Dryland Management Must Be Placed Higher on International Agenda, Stresses Secretary-General at High-level General Assembly Event on Desertification

20 September 2011
GA/11143

Dryland Management Must Be Placed Higher on International Agenda, Stresses Secretary-General at High-level General Assembly Event on Desertification

20 September 2011
General Assembly
GA/11143
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-sixth General Assembly

Plenary

6th & 9thMeetings (AM & PM)

Dryland Management Must Be Placed Higher on International Agenda, Stresses

 

Secretary-General at High-level General Assembly Event on Desertification

 

Heads of State, Government Lead Calls for Bold Action

On Drought, Land Degradation during Interactive Discussions

Too often seen as a “lost cause”, the world’s drylands — home to 2 billion people — must be placed higher on the international agenda as poor land management, climate change and conflict threatened to jeopardize hard-won gains in painstaking national efforts to reduce poverty and improve development prospects, top United Nations and other officials said today during the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly to address desertification, land degradation and drought.

Nowhere were those challenges felt more acutely today than in the Horn of Africa, where 13 million people faced the subregion’s worst drought in six decades, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during the opening of a plenary meeting to launch the day-long event, which also featured two interactive panel discussions.  He assured delegates that the United Nations and its partners were working hard to address those urgent issues.

“But let me be frank,” he added.  “Drought does not have to become famine.”  Too often the international community reacted too late, and 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”.  The incentive for the sustainable management of drylands was clear, given their potential for biofuel growth and both solar and wind resource development, he said.  Timely action could unlock those riches and provide solutions to other formidable challenges, including rural poverty, geopolitical conflict and forced migrations.  However, land degradation was not just a dryland issue, it was also occurring in tropical areas at an unprecedented rate, he said, warning that if left unchecked, it could roll back efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  He called for moving drought and land degradation to the centre of policy development.

Also delivering opening remarks, General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser ( Qatar) declared:  “Land is life and our life depends on land.”  Desertification threatened one quarter of the earth’s surface, 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.

Despite greater attention to natural-resource scarcity and land degradation, common efforts had fallen short and major policy interventions in sustainable land-management strategies were needed, he said, adding that such measures required moving towards an ambitious quantitative target and a “zero net land degradation rate”.  New policies and technologies must be designed to promote sustainable resource use, he said, adding that predictable financial support was essential.

Framing the issues,Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, said the occurrence of drought had doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s.  Yet, the cost of inaction on addressing land degradation was largely unknown or ignored, largely because the issue was still a “blind spot” for the international community, he said, noting that no consensual, authoritative assessment of the situation had been made.

He called for 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.  “Through this process, hunger, poverty and famine can become history.  We can do this and we must.”

During the interactive panel discussions, political leaders vowed not to stand idly by while climate change dried out their lands, shrivelled crops and killed off livestock.  They called strongly on the United Nations to help them identify and implement effective, low-cost projects to tackle the equally daunting challenge of reversing and preventing desertification.

In the first discussion — co-chaired by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan of Nigeria and Deputy Prime Minister Jean Asselborn, of Luxembourg — delegates, especially those from dry or semi-arid regions, described the impact of years-long dry spells, erratic rains and calamitous dust and sand storms on lives and livelihoods, saying they were “existential threats to our economies and survival”.

Addressing the issue from two different perspectives, representatives from Mongolia and Nauru, respectively, described a vegetation scarcity so dire that scientists believed it actually helped speed the global warming process, and the “cruel irony” of being surrounded by water but yet being unable to drink or use it to grow crops.  Both described Government efforts to address the challenges facing their countries, but admitted that solutions would require huge infusions of resources and technical assistance to make any real headway.  Noting the animated talk about desertification, Mongolia’s delegate emphasized:  “Passion is good, but action is better.”

In the second interactive panel — co-chaired by President Heinz Fischer of Austria and Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji — senior officials from developing and developed countries alike said land degradation was causing losses in agricultural productivity and threatening food security, especially in Africa, where agriculture was a major income generator.  Botswana’s representative stressed that the problem would limit the push by many African countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals.  His counterpart from Kyrgyzstan said that even mountainous areas were not immune, estimating that losses to his country reached as high as $350 million.

Mass migration was also fuelling the problem, as was the unequal treatment of important international conventions covering land desertification, which meant that timely funds were not being provided, other speakers commented.  Several delegates expressed hope that such matters would figure prominently in discussions at the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, with Germany’s representative emphasizing:  “Our world’s growing population simply cannot afford to lose the very ground we stand on.”

At the end of the day, the General Assembly President read out a Chair’s Summary of the High-level Meeting, explaining thatit would be presented to the Tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention on Desertification, to be held in the Republic of Korea from 10 to 21 October.

“Hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined,” he said in concluding remarks, adding that it was driven by drought, desertification and land degradation.  Prevention was the best way to cope with such challenges, and efforts to eradicate it must go hand in hand with efforts to end poverty.

Also delivering statements opening plenary meeting were the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of Argentina (in his capacity as President of the Ninth Conference of Parties and Chair of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China); the Minister for Forest Service of the Republic of Korea (in his capacity as Chair of the Tenth Conference of Parties); the European Commissioner for Development (on behalf of the European Union); the Minister for Forestry of Gambia (on behalf of the Group of African States); and the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), speaking on behalf of the host country.

