Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification to meet for the first time in Rome

About 1 000 people, including heads of state, government ministers, mayors, diplomats and community leaders, will meet at FAO Headquarters in Rome, starting on 29 September, to address the leading cause of hunger and poverty in arid regions of the world - dryland degradation or desertification. The Government of Italy is hosting the first conference of parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was inspired by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and has been signed by more than 110 governments.

The Niger: women at work reclaiming degraded land
Desertification refers not to the spread of existing deserts, but to the degradation of fragile dryland areas, caused by human activities and weather changes. Unsustainable farming, bad irrigation, deforestation, overgrazing and drought can all reduce once fertile land to useless dust.

It is estimated that 250 million people are directly affected by desertification, and 1 billion more are at risk.Those numbers include many of the world's poorest, most powerless citizens. UN estimates put the annual income lost in areas immediately affected by desertification at about US$42 billion. Indirect economic and social costs to surrounding areas - including the influx of "environmental refugees" and decreased food production - are also significant.

"In Africa alone, 400 million people live in the dryland zones," said Arba Diallo, Executive Secretary of the Interim Secretariat for the UNCCD. "They need international support so that they can adopt sustainable agriculture and land management. It is difficult for people struggling for their daily bread to make such a major transition alone."

The UNCCD aims to restore damaged lands, improve food security and promote the transition to sustainable agriculture and land management. It focuses on action programmes based on the participation of the people actually affected by dryland degradation.

The treaty acknowledges that the struggle to protect drylands will be a long one. Governments of countries affected by desertification will be called upon to make politically sensitive changes, such as decentralizing authority, improving land-tenure systems, and empowering women, farmers, and pastoralists. Other governments that are parties to the Convention will be responsible for helping to mobilize the international support that will be required. At the top of the agenda for this first Conference of the Parties is how to finance projects to reverse land degradation.

22 September 1997

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