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2011 High-Level Meeting on Addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication
General Assembly, United Nations, New York, 20 September 2011


Plenary Meeting

Opening Remarks

NASSIR ABDULAZIZ AL-NASSER ( Qatar), President of the General Assembly, said desertification was among the most complex challenges of our time, as it had serious environmental, economic, political and social impacts, especially on the poor.  Citing United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates, he said desertification threatened one quarter of the earth’s land, as well as jeopardizing the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people in over 100 countries.  “The economic, social and human cost of desertification is tremendous,” he stressed, calling on States to take immediate, decisive action to address its impacts.

Pointing out that East Africa was experiencing its worst drought in 60 years, he said that in the past three months alone, famine had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Somali children under the age of 5 and forced people from their communities.  “This is the most severe food crisis in the world today,” he emphasized, urging a concerted global response.  Despite greater attention to natural-resource scarcity and land degradation, common efforts had fallen short, and major policy interventions in sustainable land-management strategies would be needed, he said, adding that such measures required moving towards an ambitious quantitative target and a “zero net land degradation rate”.  Further, new policies and technologies must be designed to promote the sustainable use of resources and predictable financial support for domestic efforts.

Several global conferences on sustainable development would be held this year, he said, citing in particular the upcoming Tenth Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, to be held in October.  He also urged States to ensure a forward-looking outcome at the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“ Rio+20”) that would reaffirm the balance between the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development.  Indeed, addressing such challenges could only be done in the context of other global issues, such as climate change, poverty eradication and food security, he stressed.

Turning to food insecurity, a problem facing people in arid countries particularly, he said many also suffered from severe malnutrition and undernourishment.  Countries tackling such challenges understood the importance of building on their own country-led initiatives in addressing the root causes of food insecurity and were collaborating in South-South, triangular and global alliances that would allow them to share technological and policy solutions to desertification and land degradation.  Indeed, a small but growing number of such initiatives aimed at addressing food insecurity included Qatar’s proposal that affected countries form a “Global Dryland Alliance”, as well as an African Union idea to establish a “Great Green Wall Initiative”, aiming at tackling environmental and poverty-related challenges.

BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations

BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, emphasized that the drylands of the Horn of Africa were experiencing the world’s most severe food crisis, with more than 13 million people in urgent need of humanitarian aid.  The United Nations and its partners were working hard to address the situation.  “But let me be frank,” he said.  “Drought does not have to become famine.”  Too often the international community reacted too late, and decisions were taken on the basis of false economies.  “In the end we count the cost not just in human lives, but in the extra expense of responding to crises that could have been averted for a fraction of the price,” he said.

The Secretary-General went on to note that drylands were too often an investment desert, seen by Governments and the international community as a lost cause.  “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he stressed, adding that they held both the immediate and long-term potential to drive national economic growth and sustainable human development.  Forty per cent of the Earth’s land mass was characterized as arid or semi-arid, he said, pointing out that 2 billion people, many of them among the world’s poorest, depended on them for sustenance and income.  Drylands also offered considerable potential for helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.  “Dryland carbon storage — mainly in the form of soil carbon — accounts for more than one third of the global stock,” he said.  “Why then are we allowing these valuable lands that support so many people to deteriorate due to unsustainable land and water use and the impacts of climate change?”

Emphasizing that not all drylands were barren or unproductive, he pointed out that some of the world’s primary cereal-producing regions were in semi-arid areas.  Tibetan herders were selling yak wool for cashmere in worldwide luxury markets, and in other areas, biofuels grew where little else could, he said, adding that the potential of dryland solar and wind resources had barely been tapped.  “Timely action on our part can unlock these riches, providing solutions of global challenges — from food insecurity to rural poverty, energy security, biodiversity loss, climate change, political instability, geopolitical conflict and forced migrations,” he said.

