Drylands cover about 30 percent of the world's terrestrial surface and are
home to 900 million people. Defined as arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid
areas, they are among the world's most fragile ecosystems. Over centuries,
their inhabitants - including some of the world's poorest populations -
have developed complex food production systems to minimize the threat of
recurring droughts and desertification.
Various factors contribute to widespread natural resource degradation in
dry areas: climatic variation, inappropriate land use and agricultural practices,
increasing population density, economic pressures and changes in land tenure
patterns. For example, degradation of tree and shrub formations and overexploitation
of forests are among the major causes of soil degradation in the dry tropics.
FAO data indicates that the rate of deforestation in these areas is almost
one percent a year.
Combating desertification and drought requires sustained efforts to understand
and adapt the prescriptions of Chapter 12 and the Convention to Combat Desertification.
Many current programmes focus on improving management and protection of
existing forests, woodlands and ranges, and increasing vegetative cover
outside of forests. Action programmes proposed under the Convention are
expected to place greater emphasis on collecting information, providing
effective training, people's participation and local-level empowerment.
Also needed are a sustained flow of resources for medium and long term land
rehabilitation and restoration activities, and the dissemination of appropriate,
socially acceptable technologies that ensure conservation, management and
use of dryland resources while improving people's livelihoods.
The Convention came into force in 1996 after ratification by more than 50
countries. Its aim is to "combat desertification and mitigate the effects
of drought through effective action at all levels, supported by international
cooperation and partnership arrangements, in the framework of an integrated
approach which is consistent with Agenda 21". Implementation has begun,
with focus on Africa. Regional technical, programming and awareness meetings
have been held, along with international consultations on partnership building,
decentralization, national action programmes, benchmarks and indicators,
and funding mechanisms. The first Conference of the Parties will be held
in Rome in October 1997.
Integrated approach to dryland forest resources
Important links have been forged with Agenda 21's Chapter 11: Combating
Deforestation. The Commission for Sustainable Development's Intergovernmental
Panel on Forests (IPF) called for a report on experiences in afforestation
and rehabilitation of forest ecosystems, especially in countries with fragile
ecosystems affected by desertification and/or drought. An expert consultation
on the topic, co-sponsored by Cape Verde, Portugal and Senegal, was held
in Lisbon in June 1996. The meeting recognized IPF's role in dry forest
ecosystems and made several proposals for action to the IPF and the CSD.
Food Security and dryland development
The Rome Declaration and a Plan of Action on Food Security, adopted by the
1996 World Food Summit, embody a number of measures aimed at sound conservation
and management of natural resources, including control of degradation and
desertification, in support of food production. FAO's Special Programme
on Food Security in Low Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDCs), launched
in 1994, also has close linkages with desertification control efforts.
- Diversifying agricultural activities
Diversification of non-farm sources of income should be accompanied by measures
to diversify agricultural activities and add maximum value to products.
Where possible, fisheries and aquaculture should be promoted and developed.
Apiculture and non-timber forest product processing should be considered
in zones with adequate marketing infrastructure and development potential.
- Decentralization and involvement of local communities
Local-level empowerment is considered central in the Convention to Combat
- Legal aspects of land use
Stakeholders' behaviour tends to vary according to their access to and rights
over land - communities with more secure tenure arrangements are more likely
to support longer term planning incentives. Guaranteed medium-term use of
land is desirable to promote integrated natural resources management. Although
land legislation is a notoriously complex issue in many countries, the importance
of land conservation alone justifies priority attention from national authorities.
- Soil quality
Maintenance of soil quality is of paramount importance not only because
of its direct implications for land productivity. Degradation of dryland
soils directly affects dryland ecosystems and, even where fertility loss
is not irreversible, soils can only be rehabilitated at very high cost.
The cost of not protecting soils must also be taken into account. Finally,
given the often very high cost of rehabilitating already degraded land,
policy-makers should emphasise measures and regulations that prevent such
degradation from occurring in the first place.
Effective implementation of Chapter 12 and the Desertification Convention
requires action in several areas. Priorities include reliable funding formula
to provide meaningful support to overall dryland development and desertification
control programmes, stronger coordination among donors and technical cooperation
agencies in support of national efforts, training and effective use of national
human resources, and intensified technical cooperation among developing
countries. Other proposed measures:
- Improving integration of programmes
Technical assistance programmes relevant to desertification need to be articulated
with the National Action Programmes (NAPs) prepared within the framework
of the Convention. Preparation of NAPs should be country-driven, fully integrated
in the national planning process and involving all stakeholders. This process
takes time and delays should not justify resorting to old methods.
- Improving opportunistic production systems
Little research has been conducted into strengthening opportunistic
production systems, with associated storage facilities and marketing strategies.
Instead, production systems with steady yields are encouraged. These may
also be important, but only where such systems do not interfere unduly with
well proven local and traditional systems.
- Improving dryland crop production
There has been relatively little progress in improvement of dryland crops
and animals. But the gap between experimental yields and farmers' yields
is huge - up to 10 times - and offers great scope for improvement. For this
reason, incentives to farmers, knowledge and inputs are critical. These
challenges are being addressed through FAO's Special Programme on Food Security
in LIFDCs and in follow-up to the World Food Summit.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has extensive knowledge and field experience in drylands. This places it as a key resource
for exchange of technical information, national capacity building, planning
and organizing of rehabilitation activities, natural resources management
and agricultural development, and facilitating financial support from international
or bilateral institutions.
FAO fully supported the International Convention to Combat Desertification,
from its negotiation phase to early implementation, and supports national
initiatives for the elaboration of national action programmes - in Mali,
for example, it has helped build a partnership involving the Government,
GTZ and other donors. The Mali programme, which gives national institutions
and local communities the lead role, is part of the country's National Environmental
Action Programme. With UNEP, FAO has helped prepare national action programmes
in Latin America and is considering a similar exercise for Central Asia.
It will assist the IGAD Secretariat in formulation of a sub-regional action
programme within the framework of the Convention. FAO is collaborating with
IFAD and the World Bank in the preparation of investment projects for natural
resources management in drylands.
The Sub-Group on Desertification of FAO's Inter-Departmental Working Group
(IDWG) on Environment and Sustainable Development was closely involved in
Convention preparation and negotiation, and helps develop responses to growing
numbers of requests from developing countries for assistance.
Other Organizations of the UN System
FAO-IFAD. FAO and IFAD actively supported negotiation of the Desertification
Convention and have extensive experience in sustainable use and conservation
of drylands. The agencies have cooperated in support to NAPs, and workshops
on approaches to local development and incentives to implementation of the
Convention, and are developing closer collaboration in desertification control
FAO and CILSS-IGAD-SADCC. Through cooperation with these African sub-regional
organizations, FAO helps address dryland management problems in their respective
member countries. FAO supports the CILSS countries especially through its
Special Programme on Food Security in LIFDCs and is involved in many national
programmes for natural resources management. It is involved in the CILSS
strategic review process, Sahel 21. FAO is committed to assist the IGAD
Secretariat in the formulation of a subregional action programme within
the framework of the Desertification Convention.
Director, Forest Resources Division
FAO Forestry Department
Tel: 00 39 6 522 5879
Fax: 00 39 6 522 5137
Agenda 21 Progress: Introduction | 10 Land | 11 Deforestation | 12 Desertification | 13: Mountains | 14 SARD | 15 Biodiversity | Climate change | Energy