Nature and Biodiversity

Trees: Why nature’s tech is vital to combatting desertification

A view of Mongolia's Altai mountain range, illustrating how Mongolia is threatened by desertification

Desertification threatens Mongolia and the rest of the world. Image: Unsplash/Bolatbek Gabiden

Khurelbaatar Chimed
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Development of Mongolia, Ministry of Economy and Development of Mongolia
Pamela Coke-Hamilton
Executive Director, International Trade Centre (ITC)
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Climate and Nature

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  • Mongolia is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, about three-quarters of its land is affected by desertification and land degradation.
  • Mongolia is also a climate microcosm of the world; the climate challenges here can be found elsewhere – and the solutions that succeed here can work elsewhere.
  • Seeking the help of the oldest of technologies, nature’s solution – trees – is crucial to combating desertification.

“It is the destiny of an elm tree to grow sidehill.”

This line from a Mongolian folk song reflects the character of the country – one that is resilient despite the odds. The elm tree grows in rocky terrain where soil is sparse, holding on to rainwater, making its way downhill, to survive.

Yet, even the most resilient of trees – and people – now face the biggest crisis of our time: climate change. Last month, June 2023, was the hottest on record. The last decade was the hottest in human history. Drought, floods, storms and wildfires are becoming more intense and more frequent.

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Mongolia is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. About 76.9% of its land is affected by desertification and land degradation. Natural disasters have doubled in number in the last 20 years. The situation is dire.

But there is good news: with its forests and deserts, mountains and rivers, valleys and steppes, Mongolia is a climate microcosm of the world. The climate challenges here can be found elsewhere – and the solutions that succeed here can work elsewhere.

Diversifying with green and digital trade

To drive solutions at the systemic level requires redefining socioeconomic progress. Our efforts to develop trade must truly support people, prosperity and the planet. This is why Mongolia and the International Trade Centre co-hosted the World Export Development Forum at the end of June. The theme, “diversifying with green and digital trade,” explored how societies can set economic foundations in a sustainable way, with small businesses, women and young people driving the change.

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When exploring strategies to respond to climate change, from policies to platforms to partnerships, prioritizing innovation is at the core, but seeking the help of the oldest of technologies, nature’s solution – trees – is crucial. To go beyond a symbolic gesture to create a viable plan to reverse desertification, taking a science-based approach to tree planting is key.

This involves mapping eroded land and water sources, conducting soil research and creating a plant atlas. Backed by data collection and close monitoring, tree planting can be highly effective for countries combating desertification. The people of Mongolia have a saying: "The cradle of life is water; the cradle of water is the trees.” They believe that soil, food and people hold umbilical kinship.

By 2030, Mongolia’s Billion Tree National Movement aims to plant and nurture billions of trees to increase the forest cover to 9%. This will absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, increase water resources and accelerate climate-friendly business development. Beyond reforestation, the plan focuses on afforestation – planting new forests in favourable areas – to reverse desertification and the other effects of climate change, sustain biodiversity and improve food security.

As part of the movement, developing agro-forestry parks and growing fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs will not only help to meet domestic demands but support exports, thus increasing employment opportunities and boosting the income of citizens.

Tree planting on such a wide scale is also important to building capacity in related services, such as environmental engineering and water management, making Mongolia more resilient overall and better able to face future shocks. This is a twenty-first-century path to growth and economic diversification.

In parallel, Mongolia aims to reduce emissions by 27.2% by 2030 in the energy, transportation, construction, industry, agriculture and waste sectors. An ambitious but necessary target.

Tackling climate change as a society

To translate these national campaigns and plans into change on the ground, all parts of society must be involved. The tree-planting campaign is moving faster than expected, for example, because everyone is contributing, in all 21 provinces.

In other words, while the government sets the framework, others fill it in. This includes the 'silent majority' or small businesses. They make up most businesses worldwide, including two-thirds of registered businesses in Mongolia. By the end of 2022, with the involvement of small-scale producers and workers, the production of seed reserves was 4.5 times the amount produced in previous years.

While small businesses are willing to contribute to the low-carbon transition, they need financing, skills and technology to do so. They need training, for example, to start tree nursery businesses, fruit farms or medicinal herb farms and to trade biodiverse products abroad. As the lead United Nations agency on small businesses, the International Trade Centre works with firms on dynamic agroforestry to replenish forests, diversify crops and improve soil quality with fewer chemicals, increase yields and create access to new markets seeking sustainably produced goods. Incentivizing farmers to adopt such practices is key to long-term change and sustainable economic growth.

Looking back to the elm tree, it is not just one growing sidehill in Mongolia: 308 million will be planted as part of the tree-planting campaign. In good company, the benefits brought forth by the elm tree will grow exponentially as the trees grow.

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