However, enhanced investment was needed to halt desertification and reclaim degraded lands, the Secretary-General said, adding that an abundance of success stories could point the way.  “From restoring ancient terraces in the Peruvian Andes to planting trees to hold back encroaching Saharan sands, from rehabilitating watersheds in India to using summer floods to reduce salinity in China, there are examples from all continents of Governments and communities reversing desertification and improving the productivity of the land,” he said.

Land degradation was not just a dryland issue, but it also occurred in tropical areas at a faster rate than ever before, he continued, warning that unless that trend was reversed, it could roll back efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  Drought and land degradation must move towards the centre of policy development, he said, adding that refocusing the development agenda to include the potential of drylands could break the links between poverty and desertification, drought and land degradation.  “We are still early in the International Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification and the 10‑year strategic plan of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification,” he said.  “Let us make sustainable land use a cornerstone of the green economy for poverty eradication and sustainable development.”


LUC GNACADJA, Executive Secretary  of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

LUC GNACADJA, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, emphasized that since the 1992 “Earth Summit”, the world had seen innovative progress in land recovery and improvements, a growing wealth of scientific knowledge about land degradation, a range of cost-effective technological and policy advances on land management, and agreement by the 194 States parties to the Convention to take a more focused and measurable approach to implementing that instrument.

However, land degradation and soil nutrient depletion was a far-reaching threat, and the occurrence of drought had doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s, he pointed out, adding that the cost of failing to address land degradation was unknown or ignored, largely because the issue was still a “blind spot” for the international community, despite the search for sustainability.  “Our most significant non-renewable geo-resource is fertile land and soil,” he stressed, adding that nevertheless 24 billion tons of fertile soil were lost each year.  “In the drylands, due to drought and desertification, 12 million hectares are transformed into new man-made deserts.  That is an area with the potential to produce 20 million tons of grain each year.”

Citing the Bruntland report Our Common Future, he recalled that it had warned 25 years ago that if human needs were to be met, the Earth’s natural resources must be conserved and land use in agriculture and forestry based on a scientific assessment of both land capacity and the annual depletion of topsoil.  “If we do not take blood decisions to protect and manage land and soils sustainably, we will miss climate change, biodiversity, forests and Millennium Development Goals targets,” he warned.  “We will not alleviate rural poverty and hunger, ensure long-term food security, build resilience to drought and water stress.”

That would lead to consequences, including more political conflict over scarce resources and continued forced migrations, he said, urging world leaders to take policy measures that would lead to a paradigm shift in land management.  “Through bold political decisions and with the knowledge now available, we do have the means to successfully address desertification, land degradation and drought,” he said.  “This is the very raison d’être of the [United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification].  Through this process, hunger, poverty and famine can become history.  We can do this and we must.  Let us take the right decisions now.”

ALBERTO D’ALOTTO, Deputy Minister   for Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of Argentina

ALBERTO D’ALOTTO, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of Argentina, speaking in his capacity as President of the Ninth Conference of Parties to the Convention to Combat Desertification, said the instrument faced a “huge and challenging” task in consolidating the progress made by Member States.  Underlining some advances made under the Argentine Presidency, he cited recognition of the Review of the Implementation of the Convention as a permanent subsidiary body of the Convention and the creation of new methodologies for periodic and reliable data collection and analysis.  Also, the institutional reform process within the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) had allowed the allocation of financial resources to land degradation, which had transformed the facility into the Convention’s main financial mechanism.

Based on those landmarks, the international community and State parties alike must take more and better decisions to advance the fight against desertification, he said.  To that end, a framework was needed to obtain scientific advice on the relevant issues and provide warning of possible crisis situations.  Such technical advice should respect the Convention’s political processes, ensuring that State parties at different decision-making levels adopted its recommendations.  The treaty was the correct instrument to develop more and better tools to combat desertification, land degradation and drought.  “Our most important objective is to prioritize the improvement of the quality of life of the affected populations in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas,” he said.

