3.5 Desertification control programme activity centre UNEP, Nairobi

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Desertification is threatening the future of 850 million people. Currently about 35 per cent of the world's land surface is at risk. Accelerating desertification in rangelands is most marked in the Sudano-Sahelian region, Africa South of the Sudano-Sahelian region, and in the Andean, South America region, being less so in the already moderately decertified parts of South Asia. In the rainfed croplands also, desertification is accelerating in tropical areas of Africa, South Asia, South America and Mexico where subsistence agriculture is intensifying and expanding, often on unfavourable terrain and erodible soils. In Mediterranean Africa and Western Asia desertification of rainfed croplands continues steadily. The only areas of stable or improving status are the temperate rainfed croplands of North America, Australia and USSR in Asia, and even here there remains a threat of renewed desertification through wind erosion should prolonged droughts recur. In the irrigated lands the situation is mainly static, with continuing secondary gains or losses. Currently, each year some 21 million hectares (UNEP/GC. 12/9) is reduced to a state of near or complete uselessness. Projections to the year 2000 indicate that a loss on this scale will continue if nations fail to step up remedial action.

The rapid continuing decrease in forests and woodland cover over much of the dry lands is a cause for concern, notably in tropical regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America where the process is accelerating with population growth and increased per capita consumption, and with the widening range of gathering and marketing. The most markedly accelerating trends are in the semi-arid zones, where large and increasing populations exist under climates with limited potential for regeneration of woodland. The problem is not alleviated by urbanization in these areas.

Desertification results from over-exploitation of land resources by man through over-cultivation, over-grazing, poor irrigation practices, poor management and deforestation and the destruction of woody vegetation. The implications of international trade, protectionism and structural maladjustments in the international economic system have also contributed to the over-exploitation of land and water resources. The classical example of all these functioning together and exacerbated by cruel drought between 1968-1973 resulted in the Sahelian catastrophe which drew world attention to the chronic problems of human survival in dry lands and particularly on the desert margins.

In 1974 UNEP was assigned by General Assembly resolution 3337(XXIX) the responsibility for preparing the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) which was held in Nairobi in 1977. The Conference adopted a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification (PACD) which was subsequently endorsed by the General Assembly as world-wide comprehensive and integrated programme for concerted international action to combat desertification.


The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established by General Assembly resolution 2997 (XXVII) in 1972 to serve as focal point for global environmental concerns, and to stimulate, catalyze and coordinate environment-related activities where it was needed. The Plan of Action forms the basis of the UNEP programme for assisting governments in their efforts to combat desertification and called for the establishment of:

i) A Desertification Unit (subsequently retitled Desertification Control Programme Activity Centre - DC/PAC. Ref - UNEP GC decision 12/10 para. 23);

ii) A Consultative Group for Desertification Control (DESCON) to assist the Executive Director of UNEP in the mobilization of resources for the formulation and implementation of anti-desertification projects; and

iii) An Inter-Agency Working Group on Desertification (IAWGD), the body entrusted with coordinating activities of the United Nations System to combat Desertification.

In addition, the General Assembly, by resolution 33/80 of 15 December 1978, decided to designate the United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Office (UNDO), as the arm of the UN responsible for assisting, on behalf of UNEP, the efforts of the countries of the Sudano-Sahelian region to implement the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. Currently, a total of 21 countries receive assistance through UNSO.

Several training seminars and workshops have been implemented since UNCOD, such as the training programmes set up in cooperation between UNEP and the governments of the USSR and China, and have provided for some 600 trainees. (Ref. UNEP/GC. 12/9). A United Nations University (UNU) Workshop on training and management for arid lands convened in the Federal Republic of Germany in Hamburg, 1979, was attended by some 30 participants from the world-wide academic community concerned with arid lands and by representatives of UNEP and Unesco. A workshop on the Physics of Desertification was held in November 1980 at Trieste, Italy. The regional implementation of PACD has been discussed at workshops organized by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Damascus, Syria and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Jodhpur, India.

UNEP is carrying out an assessment of renewable natural resources as part of the programme component of the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS). The PACD calls for monitoring of desertification. It is envisaged that these events will be used to develop a thorough assessment of the world-wide state of the art of desertification monitoring. Such assessment would include: an inventory of leading institutions, leading experts and projects, results to date, gaps in research and the most important and promising future directions. The future desertification monitoring and assessment programme will, however, be closely linked with the soon-to-be-established Global Resources Information Database (GRID) of UNEP's Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS).

