FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

New greening strategy confronts common challenges of funding and cooperation

Just a few hours by plane from the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) headquarters in Geneva used to be the abundant waters of the Aral Sea. At its height as the fourth biggest lake in the world, the body of water was bigger than Switzerland. But if we traveled there today, we would only find a windswept desert as the once great Aral Sea has dried out.

The Caucasus and Central Asia are sometimes overlooked in global discussions about anthropogenic climate change and environmental challenges. However, as the fate of the Aral Sea shows, the region’s fragile landscapes and ecosystems have suffered from a century-long excessive extraction and waste of water, overcutting of forests, and pollution from mining, which has, in turn, led to desertification, soil loss, and catastrophic land erosion.

“These changes are not only worsening the living conditions of local people, but are also increasing greenhouse gas emissions, which worsen climate change worldwide, ultimately threatening already fragile ecosystems further,” points out Ekrem Yazici, deputy chief of the UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section.

States in the region have recognized that common challenges like these can best be overcome through cooperation and concerted action. Six countries from the region met on 6 November as part of the Joint 77th Session of the ECE Committee on Forests and the Forest Industry and the 40th Session of the FAO European Forestry Commission, held in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, to define for the first time a country-owned regional greening strategy. The strategy is aimed at landscape restoration and greening the infrastructure of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The core idea is to increase funding for landscape restoration by leveraging funds for infrastructure development. As the Caucasus and Central Asia region is developing infrastructure rapidly, through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, there is momentum to bring attention to the environment as well. Landscapes could be restored and greened while the infrastructure is developed. If only a small percentage of the infrastructure investments were redirected to environmental causes, the benefit for the region would already be significant.

Overall, the region has already pledged to restore over 3 million ha of forest landscapes in the region by 2030 through various initiatives. This area could be much bigger if future funding can be secured.

As Vardan Melikyan, Deputy Minister of Environment of Armenia and vice-chair of the UNECE Committee on Forests and the Forest Industry, stated, “We expect that the strategy will help us to upscale goals, actions, investments, and collaboration on landscape restoration and facilitate cooperation with international partners. We hope to endorse it in 2020 with cooperation from UNECE and FAO member states, as well as both organizations.”

Greening efforts outlined in the strategy are an important, nature-based step in the fight against climate change. Reversing land degradation can provide more than one-third of the mitigation required by 2030 to remain below a 2 °C increase in average global temperatures.

The strategy thus echoes the United Nations General Assembly decision to proclaim 2021–2030 as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Moreover, the strategy builds on earlier regional efforts to restore forests and degraded landscapes undertaken as part of the Bonn Challenge and Astana Resolution endorsed at a Ministerial Roundtable hosted by Kazakhstan in June 2018.

11 November 2019, Geneva, Switzerland