Credit: Diverse stakeholders discussing food security and sustainable food systems at a GSW 2015 Dialogue Session co-hosted by the RIO+ Centre / Photo by Leisa Perch
By Leisa Perch*
2015 is a once-in-a-generation year in international development policy. It is also the International Year of Soils! Soil, the bare earth, has made a come-back in the age of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and at a time when natural resource management is at the heart of discussions on sustainability and sustainable development. The fact is, we often take soil for granted. We assume that, like water and air, it will always be there. However, mismanaged soil erosion and land degradation are reaching alarming levels, followed by drastic changes in the ecosystem’s capacity to provide goods and services for society and for the ecosystem services we depend on.
To call attention to these trends, the UN designated 2015 as the Year of Soils and the third Global Soil Week (GSW 2015) took place last week in Berlin, Germany. Both have helped to increase awareness and understanding of the important role played in our food, water, land and livelihoods; these often start and end with soil!
Last week in Berlin was special! 600 people from 80 countries gathered around the topic of soil, presenting 300 case studies. Participants called for a “transformation” in how we think, frame and interact with natural resources, using soil as both a focus in itself and as a gateway to other issues. The Chairman of the Closing Plenary reflected this, when he noted that “Transformation is needed, transformation is possible”. GSW 2015 also reinforced that it is impossible to talk food security without thinking about the quality of soil or about the effect that climate and weather, in combination with other factors, have on soil quantity and quality. In this context, during a Dialogue Session on Nexus issues (interconnections between different development agendas), the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) promoted a concept of “Grounding the Post-2015 Agenda: Options for the protection of our precious soil and natural resources”, through a policy brief with the same title.
Other topics also shaped the week of discussions in Berlin. Of those, many require continued and enhanced attention: enabling vital but marginalized voices to influence policy processes on soil and land; negotiating with and overcoming vested interests to shape a new and more sustainable path for sustainable land use; mobilizing broad alliances to achieve change at multiple levels and the role of multi-stakeholder platforms that promote action as well as dialogue. Global Soil Week 2015 showed its great potential in facilitating this much needed exchange between different stakeholder groups, including a change in perception of the importance of soils. Its focus on responsible land governance and on the role of the nexus discussion were critical for thinking about how we change the way we work on natural resources.
It is this potential that fostered our interest in GSW 2015. We saw opportunities to make and strengthen the case for economic, social and environmental as well as political dimensions of SD, particularly the role of responsible governance. The scope of GSW 2105 coincided with our own focus on agriculture and food security as a gateway to more transformative and people-smart approaches to sustainability and allowed us to share our results with an even wider community. With IASS and others including the Centre for Sustainable Development in Iran and the Center for Development and Environment, Switzerland, the RIO+ Centre also raised the profile of Food Security as a fixture in the GSW going forward and made the “people-link” in the debate on natural resources management. Our joint session on April 20th on Food Security and Sustainable Food Systems: the Role of Soil was one of the largest, involving over 70 participants from multiple disciplines and perspectives including governments, civil society, academia, private sector (See Picture).
Representing the RIO+ Centre at GSW 2015, I also led a working group on Climate and agriculture agendas: resource equality and people-smart agriculture from which several key messages emerged:
- Sustainable land management is more than an issue of production, it’s about access/equity, distribution as well as waste;
- Combined knowledge rather than silver bullets likely to prove more successful to transformative change including recognition that both technology and terminology come with underlying biases that can work against the poor and marginalized;
- The challenges within are both global and local at the same time and can only be solved by some balance between the two;
- Adaptability and flexibility in research, policy and action will be key. It’s more about a toolkit of possible solutions rather than any one answer. A diversity of options will be key for resilience.
The RIO+ Centre also participated in the Dialogue session on Nexus Governance Post-2015: Towards collaborative implementation as a call-in speaker (speaker from the floor) and later, a panelist. This session offered a space to exchange experiences on governance mechanisms that can really help to improve management and at the same time balance the interests which influence the social-ecological systems on which we rely. These are complex interdependencies which influence our soil, water, agriculture, food, forests, mining, tourism, housing etc. The RIO+ contribution focused on practical approaches, drawing specifically on experiences at the national level in fostering linkages across sectors and areas for better development results and the long-term challenge of embracing complexity for more sustainable results while not being paralyzed by the same. These issues are very much at the core of the work of the RIO+ and support our principles for inclusion and equality. In the session itself, key messages included: getting the framing and narrative right, promoting a risk management approach to problem-solving and starting with good questions – the right ones to the right people.
Learn more about the RIO+ Centre’s work on Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) and Gender in partnership with the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) by watching this video. We will soon release more information regarding the follow-up of the GSW 2015.
*Policy Specialist with collaboration from Michelle Elsaesser, UN Youth Volunteer, both working for the RIO+ Centre