Since desertification is the end product of many ecological problems, an international information campaign to publicize the urgent need to preserve the world's dwindling forests was launched by UNEP as part of its Tenth Anniversary activities. To ensure popular appeal, the Executive Director asked some of the world's most admired illustrators of children's books to create posters demonstrating the value of trees. Eight national environment secretariats and two NGO foundations paid for the printing of 5.000 posters each. NGO involvement was secured through a 12-page illustrated folio, 'For Every Child a Tree", explaining the dangers of deforestation. To some extent, the surge of interest and activity in afforestation on the part of many NGOs around the world has been catalyzed by UNEP's programme. The Executive Director's call for an all-out effort both to educate the involved as well as general public about the hazards of the world's disappearing forests, and to motivate nationals to halt deforestation has taken root. As a result of his 1982 visit to Japan, that nation pledged a tree for every child born the year UNEP was conceived in a world-wide call for a fund for a green world.


UNEP policy in this respect is guided by several recommendations and principles in the PACD, by General Assembly resolutions, and by UNEP Governing Council decisions.

A. The Plan

In the Plan of Action specific recommendations provide direct instructions, such as:

(a) maintaining and protecting existing vegetation, and revegetating denuded areas (recommendation 9);

(b) monitoring climatic, hydrological or pedological and ecological conditions of plants (recommendation 11);

(c) improving and controlling the use of plant-based fuel (wood, charcoal) and pursuing alternative sources of energy (recommendation 19).

Furthermore, the Plan offers the following guiding principles:

(a) Integrated land-use measures should be directed at the restoration of vegetation cover on marginal land, making particular use of adapted species of plants (pare 16e);

(b) when the restoration of vegetation requires the relaxation of human pressures, temporary compensatory measures should be taken to provide alternative supplies of food and fuel (pare 16f);

(c) lands need to be managed as ecological wholes (e.g. an entire watershed, the total of plant and animal communities, an area viewed as a complex of micro-topographies) (pare 16n (i));

(d) the productivity of all available renewable resources, including forest,... should be optimized and managed on a sustainable yield basis (pare 16t).

B. General Assembly Resolution

The General Assembly Resolution 39/208 pare 4 recommended that the international community, and above all the developed countries, should continue to provide coherent short-term, medium-term, and long-term assistance to those countries affected by desertification in order to support effectively the rehabilitation process, in particular through intensive afforestation.

C. Governing Council Decisions

The UNEP Governing Council passed the following decisions:

(a) (i) Resolution 1 Section III pare 2(e) of the Session of a Special Character identified for priority action: monitoring and assessment of tropical ecosystems including changes in forest cover; formulation and promotion of programme activities for sustainable management of, interalia, tropical forests; development of environmentally-sound farming and forestry practices, including agroforestry;

(ii) pare 2(n) calls for: support for reafforestation policies in developing countries including encouragement of the use of fast-growing species and promotion of improved energy efficiency and conservation methods;

(b) 10/13 endorsed the environmental trends and proposed priorities for action by the United Nations System, as well as the areas of particular concentration by the United Nations Environment Programme, identified in Resolution I of the Governing Council at its Session of a Special Character (see 5c (a) (i) above);

(c) 10/14: Section II: requests the Executive Director to consult with FAO, Unesco and other relevant agencies with a view to having the Committee on Forest Development in the Tropics assume the role of continuing review of international activity on tropical forestry;

(d) 11/18: (i) requests the Executive Director to accord high priority in the provision of assistance to African countries to deal with the most urgent environmental problems, among them, protection of forests, and afforestation; (ii) invites countries of Asia and the Pacific to consider designating 1988 as Year of the Trees;

(e) 12/10: approves recommendations of the Executive Director's report in respect of establishing networks for afforestation.

