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FAO's responsibilities and contributions to the fight against desertification

Past activities (1977-1992)
UNCED preparation and FAO follow-up

Past activities (1977-1992)

Evaluation and monitoring of desertification and drought processes

One of FAO's basic functions is to collect and interpret global information on all aspects of the food, agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors. In zones affected by desertification, these activities are particularly concerned with the natural resources used by the various sectors, their potential and vulnerability and their state of degradation or conservation. Also covered are the social and economic conditions, especially nutrition, linked to the use of these natural resources by the various sectors.

For the 1977 World Conference, FAO and Unesco prepared a world map of desertification to a scale of 1:250 000. Later, in 1979, in response to requests for more precise data on desertification and its evolution, FAO and UNEP developed a methodology for evaluating and mapping desertification which enabled a world map of desertification risk to be drawn up.

In collaboration with UNEP and Unesco, FAO also developed a methodology for mapping land degradation. Regional maps were prepared for sub-Saharan Africa and for the Near East region.

In cooperation with UNEP, FAO has distributed monitoring and evaluation reports on the evolution of pastoral ecosystems and has implemented several ecological monitoring projects in various parts of the world, including the Sahel, eastern Africa, West Africa, the Near East, and the Indian subcontinent.

The Forest Resources Assessment Programme has set up a database on the state of wood resources and is currently producing, using remote sensing techniques, a statistical assessment of deforestation and plant cover degradation, especially in areas affected by drought and desertification.

FAO's Remote Sensing Centre, through its many field projects and its ARTEMIS project (African Real Time Environmental Monitoring using Imaging Satellites), obtains and regularly processes satellite data, providing information on land use and the principal climatic and ecological parameters affecting agriculture. This information, together with the databases of agricultural and agrometeorological statistics and agronomic and socio-economic data gathered in the field, is used by FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System for Food and Agriculture (GIEWS) for crop assessments and harvest forecasts. The maps and geographical databases prepared by the Remote Sensing Centre from satellite pictures are also used by technical services to draw up and assess development projects.

These information-gathering and analysing activities also cover documentation of national policies, legislation and institutions and documentation on food, agriculture, forestry and fishery technologies, including desertification and drought problems. This work is not carried out just at world and regional levels, but also in the context of many technical assistance missions and projects at the national level. The information obtained is used on a regular basis to provide FAO Member Nations with the means to examine the food and agricultural situation and their relevant policies and projects.

Support to action programmes

For several decades, at the request of its Member Nations and with various sources of expertise and financing, FAO has supplied technical advice on and assistance with various aspects of the agricultural improvement and rural development of arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid zones ravaged by drought and desertification. These activities involved emergency and rehabilitation actions in the event of drought or other agricultural disasters, such as locust invasions; support in the formulation of policies and plans for development in the food, agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors; development of human resources particularly for rural women - and of national institutions and legislation; and the promotion of research and dissemination of appropriate technologies in the various sectors.

These efforts have mostly taken the form of technical assistance projects in answer to specific requests by Member Nations. They are also sometimes undertaken within programmes that group together projects with common priorities, such as the programme to relaunch African agriculture (involving 200 projects in 30 countries); the "fertilizer", "seed", "prevention of postharvest losses" and "food security" programmes; the action plan of the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD); the Tropical Forestry Action Plan; and many others. Numerous desertification control and drought control activities were implemented under these plans and projects, especially for soil conservation, pasture improvement, livestock improvement, small-scale irrigation, cereal storage, agroforestry, development of fuelwood resources, and also for nutrition improvement.

In all these sectors, FAO has obtained positive technical results and accumulated considerable experience. This experience has been disseminated throughout the world - as much to technicians as to decision-makers - through numerous publications on agriculture, plant production, animal production, forestry, fisheries, land and water improvement, food and nutrition, legislation, and economic and social development. Some of these activities deserve particular mention.

Land and water management. FAO projects are often multidisciplinary in this field, integrating land assessment, agroclimatic and agro-ecological studies, catchment area management, rehabilitation of degraded land, soil conservation, and natural resource assessment.

