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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
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Implementation of Desertification Convention Seen as Key to Promoting Sustainable Development, Fighting Poverty in Drylands

31 May, BALI, Indonesia— The dust blowing across China that assaulted Beijing this year went on to reach Japan and Korea, but it did not stop there: it continued on toward the west coast of North America, disrupting air travel and causing health problems.

Dust storms are increasing, according to Hama Arba Diallo, Executive Secretary of Convention to Combat Desertification, and it is affecting areas that have never though of it as a problem before. In fact, he said, sands blown away from Africa recently landed in Switzerland.

Land degradation has often been considered a local issues, caused by poor land management, poor farming techniques, and poor water distribution. But the problem, which affects an estimated 2.3 billion people in over 100 countries is now blowing across national boundaries, and is having an international impact.

The issue has emerged as a major issue for the World Summit on Sustainable Development and United Nations Secretary-General identified land degradation, which affects as much as two thirds of the world's agricultural land, as one of the five main areas where the Summit should concentrate efforts to achieve results.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that every year, 10 million hectares of arable land are being lost to desertification, costing the world close to $42 billion annually. Yet that the price-tag for action to avoid further degradation would only be $2.4 million.

"No one is listening, but this is a good investment," Diallo said, but the treaty to halt land degradation, with virtually universal membership, still has little funding.

There are proposals presently under consideration in the Bali PrepCom to significantly increase funding to the Desertification Convention through the Global Environment Facility, but there are some concerns that the GEF could be stretched too thin unless donor countries agree to a significant replenishment.

Mostafa Tolba, who presided over the Earth Summit+5, and who is a member of a panel of eminent personalities for the Convention, said it was essential to address the issue of land degradation if the Johannesburg Summit is to succeed. "About 70 per cent of the poverty in Asia and Africa is in rural areas. If you want to address poverty, you have to go where the poverty is. Implementation of the Convention would be a good way."

According to Tolba, interest in the desertification issue has flagged because it is not seen as affecting people in developed countries, although dryland areas of Spain, Portugal and Greece are experiencing degradation. Although people see a connection between themselves and climate change and ozone depletion, he said that link is often missing when it comes to desertification.

The Desertification Convention, an offspring of the 1992 Earth Summit, calls for a "bottom-up" participatory approach where people in affected communities, including women and youth, identify their problems and their solutions. The process eventually percolates up to the national level where, countries adopt national action plans. To date, 58 countries have adopted these plans, and are now looking to donors for resources to implement them.

But desertification has not been a donor priority, Diallo says. Assistance to hot spots, such as Afghanistan, East Timor and Kosovo, Diallo said, are usually the explanation donors give why resources to fight desertification are not forthcoming.

Desertification, Diallo said, is not about build barriers to prevent the spread of the desert, but rather, about taking steps to transform fragile ecosystems back into land that can produce food. According to Diallo, restoring degraded lands can also play an important role in mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases by serving as a carbon sink.

"What we are saying," Diallo said, "is that dealing with land degradation can lead to win-win scenarios." Partnerships will be important he said, but since land degradation is typically a problem of the poorest of the poor, most of the partnerships will necessarily require the public sector.

The development of voluntary partnership initiatives has emerged as a third major outcome of the Johannesburg Summit. The partnerships, it is hoped, will go beyond what governments can and must do to implement sustainable development.

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24 August 2006