Help protect life on land through active global citizenship — Part 1

Learning about Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals can help to inform youth as active global citizens.

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What do people think are some of the greatest challenges to our planet now and in the coming years? Many people might list things such as international conflict and terrorism, food security, global climate change, natural disasters or economic uncertainty, but surprisingly few would likely include what the United Nations (UN) has described as “a silent, invisible crisis that is destabilizing communities on a global scale.” While perhaps less known about than other global issues, land degradation and desertification “are among the biggest environmental challenges of our time” according to the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines land degradation as “any reduction or loss in the biological or economic productive capacity of the land resource base” that is “generally caused by human activities, exacerbated by natural processes, and often magnified by and closely intertwined with climate change and biodiversity loss.”

While many people falsely think of desertification as “the loss of land to desert or through sand-dune movement,” it is actually a specific type of land degradation that occurs in drylands “resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities,” according to the UNCCD. The loss of land that is capable of providing food and the other resources that humans need to survive has major global consequences, and is directly related to many of the other significant, and perhaps more widely recognized, global challenges.

The restoration and protection of our planet’s land-based environment is the goal of sustained international efforts. World leaders, representing citizens from 193 countries, have agreed to “sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss”, which is embodied in Goal 15 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are 17 interconnected goals that seek to transform our world by ending all forms of poverty, eliminating inequalities and improving the state of the world’s natural and human-made environments through sustained international cooperation and efforts by the year 2030.

By learning about, taking action and teaching others about the vital role of soil, forests and land-based biodiversity, young people can play a valuable leadership role in helping to accomplish Goal 15 as well as the other Sustainable Development Goals. Here are some important facts and figures, and some related educational ideas, related to Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals that can help youth to learn and be engaged as global citizens.

  • “Nearly one-third of the world’s arable land (land capable of growing crops) has been lost to erosion or pollution in the last 40 years,” according to scientists from the University of Sheffield. “It takes about 500 years to form 2.5 centimeters of topsoil under normal agricultural conditions.”
  • Continued loss of arable land could decrease food production and food security, destabilize food prices and cause hunger and poverty for millions of people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). The loss of arable land affects many people and is expected to influence migration in the years ahead.
  • “Land degradation has accelerated during the 20th century due to increasing and combined pressures of agricultural and livestock production (over-cultivation, overgrazing, forest conversion), urbanization, deforestation and extreme weather events such as droughts and coastal surges, which salinate land,” according to the World Health Organization.
  • The rate of global deforestation has decreased over the past few decades; forests continue to shrink due to human activities. “Forests still cover about 30 percent of the world’s land area, but swaths half the size of England are lost each year,” according to National Geographic. This loss of habitat affects life on the planet significantly as 80 percent of animals and plants that live on land live in forests. Forests are vitally important to humans and Earth’s environment. “Forests play a fundamental role in combating rural poverty, ensuring food security and providing people with livelihoods, and they deliver vital environmental services such as clean air and water, the conservation of biodiversity and combating climate change," says the FAO. “Of the over 80,000 tree species, less than 1 percent have been studied for potential use,” according to the UN.
  • The illegal poaching and trafficking of wild plants and animals continues to be a major international issue, with widespread impacts. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, “Illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar business involving the unlawful harvest of and trade in live animals and plants or parts and products derived from them.” Illegal wildlife trade has negative impacts on threatened and endangered species and the natural resources of countries and local communities.
  • According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Invasive species are among the most significant environmental and economic threats facing our nation’s aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.” The introduction of invasive species can negatively impact the environment, the economy and human health and wellbeing.

To continue reading Part 2 of this article, go to “Help protect life on land through active global citizenship – Part 2.”

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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