Speaking also on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, he stressed that developing countries were most affected by desertification, a matter of utmost concern, noting that more than 1 billion people, among whom were the world’s poorest, were the most constrained in seeking to realize the Millennium Development Goals.  Concerned with the situation in the Horn of Africa, which had been hit by the worst drought in 60 years, he said the goal of the High-level Meeting should be to raise awareness of such issues at the highest levels, and it was thus important to fulfil all commitments to implement the Convention and its 10-year strategic plan and framework.

Turning to the report of the Convention, he emphasized the Group’s preliminary inputs to that document, as expressed in informal debate on 23 and 30 May.  The issue centred on how to ensure full implementation of the Convention and the 10-year strategic programme, which should be done in line with relevant provisions and instruments, especially principles 2 and 7 of the Rio Declaration — the sovereign right of States to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies; and common but differentiated responsibilities.  Emphasizing that the Desertification Convention lagged behind the achievements of the other two Rio instruments, he called for a strong political message from the High-level Meeting that the Convention would be placed on an equal footing as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity, stressing the vital importance of enhancing cooperation among the three Rio Conventions, while respecting their individual mandates.

LEE DON KOO, Minister for Forest   Service of the Republic of Korea and President of the Tenth Conference of   Parties to the Convention to Combat Desertification

LEE DON KOO, Minister for Forest Service of the Republic of Korea and President of the Tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention to Combat Desertification, said that in order to address desertification, land degradation and drought, “we need a new way of thinking”.  Recognizing that land was indispensable for all generations to sustain decent lives, he said the history of negligence must be reversed and new ways found to promote the socio-economic benefits of land, while ensuring conservation.  A paradigm shift from a growth-driven economy to a “green growth economy” was required, he added, noting that his country had adopted a new growth paradigm in 2008, introducing new policies on green growth nationwide.

Sustainable land management incorporating green growth would be a pragmatic approach to address desertification and degradation issues, he continued.  Calling for a long-term approach, he stressed that green growth encompassed ecosystem development, as well as a new economic mechanism designed to encourage pro-poor policies at the global, regional and national levels.  A critical element of that was a win-win growth strategy that could enable countries affected by desertification and land degradation, as well as developed countries, to realize a sustainable society through sustainable development.  While the challenges ahead were daunting, bold, ambitious and creative efforts were needed to address land issues, alongside strengthened political commitment to join forces and mobilize resources, he said.

ANDRIS PIEBALGS, European   Commissioner for Development, spoke on behalf of the European Union

ANDRIS PIEBALGS, European Commissioner for Development, spoke on behalf of the European Union, describing desertification and land degradation as among the most serious threats to poor people today.  However, they were not restricted to developing countries and had reached a global dimension, he said, noting that 12 member States of the European Union had been affected.  Coherent policies were needed to address such challenges, including measures to tackle them at an early stage.  At the same time, “we need to recognize that pressures linked to population, food security and water shortages are often drivers of unsustainable land use practices”, he added.

He said that, in its external policies, the European Union funded a broad range of actions and programmes to address land degradation in developing countries.  Such initiatives promoted sustainable land-management techniques that took local and regional conditions into account while seeking to combine traditional knowledge with new and emerging technologies.  Next year’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or “ Rio+20”, offered a unique opportunity to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development, he said.

In that context, the European Union was supporting a global study on the economics of land degradation as a means to develop a better understanding of the full costs of the problem, he continued, adding that that initiative aimed to raise awareness and help policymakers implement effective strategies.  Sustainable land management had become vitally important, he emphasized, saying it represented the “missing link” in tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and food insecurity.  The European Union, together with the scientific community and civil society, was ready to support the knowledge base on desertification and land degradation worldwide, and to enable developing countries to implement national action plans, he said, adding that implementation of the Convention’s 10-year strategic plan was crucial in that regard, as was effective cooperation among Convention’s bodies.

