Posted March 1996
Briefing on desertification
Issues | The Desertification Convention | Role of FAO
The characteristic features of drylands are low and highly variable rainfall, giving rise to large fluctuations in biomass production and therefore large fluctuations in the ability of the land to produce food, fodder and biofuels. Drylands ecosystems have demonstrated great resilience and will nearly always recover after dry spells and, provided they have not been grossly mismanaged during the dry phase, even exploited land can be restored. Traditional land use practices in drylands are often opportunistic. Dryland traditional farmers try to maximize take-off during good periods and minimize loss during dry periods. A complex set of production systems allow such practices, often characterized by mixed cropping/livestock and agroforestry systems. As for irrigated agriculture, new and more productive systems for the drylands have not achieved great success so far.
Increased population pressure, and excessive human expansion into drylands during long wet periods, leave an increasing number of people stranded in the drylands during dry periods. The taking out of the critical production elements for alternative uses (e.g. dry-season grazing lands), through introduction of irrigated and non-irrigated crops, and the industrial/urban uses of water at the expense of rural agricultural producers, break links in traditional production chains. Where not compensated, they lead to breakdown in whole production systems. At the same time the loss of social cohesion (e.g. community and tribal authority) and collective practices (e.g. transhumance and nomadism) has aggravated the vulnerability of dryland people to climatic variations.
An important part of the dryland regions has long suffered from the degradation of their human and natural resources during long drought periods to the point that this degradation may become irreversible. This has caused a complex set of economic, ecologic and social problems - called desertification - which is very different from desert and desert ecosystems.
2. The Desertification Convention
On the initiative of African countries attending the UNCED Earth Summit in 1992, governments agreed to draw up a Convention to Combat Desertification. After five rounds of negotiations, the Convention was completed and adopted in June 1994. More than 100 countries signed the Convention and six Countries have ratified it. The Convention will come into force once 50 countries have ratified it (which usually involves a vote in the national parliament). The objective of the Convention is to:
"combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought in countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification through effective action at all levels, supported by international cooperation and partnership arrangements, in the frame work of an integrated approach to sustainable development".
Among the key commitments in the Convention are:
The Convention includes the following instruments:
- a bottom-up and participatory approach focusing on actions at the local level with supportive measures at other levels and streamlining in the use of human, financial and technical resources for that purpose;
- a partnership agreement establishing compacts between affected developing countries and developed country parties, as well as United Nations agencies and NGOs;
- Use of modern science and technology combined with local knowledge to prepare solutions for sustainable dryland development.
- an integrated approach including all national development plans and strategies with operational mechanisms for coordination and harmonization of interventions within the affected countries, as well as among donor parties.
National action programmes
Countries affected by desertification will implement the Convention by developing and carrying out national, sub-regional and regional action programmes. Criteria for preparing these programmes are detailed in the treaty's four "regional implementation annexes" for Africa , Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Northern Mediterranean.
In contrast to many past efforts, these action programmes must be fully integrated with other national policies for sustainable development. They should be flexible and modified as circumstances change.
The Convention's action programmes will be developed through consultations among affected countries, donors, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. It will also produce partnership agreements that spell out the respective contributions of both affected and donor states and of international organizations.
In line with the provisions of Article 7 of the Convention, giving priority to Africa, a resolution on "Urgent Action for Africa" was adopted along with the Convention requesting the United Nations agencies and programmes and the international community to undertake urgent measures in Africa and implement the provisions of the Convention before its entry into force.
- The Conference of the Parties is the supreme body of the convention. Its session is to be convened not later than one year after entry into force of the convention. This would most likely be in early 1997.
- A permanent Secretariat, to service the Conference of the Parties, to be designated at its first session. During the Seventh session of the International Negotiating Conference on Desertification (INCD), Switzerland, Germany and Spain firmly offered to host the Secretariat. The representative of the Kenya declared that Kenya may also be interested and UNEP offered to host it within its premises.
- A global mechanism will be established under the authority of the Conference of the Parties to promote the mobilization and channelling of financial resources to affected developing country parties. An organisation to house the global mechanism will be identified by the conference of the parties at its first ordinary session. Two institutions have replied positively to the request of INCD for hosting the global mechanism, namely IFAD and UNDP.
- A Committee on Science and technology will provide information and advice to the Conference of the Parties on scientific and technological matters. A draft terms of reference was prepared on the Seventh session for the negotiations in the future sessions of INCD and approval by COP.
3. Role of FAO in combatting Desertification
FAO's present normative work on desertification, particularly participation in the preparation of the Convention and its follow-up, is coordinated by its inter-departmental working Group on Desertification. All FAO's field programme and projects in drylands are relevant to this subject. Some specific programmes involved directly are the following:
Under the provisions of the resolution on "Urgent Action for Africa" FAO is providing assistance to Mali (in cooperation with UNDP/UNSO, Germany and a number of NGOs) for the formulation of a national action programme (NAP). The programme is to start with several sub-national and one national planning workshops involving local populations and NGOs as well as a wide range of national and international partners. This exercise is combined with the preparation of National Environmental Action Programme (NEAP, World Bank). FAO is also committed to assist the IGADD secretariat in the formulation of a sub-regional action programme within the framework of the Convention. This cooperation will concentrate on the formulation of the food security component of the programme and will be facilitated through the recently approved FAO funded project "Assistance to Develop a Drought and Disaster Preparedness Strategy in the IGADD Region".
- Food Production for Food Security in LIFDs (FPFS)
- International Scheme for the Conservation and Rehabilitation of African Lands (ISCRAL),
- International Scheme for Water and Sustainable Agriculture (WASAD),
- Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS),
- Food Security Assistance Scheme (FSAS),
- National Forests Action Programme (NFAP),
- Forests, Trees and People Programme (FTP),
- African Real Time Environmental Monitoring and Information System (ARTEMIS),
- Africa Land Cover Map and Digital Geographic Database Project (AFRICOVER)
A FAO/UNEP programme for the preparation of NAPs is being implemented in Latin America Region and another is under consideration for the Central Asia Region.
Finally, through its Investment Centre Collaborative Programme, FAO is collaborating with IFAD and the World Bank in the preparation of investment projects in natural resources management in dry lands. FAO and IFAD held a workshop on the Preparation of National Action Programmes in May 1995 and discussed, in particular, modalities and options for future cooperation in support of affected countries within the framework of the Convention. The preparation of National Action Programmes in a number of countries is envisaged.