First meeting of UNCCD Parties sets up global system to fight desertification

On 10 October, after two weeks of intense negotiations at FAO headquarters, the first meeting of the parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) agreed on the establishment of a "Global Mechanism" to coordinate and fund the fight against degradation of fragile dryland areas - known as desertification. About 700 delegates from 122 countries attended the meeting. The Convention, which grew out of the Earth Summit in 1992, entered into force in December 1996.

FAO's Marc Bied-Charreton answers questions about UNCCD

The new global system will act as a sort of information clearing house to improve coordination, minimize overlaps, and share information, ideas and success stories among affected countries. It will also serve as a catalyst for funding of local and national activities. "Drawing on the lessons of the past, we will now rely on a more networked set of institutions and a more cooperative approach for channelling financial and technological resources to where they are most needed," said Arba Diallo, Executive Secretary of UNCCD.

Over 250 million people are directly affected by the loss of land to desertification and around 1 billion are at risk. The UN estimates that the annual income forgone in areas immediately affected by desertification amounts to approximately US$42 billion.

Here, Marc Bied-Charreton, Chief of the Environment and Natural Resources Service, Sustainable Development Department, and Alternate Head of the FAO delegation to UNCCD, talks about the meeting.

In your opinion, what were the most important results achieved during the UNCCD meeting?

The first Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification put into place the organs of this convention: the temporary secretariat will become a permanent secretariat as of 1 January 1999, located in Bonn. A budget of US$6.1 million for 1999, to be paid for out of mandatory contributions from the Parties, was adopted.

The Global Mechanism will mobilize and collect funding for the actual battle against desertification, that is, donations and/or soft loans from bilateral or multilateral organizations. This mechanism will be located in Rome at the International Fund for the Development of Agriculture (IFAD), which will work in close collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, as well as with its sister organizations in Rome, FAO and the World Food Programme.

The work programme adopted and the temporatory secretariat will continue through 1998 with the support of the Bureau that was elected at the Conference. The Bureau will function until the next meeting of the parties, to be held in Dakar in December 1998. The Conference also put into place its Committee for Science and Technology and adopted its work programme. One hundred and eight parties to the Convention, 38 observer countries, 13 UN organizations and five regional organizations made statements to the meeting. An NGO forum also took place at the same time. A mayors' forum was organized by IFAD, the Convention Secretariat and the Mayor of Rome. A scientific forum was also held at the National Assembly in Rome at the invitation of various Italian organizations and the European Union.

The larger donor countries, the EU and the major agencies outlined their activities and promised increased support for countries suffering from desertification.

This was the first meeting of the parties to the Convention. Were there any problems?

The difficulties that arose were typical of UN meetings. It took time to select the 11 members of the Bureau because we had to make sure each region was fairly represented. Negotiation on the budget and on the designation of the home of the Global Mechanism were laborious; numerous working groups were needed to reach agreements.

Was FAO just an observer at this meeting or did it take an active part in the debate?

FAO's message, expressed by Director-General Jacques Diouf in his opening address and by the head of the FAO delegation, Mr Carsalade, Assistant Director-General of the Sustainable Development Department, in plenary, was very well received: the struggle against desertification, the fight to achieve food security and sustainable development are one and the same struggle, especially in arid, semi- arid and subhumid regions. We managed to publicize FAO activities taking place in the field and at headquarters. Three meetings organized by the Convention Secretariat and FAO discussed concrete examples of the fight against desertification.

The plenary officially thanked FAO for co-hosting the meeting and invited the Organization to cooperate with the new Secretariat of the Convention. Particular attention was paid to the need to coordinate national plans to fight desertification with other national programmes on the environment, forests and food security.

What is the next step in the fight against desertification?

Each country decides its own priorities. But the countries must now finalize their national action plans and take action in the spirit of the Convention together with the affected people. FAO offers technical assistance and acts as an executing agency in a number of countries with projects that focus on sustainable development, food security and the fight against desertification. Forestry projects, improved grazing management, dune fixation, and the introduction of early warning systems to alert authorities to impending food shortages are all part of the ongoing struggle against desertification. We will continue to work with these countries as we have worked in Keita, the Niger, where similar projects have transformed the countryside and life of the inhabitants over the last 15 years.


24 October 1997

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