From the above, UNEP receives its guidance which is translated into its efforts and activities either alone or working through UNSO and/or other UN agencies to catalyze or support actions and projects to control desertification. Specifically, this is expressed in SWMTEP in the following activities:

(a) application of climate impact methodology to energy resources management, including assessment of the impact of climate variations on fuelwood, forests and energy consumption;

(b) participation in the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) Decade of the Tropics with reference to in-depth research and assessment at designated tropical forest sites;

(c) assistance in land-use planning, soil conservation, range and livestock management, forest and watershed management, afforestation, combating desertification through forestry and dune stabilization, shelterbelt plantations, reclaiming marginal lands;

(d) conservation of ecologically significant critical and/or unique forest and wildland habitats through appropriate management practices; extension of the "biosphere reserve" concept with due emphasis on drier tropical and sub-tropical zones;

(e) input into a coordinated programme, for instance conservation of specific forest genetic resources, of specified species including the preparation of registers of resources;

(f) support to seminars on forest development conservation and management, including agroforestry and community forestry.

Furthermore, the programme of work of the DC/PAC for 1985-87 included:

(a) Assistance in the establishment of regional networks on afforestation and rehabilitation of degraded vegetation in Latin America, Africa; and

(b) after 1988, in Asia.


Modern industrial urban civilization, agriculture and utilization of forests, water and mineral resources have brought about profound changes in the biosphere and soils. The earth's forest cover has been reduced by at least 60-65 per cent as compared with its prehistoric area. More than 11 million hectares of forest (7.5 million ha of closed forests and 3.8 million ha of open forest) have been cleared and converted annually to other uses, mainly agricultural (FAO, Rome). Formerly wooded territories have turned into grasslands.

Campaigns against desertification in the few years since UNCOD have resulted in a number of successes notable in dune fixation, afforestation and reforestation.

An important feature of the follow-up to the PACD in the Sudano-Sahelian region, which is perhaps the region of the world most severely affected by desertification, was the setting up of special arrangements whereby UNSO, on behalf of UNEP, would assist in implementation of the Plan of Action. As a result of its various activities, UNSO has identified and formulated with the governments of the region, projects aimed at combating desertification. Projects related to desertification include sand dune fixation, reforestation and community woodlot-type projects, providing substitutes for fuelwood, range management and water provision, monitoring, training, planning and more general resource management assessment.

The following projects are cited as examples; they all received support through the Consultative Group for Desertification Control (DESCON).

DESCON 2/15: Rehabilitation of forest, grazing and agricultural lands, Ethiopia (ongoing; actively and effectively implemented in areas of soil and water conservation and rehabilitation of degraded lands).

2/19: Support for the forest component of the Bura irrigation settlement, Kenya.

2/23: Green Belt around the city of Niamey - (ongoing - UNSO mobilizing additional resources to enable government to continue the planting activities).

2/26: Integrated programme for sand dune fixation on the northern littoral and the protection of adjacent market gardens, Senegal.

2/29: Restocking of the gum-belt of Sudan and support for the National Desertification Control Coordinating and Monitoring Unit, Sudan (ended in May 1984). Second phase to be replicated in Darfur Province.

3/8: Studies and integrated village and family afforestation in the Sapone, Komsilga, Zamze, Dagouma and Nobere regions of Burkina Faso (ongoing).

4/11: Establishment of fuelwood plantations for the towns of Dese, Debre Birham, Nazret, and Dire Dawa, Ethiopia (UNSO mobilizing resources to enable full programme financing for all towns).

4/14A: Regional programme for sand dune fixation and arresting dune formation, Mauritania (ongoing, since early 1983).

4/14B: Regional programme for sand dune fixation and arresting dune formation, Somalia Component (ongoing since 1984).

4/14C: Regional programme for sand dune fixation and arresting dune formation, Sudan component (re-submitted to DESCON 5).

UNSO is also providing assistance in developing energy master plans involving the optimal use of fuelwood. Such alternatives could include simple but efficient stoves, other fuels (e.g. biogas, bagasse, charcoal), solar stoves, and ecologically sound programmes of firewood and charcoal production. An important ongoing project is the transnational "Green Belt" in North Africa. UNEP was responsible for forming a Permanent Joint Committee to organize the establishment of the Green Belt. It is conceived as a mosaic of activities involving protection of existing forest areas, afforestation, reforestation, sand dune fixation, crop production under appropriate dry farming and irrigation techniques, controlled grazing, etc.