At the local level, numerous studies have been undertaken on agricultural systems, pasture and rangeland management, subsistence production, shifting cultivation and irrigated agriculture, taking into account the social, economic, legislative and institutional conditions of each country.

At its Twenty-first Session, the FAO Conference approved a World Soil Charter, proposing a set of principles for the optimal sustainable use of world land and water resources, improvement of their productivity, and conservation for future generations.

Soil and water conservation. Few FAO projects approach this problem in an isolated way. They all emphasize the link between the sustainable and optimal use of soils and water and increased agricultural production, improving rural people's living standards and stabilizing the economy. Projects cover a broad range of topics: soil assessment and mapping, management of catchment areas and watersheds, soil rehabilitation and defence, surface water conservation work, training, institutional support, legislation studies and advice to governments.

Although most projects are national in scope, many projects also have a regional importance, such as the Regional Soil Conservation Project in Africa, which finished in 1985, or the project to combat the degradation of the Fouta Djalon massif - the source of most large West African rivers.

Finally, after the publication in 1986 of the study African agriculture: the next 25 years, FAO confronted the serious problem of land degradation in Africa. With the help of African experts, FAO prepared the International Scheme for the Conservation and Rehabilitation of African l ends programme (1990), which has just started to be implemented.

Assessment of soil fertility. Among the many projects conducted by FAO, mention should be made of the study undertaken with the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) on assessing the potential population-supporting capacity of lands in the developing world. The study, which covered 117 developing countries, compared soil and climate data with the requirements of the 15 most important subsistence crops and grassland pasture' and determined the critical thresholds of population density.

Irrigation. FAO has implemented a whole range of projects for the control and prevention of degradation of arid and semi-arid soils as a result of inappropriate irrigation measures. Technical implementation has been accompanied by analyses of the economic efficiency of drainage and salinity control. Furthermore, FAO has regularly worked with the International Society of Soil Science (ISSS) in analysing the problems of salinization and alkalinization of badly drained and irrigated soils, and also in developing prevention and rehabilitation techniques.

In 1980, FAO set up an international programme for the management of irrigation water in order to apply the recommendations of WCARRD from 1979. This programme has helped many countries and organized numerous seminars and training workshops.

Integrated management of rangelands and animal production. FAO and UNEP developed the International Cooperative Programme on the Ecological Management of Arid and Semi-Arid Rangelands in Africa, the Near East and Middle East (EMASAR) in various countries in northern Africa and western Asia. This demonstration programme has supported the training of numerous technicians and the development of water-use techniques and agriculture-livestock associations.

In the Sahelian zone, a regional project covering Burkina Faso, the Niger and Mali also confronted the problem of integrating agriculture and livestock production near forage areas. In other regions, FAO has implemented projects to improve pastoral management to combat erosion and to increase productivity, such as in the Himalayan countries (Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan), and in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

In animal production, FAO helps many countries in arid and semi-arid zones to plan veterinary strategies, by framing legislation and planning infrastructure, financial mechanisms and information services.

Finally, sheep and goats are particularly important in the economy of arid zones for the production of milk, cheese and meat; several FAO studies and projects have developed strategies for the introduction, improvement and management of these animals.

Management of wood resources and reforestation. The various FAO Regional Commissions on Forestry, and the FAO Committee on Forestry have given particular emphasis to the role of forestry in controlling desertification. Various meetings and workshops particularly the Saltillo Expert Consultation in Mexico in 1985 - have studied and assessed the impact of forestry action and enabled the appropriate technologies to be widely distributed. Numerous field projects have allowed the concrete implementation and testing of these techniques relating to: the management and use of existing wood resources (inventories, planning, silviculture, product use) in interaction with agriculture and rangeland (agrosylvipastoral management systems);

Several action programmes have ensured the consistency and integration of these projects into national development strategies. These include the Communal Forestry Development Programmer the Rural Development Forestry Programme; the Special Action Programme for Forestry and Rural Energy; the Forests, Trees, and People Action Programmer and finally the Tropical Forestry Action Plan - a conceptual framework for planning and developing forestry action in the global context of rural, economic and social development.