JATO SILLAH, Minister for Forestry   of Gambia

JATO SILLAH, Minister for Forestry of Gambia, speaking on behalf of African States, emphasized that poverty, food insecurity and land degradation were intrinsically linked and must be addressed simultaneously.  Results to date had been limited due in part to the ongoing global crises, and Africa was still grappling with other obstacles, including the need for improved technology transfer, repeated forced displacement and the emigration of highly qualified people.  African States needed a scientific panel to discuss those issues, he said, calling on all State parties to enforce the Convention by, among other things, promoting scientific knowledge and channelling financial resources to help mitigate the effects of land degradation and drought.

Describing the Convention to Combat Desertification as “a platform”, he said the Group of African States was also committed to the 2002 Johannesburg Plan of Implementation as a tool for eradicating poverty.  He also described Africa as the most vulnerable and disadvantaged continent with respect to sustainable development, and highlighted the urgent need for donors to match their promises with action so as to enable the continent to move ahead towards realizing the Millennium Development Goals.  Predictable funding, the transfer of technology and capacity-building were critical to that effort, he stressed.

International development cooperation could play a critical role in combating land degradation and desertification, he said, calling for an increase in the quantity and quality of official development assistance (ODA).  Concrete measures were needed, including helping farmers get their produce to market and sustainable land-management practices.  Forests played an important role in combating desertification, with the 2007 Non-legally Binding Instrument on all Types of Forests acting as a key to their preservation.  Critical to effectively addressing land issues were, among other things, the integration of action programmes, coordination in implementing local and national commitments, as well as bilateral, regional and subregional cooperation, and the promotion of economic growth to achieve harmony between sustainable growth and development.

RAJ SHAH, Administrator, United   States Agency for International Development (USAID)

RAJ SHAH, Administrator, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), spoke on behalf of the host country, saying that drought, desertification and land degradation threatened the lives of more than 1 billion people living in fragile dryland ecosystems.  They severely limited the collective goals of promoting sustainable development, eradicating poverty and strengthening food security around the world.  Nowhere was that challenge more critical — and the need for action more pressing — than in the Horn of Africa, he emphasized, noting that the subregion’s worst drought in 60 years had placed more than 13.3 million people — predominately women and children — in need of emergency assistance.

As the largest donor to that region, the United States was providing millions of people with life-saving aid, including food, water and medical services, he continued, stressing, however, that emergency assistance was not a lasting solution.  “We must work to restore the land, harnessing new technologies to manage it sustainably,” he said, adding that his country’s global food security initiative — “Feed the Future” — helped countries develop their own agricultural sectors.  Such intersections — of food emergencies and food security, of famine and food aid — made today’s discussions on drylands vitally important, he said.

The United States was addressing those issues on multiple fronts, including through the Convention, which it strongly supported, he said.  It had fundamentally reformed its strategies for managing dryland communities and fostered scientific innovations in farming practices and water management while continuing aggressively to integrate science into decision-making.  There was an excellent opportunity to do just that under the proposed Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, he noted, stressing that the United States, therefore, did not support a separate, redundant scientific mechanism.

Across the international community, the knowledge existed to establish stable, productive environments, dramatically improve crop yields and mitigate natural disasters, he said.  Meeting the challenge of poverty and hunger called for investing in long-term solutions through “Feed the Future”, which was driving a new approach to food security, he said.  In closing, he welcomed ongoing collaboration with the global community in addressing the crisis in the Horn of Africa and called on Somalia’s Al-Shabaab rebel group to allow unfettered humanitarian access in areas under its control.

Responding to the crisis was not just a moral imperative but a global imperative, he continued, pointing out that regions suffering resource scarcity today would be more prone to heightened conflict tomorrow.  “By fighting drought and famine in the Horn of Africa today, we fight the despair that can lead people towards violence and terrorism,” he said.  Helping a woman farmer use cutting-edge technology to increase her harvests meant expanding her country’s economic potential, he emphasized.  “And by providing help in times of desperate need, we express globally shared values of compassion, dignity and equality.”