One of the mayor activities in combating desertification are FAO/UNEP projects dealing with the Ecological Management of Arid and Semi-arid Rangelands in Africa and the Near and Middle East (EMASAR). The principal objective of the programme is the development and improvement of arid and semi-arid grazing lands. It has demonstrated that rangelands can be improved by supplementing annual feed deficits with fodder shrub and tree plantations, and through pasture and crop rotations where rainfall is adequate.

The Integrated Project of Arid Lands (IPAL) was established in 1976 by Unesco (within the famework of UNESCO-MAB) in collaboration with UNEP, in recognition of the importance of arid lands in northern Kenya both for the support of their indigenous people and in the economy as a whole, and because these lands are gravely threatened by desertification through improper use. In order to provide the data necessary for the future management of the tree population, especially with a view to preventing further depletion and providing an adequate sustained production for the support of the human and livestock population, four main lines of enquiry have been followed by IPAL. The first concerns the measurement of biomass and production of the main woodland communities; the second concerns the establishment of the baseline for a programme of monitoring trends in tree population; the third is the measurement of human requirements for wood; and the fourth line concerns the production and consumption of browse in the support of livestock populations.

UNEP contributed funding for a second IPAL project, in Tunisia, which began in 1978. One of the three main subjects of the Tunisia project deals with the problem of regeneration of plant species for use in sand dune fixation.

UNEP has sent missions to national governments, upon their request, for assistance in formulating national plans of action to combat desertification and for identification of high-priority anti-desertification projects which included forestry activity. For example, the ongoing "Green Belt Around the City of Niamey" will help control desertification resulting from excessive wood cutting around the city. Among the recent projects is "Pilot Project for Extension and Creating Awareness in respect of Desertification Control in the Bir Lahmar Perimeter" which aims at developing protected areas for natural regeneration of vegetation in a local area of Tunisia.

UNEP has recognised from scientific knowledge and practical experience acquired over the past decade in tropical agriculture, forestry, ecology, soil science and rural socio-economics, the need for prioritization of alternative approaches to land development, such as agroforestry, as an important and integral part of combating desertification. At least a dozen international meetings about agroforestry in which UNEP was involved have been held since 1977. The value accorded to the agroforestry approach is acknowledged in the resolutions passed and recommendations made at major UN Conferences held in recent years such as UNCOD, 1977; FAO World Forestry Congress, 1978; UNEP Session of a Special Character, 1982.


The general assessment of implementation of the Plan of Action over the six-year period between 1978-1984 revealed that desertification had continued to spread and intensify, and the scale and urgency of the problem of desertification remained the same as presented at UNCOD in 1977. Constraints in implementation of the PACD with special regard to forestry are:

a) Investment in forestry (afforestation, reforestation) does not usually yield immediate returns. National leaders like to have quick visual evidence of their actions, so aid and other funds are more readily available for structures such as roads, dams, irrigation schemes, ridges, buildings, which, while representing large investments in resource development, remain incidental to the prime task of arresting desertification.

b) Sustained development and utilization of natural resource, including forests, are long-term undertakings. The pressures of urgent needs and the foreign debt situation in developing countries do not allow for these long-term considerations.

c) Arid regions are often inhabited by nomadic people who have little input or interest in long-term projects like afforestation.

d) It is not unusual that a government, intent on reclamation, will come into direct conflict with those who gain their livelihood from the land, and afforestation projects are often seen as competing with the use of land for crops or grazing.


Bearing in mind the relevant recommendations of PACD and the resolutions of the General Assembly and decisions of the UNEP Governing Council mentioned earlier in this paper, and indeed with due consideration of appropriate decisions from the Governing bodies of FAO and other concerned sister organizations, future follow-up action may be based on the following:

At the National Level

a) Assessment and monitoring of woody vegetation cover;

b) Formulation and implementation of forestry projects needed in the country within an integrated plan;

c) Provision of adequate and relevant training of manpower.

At the Regional Level

a) Establishment of regional networks for afforestation in cooperation with the UN regional commissions, to reinforce regional cooperation in 3 main areas:

b) Formulation and establishment of regional field forestry programmes in transnational Green Belts.

At the International Level

a) More coordination of activities relating to forestry, within the UN system through the IAWGD;

b) Provision of more funds through multilateral sources for forestry and agroforestry programmes and projects.

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