Research – A new world for urban wildlife

    As everyone retreats to their homes, some animals have been taking advantage of our absence. Reduced road traffic means little critters like hedgehogs emerging from hibernation are less likely to be hit by cars. Meanwhile, other species like ducks may be wondering where all the people have gone and will need to find other sources of food besides breadcrumbs in the park.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - A pangolin tied up in a mesh net in a pile of illegally trafficked wildlife.

    Coronavirus and the environment: 7 changes to expect

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Drawing attention to the global wildlife trade

    Conservationists hope the coronavirus outbreak will help curb global wildlife trade, which is responsible for pushing a number of species to the brink of extinction. COVID-19 likely originated in a Wuhan wet market, which sells live produce and is a hub for both legal and illegally trafficked wildlife. A crackdown on trading live wildlife may be one positive thing to come out of the crisis.  

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Gondolas on the clear waters of Venice canals

    Coronavirus and the environment: 7 changes to expect

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Waterways run clear

    Shortly after Italy entered lockdown, images of crystal clear canals in Venice were shared around the world — the pristine blue waters are a far cry from their usual muddy appearance. And with cruise ships docked for the time being, our oceans are also experiencing a drop in noise pollution, lowering the stress levels of marine creatures like whales and making for a much more peaceful migration.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - Plastic waste piled up in yellow bags.

    Coronavirus and the environment: 7 changes to expect

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Plastic waste on the rise

    But it’s not all good news. One of the worst environmental side-effects of the coronavirus pandemic is the rapid increase in the use of disposable plastic — from medical equipment like disposable gloves, to plastic packaging as more people opt for prepackaged foods. Even cafes that remain open no longer accept reusable cups from customers in a bid to stop the virus from spreading.

  • Wildlife Conservation Research - School students protest for the climate, holding a sign that reads 'There is no Planet B'

    Coronavirus and the environment: 7 changes to expect

    Wildlife Conservation Research – Climate crisis goes ignored (for now)

    With the coronavirus dominating, the climate crisis has been pushed to the sidelines. But that doesn’t make it any less urgent. Experts are warning that important decisions regarding the climate should not be delayed — even with the UN climate conference postponed until 2021. While emissions have dropped since the pandemic began, we’re unlikely to see widespread and long-term change as a result.

    Author: Ineke Mules


Ibrahim Thiaw is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. In his home country, Mauritania, he served in the Ministry of Rural Development for 10 years. Thiaw holds an advanced degree in forestry and forest product techniques.

The interview was conducted by Sonya Diehn, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.



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