In addition to this field activity should be noted all the studies and research undertaken in many spheres by the FAO Forestry Department, including forest management, reforestation, breeding, conservation of genetic resources, forestry in arid areas, wildlife management, fuelwood, silviculture of natural forests and plantations, agroforestry, sand dune stabilization, windbreaks, forestry legislation, processing and economics of forest products.

Food security. The seriousness of the world food crisis and the consequences of the 1974 World Food Conference resulted in FAO becoming involved with activities in the realm of food security. FAO set up GIEWS so as to provide both a continuous flow of reliable and updated information on basic food availability and an international system that is able to warn of impending food shortages in good time.

FAO activities in supporting food security also include the Food Security Assistance Scheme (FSAS) cleated in 1976 to help developing countries structure their national food policies, and implement projects to create and manage infrastructure for food storage and improving national early warning systems.

Lastly, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), created in 1974 in the wake of the World Food Conference, drew up an FAO Action Plan for World Food Security in 1979 and subsequently, in 1985, adopted a World Food Security Compact.

The organization by FAO of WCARRD in 1979 is also noteworthy. This conference called for particular efforts to reach poor rural people and promote their participation in the formulation and implementation of rural development programmes. FAO's projects on basic resource development and agriculture aim to involve the smallest-scale producers everywhere by mobilizing them in local organizations, groups, cooperatives, etc.

WCARRD also encouraged the promotion of good land management and at least access to, if not ownership of, available cropland. A guarantee of longterm use or ownership can effectively change the producer's behaviour in managing land and combating its degradation.

It is within this context that FAO is strengthening its operational programme to support the objectives of food security. The principal activities are:

Activities to ensure adequate food supplies tend to promote sustainable food production. They focus on the management and conservation of natural resources, tree cultivation, plant and animal production, fisheries and appropriate technology. Programmes in this field enhance food production while also providing adequate safeguards against soil and environmental degradation.

Energy for sustainable development. One of the major reasons for the degradation of wooded areas in arid zones is their overexploitation for fuelwood, particularly for urban use. Action programmes in the energy sector therefore aim at easing pressure on natural wood resources.

FAO's approach to rural energy problems takes account of the peculiarities of the rural sector, namely energy use on a small scale, lack of systematic management and the institutional infrastructure. FAO's activities aim at developing technologies, formulating strategies and promoting field activities to improve energy management and investment decisions in this sector in order to bring about rational ecological development. FAO has promoted programmes to make more efficient use of wood energy, agricultural waste, biogas and solar energy, and has prompted networks for the exchange of experiences and technology transfer, such as on wood energy, gas production from rice husks, etc. Training activities and publications complement these field programmes.

Nevertheless, as the use of wood as a domestic energy source is dominant, many programmes attempt to reduce its use by promoting improved wood-burning stoves that are more energy-efficient, and by developing new resources, such as individual or communal multipurpose plantations for fuelwood and other uses.

UNCED preparation and FAO follow-up

Preparation for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development gave FAO the opportunity to re-examine its policies and restructure its programmes taking into account experience gained in the field. The high point of this reappraisal was the 1991 FAO/Netherlands Conference on Agriculture and Environment - the Den Bosch Conference. This conference enabled the policy-making bodies of FAO to define the guiding principles and the general activities of an International Cooperative Programme Framework for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (ICPF/SARD), particularly addressing the priorities of arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid regions affected by desertification and drought.

The programme framework addresses three strategic demands for development in these zones:

ICPF/SARD was developed by FAO during its active involvement in drawing up the chapters of Agenda 21 on the same topics. As a consequence, recommendations from UNCED - on agriculture and sustainable development, forestry, combating desertification, and water and fisheries management coincide to a marked degree with the structure and objectives of the ICPF/SARD programmes.

As ICPF/SARD received the unanimous support of the FAO Council in November 1992, the Organization is therefore ready to contribute actively within its spheres of competence to the UNCED follow-up on combating drought and desertification by sustainable rural development in arid, semi-arid and subhumid dry zones.

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