The conservationist spoke to Robert Amalemba on the state of soil and why the globe needs urgent action to stem the loss of life and livelihoods.
You were among the key speakers at the COP15 of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). How was the experience?
It was amazing, a lifetime moment. My invitation came after I won the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Land Hero award. When I got the call, I immediately started to prepare my grand speech on land preservation.
In your speech, you regretted that the world landscape was changing from green, to yellow and now brown. Do you feel that can be reversed?
Yes it can. It all boils down to poor food systems that put emphasis on producing food without caring for the soils. A food system must be considered in the context of rapid population growth, urbanization, growing wealth, changing consumption patterns, and globalization as well as climate change. That is hardly put in perspective in most nations, especially in Africa.
You described yourself as a farmer in the Abidjan speech and emphasized that food doesn’t come from restaurants or Uber Eats. Where do you see farming in the next decade with the rising rate of soil degradation?
I foresee a food crisis where people will be fighting for food and many others will be migrating from country to country in search of greener pastures. I fear the majority of them will be youth. I am a farmer and plant indigenous vegetables and fruit trees on a three-quarter-acre farm in Makueni county. I am concerned that the soils are not as fertile as they were, say, two decades ago when our parents planted without fertilizer and harvested a lot. My fear is that most governments are unconcerned with this because the majority are used to buying soil products without a care for the soils. This should not be the case because if we don’t act to restore the fertility of our soils, we are hurting ourselves and the next generation.
You called on world leaders to involve youth in replenishing degraded land. Do you feel governments are willing or have good laws to involve youth in this?
Governments still have a long way to go in involving the youth in reclaiming soil fertility and degradation. In most instances, all the government does is to invite them on World Forest Day or Environment Day to come plant a tree or two. Also, youth hardly get access to their own land to use for agriculture, not unless their parents give it to them and in most cases, this happens when they are adults. I feel that if youth as young as 18 years are given land, they will learn early how to use and even preserve its fertility because they will be profiting from it through agriculture.
You are a UN land hero for planting 10,000 seedlings in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown. What motivated you?
Scorching sun. I once went to the arid area of Lodwar to distribute relief and was taken aback at how people, especially children, were suffering under the scorching sun. The sun had made their land unproductive and there was no water in sight. I returned home in Makueni and immediately stared planting trees to avoid such a scenario in my home area. It soon spread to other areas and in schools. Youth, women, Indigenous communities and groups suffer the most due to soil degradation. Do you feel they could be a solution to the mess if fully involved in restoring processes? Yes, all that these groups need is education to change their attitude and some little motivation to keep them on the restoration and land reclaiming path. They have seen the hardships that come with degraded soils and will be more willing to be part of that because they owe it to themselves and the coming generations.
You are a trained journalist and often write in your blog. How do you balance that with your environment bit under PaTree Initiative?
I engage in environment work during the weekends and do the writing and private media consulting during the week. The media task earns me the extra coin to buy seedlings for my Initiative.
What, in your estimation, is the greatest impediment to reclaiming degraded lands?
Well, graft and lethargy. We have mega projects to make our soils fertile and the landscape green. I am alive to the fact that during the Abidjan deliberations, world leaders pledged to replenish one billion hectares of land. That is achievable because the hardships of degraded lands are hitting even the developed countries.
The best way to deal with the climate crisis is to act now. How would you advise Kenyans to act individually towards mitigating the effects of the change?
Start small by reading about land degradation and best practices to restore degraded land then where appropriate, plant trees. I want us to be in partnerships with other pro-land restoration groups and plant more trees. As part of PaTree Initiative, we are at 60,000 but we can double the numbers in the next one year.
The theme of COP15 was “Land. Life. Legacy: From scarcity to prosperity” which I though was spot on. I want to call on everybody to focus on the sustainability of land for present and future generations. According to the latest report that was launched at the convention (Global Outlook Report 2) humans have already transformed more than 70% of the Earth’s land area from its natural state, causing unparalleled environmental degradation and contributing significantly to global warming. It is humans who must restore its usefulness.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UNCCD Virtual Reporting Fellowship, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. It was originally published in The Standard on May 24, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Patricia Kombo, 26, a Kenyan conservationist at the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UNCCD / Credit: The Standard.