By one measure, there are two billion hectares of degraded land around the globe. Restoring it to arable conditions could not only help put food on the table, it could create twice as many jobs as smokestack industries.
The tension between urban and rural populations in countries around the world is emerging as a 21st century polarizing political force, and its potency may be rooted in rising inequalities. Nowhere is the urban-rural divide more acute than on the issue of jobs. While agriculture has been the traditional mainstay of rural employment, it became less viable in the 20th century as industries and cities expanded and urban opportunities beckoned.
That tide may be turning.
Sustainably feeding the 9.6 billion people projected to inhabit Earth by 2030 will require meeting some very urgent needs. According to research by the World Resources Institute, we will also have to close a gap of 60 percent between the amount of food available today and that which will be required by 2050. The increased demand for food creates economic and employment opportunities for agriculture, but is likely to put more pressure on land and cause more environmental damage.
Environmentally sustainable agriculture provides livelihoods even in some of the world’s harshest environments. However, as demand increases, farmers may move to cultivate larger areas and encroach on precious forested lands. Using degraded land for agricultural expansion, people living in rural communities can prevent deforestation, preserve resources, curb climate change and create jobs. In Indonesia, for example, more than 14 million hectares of low-carbon degraded lands — instead of forests — in Kalimantan could be used for oil palm development. This kind of deforestation-free commodity agriculture, along with a reduction in food waste, are some of the most efficient ways to slow the degradation of agricultural land, according to the Global Commission on Economy and the Climate, which I had the honor to chair.
One of the most important options for better land use is to restore the two billion hectares of degraded landscapes around the globe — an area larger than the entire continent of South America. Worldwide, a staggering one-third of agricultural landscapes are now degraded, and 12 million hectares of degraded land are added annually, costing as much as an estimated $100 billion per year.
Landscape restoration efforts – those plans and policies aimed at nurturing and healing degraded lands – can boost productivity and unlock economic opportunities. Land restoration strategies will also help us preserve our forests, which are essential for a healthy ecosystem and whose products generate around $1 trillion per year. In Latin America and the Caribbean, large scale restoration initiatives could yield about $23 billion over a 50-year period. Promoting a sustainable expansion of agriculture while improving livelihoods is a global imperative for the years to come, with a substantial impact in the developing world.
Conservative U.S. estimates shows that landscape restoration employed more than 126,000 people in 2014 — more than the logging, coal mining, iron and steel sectors combined. The number of jobs created with every $1 million investment in restoration, known as labor intensity, is comparable to and often higher than traditional smokestack industries: Landscape restoration in the U.S. creates between 10 to 39 jobs per $1 million invested, nearly twice as effective at creating jobs as the oil and gas sector, which has a labor intensity of 5 jobs per $1 million invested.
In developing countries, there is solid evidence on the positive impact of sustainable industries on employment, suggesting landscape restoration will create even more jobs in the coming decades. An initial estimate derived from studies in the Brazilian Amazon indicates that the labor intensity from restoration projects in this region is between 8 to 22 jobs per $1 million invested. The results appear to be comparable to reports from the World Bank, which show that biomass-based energy production — the conversion of plant sources into fuel — can generate the highest labor intensity of 17 jobs per $1 million invested as compared to fossil fuel-based energy production.
Restoration of degraded lands is a more economically efficient job creator than traditional industries. To realize the economic and employment benefits of land restoration, governments need to support policies and raise public awareness instead of staying on the traditional, unsustainable path of landscape degradation.
A partnership between World Resources Institute and The Nature Conservancy is developing evidence to support a New Restoration Economy with country-level analysis to determine the employment and economic benefits generated through landscape restoration. This will inform governments and help create policies that are for the good of the people and the planet, creating high-quality jobs and a better environment.
If governments do not seize this restoration opportunity, they will have few alternatives to boost employment in rural areas, potentially increasing the depth of the urban-rural divide, leading it to becoming a stronger – and more polarizing – political force that could threaten a better and more sustainable future for us all.