Among the participants in the morning panel discussion were speakers representing Swaziland, Fiji, Nepal, Italy, Lebanon, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Mali, Timor-Leste, Madagascar, Mozambique, Iran and Gambia.

Participating in the afternoon discussion were speakers from Portugal, Republic of Korea, Tajikistan, Honduras, Bangladesh, Algeria, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil, Paraguay, Chad, Ghana, Gambia, Niger, Eritrea, Benin, Kenya, Qatar, Greece, Israel, Tunisia and Cuba.

Civil society representatives also participated.

The General Assembly will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 September, to begin its annual general debate.

Background

The General Assembly held a one-day High-level Meeting today on addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.  Heads of State and Government, as well as heads of delegations, took part in two interactive panel discussions aimed at spurring actions to reverse desertification.  (For more information, please see Press Release GA/11142 of 19 September.)

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, 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.”

Statements

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, 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, 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, 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, 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), 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.”

Interactive Panel Discussion I

In the first of the two interactive panel discussions that formed the bulk of the work of the Assembly’s high-level event, Co-Chair Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, President of Nigeria, painted a grave picture of an entire continent threatened by the vagaries of climate change.  Africa, he said, had the sad distinction of both drying up and flooding out, often at the same time and in different regions.  Some 43 per cent of the continent was dryland, and as such, nearly 350 million people relied on natural resources, including rainwater, for subsistence.

At the same time, he continued, drylands bordering deserts might become more arid, and wetlands bordering rainforests might get wetter.  In any case, hundreds of millions of people dependent on agriculture could lose their livelihoods if such trends persisted.  However, there was hope that millions of hectares of land could be reclaimed, he said, noting that Nigeria had adopted an overall framework for protecting the environment, including partnerships to address drought and desertification.

The country was also strengthening national and State institutions while promoting sustainable agricultural practices, he said.  Yet, despite significant efforts, various environmental problems persisted, especially land degradation, desertification and drought.  It was obvious that no nation could adequately mobilize and sustain the enormous resources required to address those challenges, and Nigeria had, therefore, entered into partnerships with non-governmental and international partners.

President Johnson also called attention to the African Union-led Great Green Wall project, conceived by the 11 countries bordering the southern edge of the Sahara, and their international partners, and aimed at limiting desertification of the Sahel zone.  He said it would also comprise a multifaceted international economic and environmental initiative “that goes to the heart of the fight against poverty”, with specific programmes on providing employment opportunities for youth “as a cushion against the ravages of climate change”.

Co-Chair Jean Asselborn, Deputy Prime Minister of Luxembourg, said that, with some 2 billion people worldwide affected to varying degrees by drought and desertification, the international community must work together to come up with lasting solutions, including ways to address poverty eradication and sustainable development.

He called for broad implementation of the core United Nations environmental treaties — the Convention to Combat Desertification, the Convention on Biodiversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — pledging that Luxembourg, one of the first countries to sign the anti-desertification treaty, would uphold its commitments.  He concluded his address with a special plea for all Member States to step up their efforts to tackle the myriad challenges associated with the famine in the Horn of Africa, and to help stave off the consequences of lingering drought in the Sahel.

Namibia’s representative said land degradation, due largely to climate change, cost his country some $60 million in lost productivity each year.  Farmers harvested meagre crops or were forced to abandon their lands entirely, threatening food security throughout the country.  In response, the Government had “joined hands” with civil society groups to form the national Programme to Combat Desertification, he said, adding that Namibia had also adopted a “Green Scheme” and a National Climate Policy.  The country was now one of the few implementing an integrated sustainable land-management programme, and had also made a deliberate decision to work with both communal and commercial farmers in fighting land degradation.

He was among the many speakers who cited the dire impact of climate change as one of the main drivers of land degradation.  Mongolia’s representative explained that with average temperatures climbing, some 70 per cent of the vast landlocked nation was affected by desertification.  Scientists believed that the scarcity of vegetation in some of its regions actually quickened the global warming process, he said.  “When I saw this topic, it’s as if you’re talking directly about my country,” he added, describing a landscape at once beautiful and harsh.  It featured breathtaking steppes and bone-dry desert, lush basins alongside areas lashed by devastating snow and sand storms.

He said that, while Mongolia had taken steps to address those challenges, especially the threats to the livelihood of nomadic herders who had suffered devastating livestock losses in recent years, the country would need help to conduct research and implement “big pilot projects” in the affected areas.  Like other developing countries, Mongolia needed enhanced international cooperation and technical assistance, he added.

“So if there are any hidden millions or billions here in the United Nations or any country, please bring them,” he continued.  “We, in the mountains and in the Gobi desert, are waiting to cooperate with you.”  Finally, he said it was past time to establish an intergovernmental panel on drought and desertification, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Everyone was talking so passionately about desertification, he noted, adding: “Passion is good, but action is better.”

Nauru’s representative described the “cruel irony” his people faced, surrounded as they were by oceans “as far as the eye can see” but lacking freshwater to drink or boost agricultural activities.  The island nation relied on what rainwater could be collected from rooftops and a handful of expensive reverse-osmosis systems, he said.  However, rainfall was increasingly unreliable due to changes in climate, which now tended to swing from extremely wet to extreme drought, during which the levels of collected water could dwindle perilously.

Exacerbating the situation was the saltwater contamination of Nauru’s limited groundwater by the rising seas, he continued.  In addition, land degradation was a long-standing problem as phosphate mining had rendered nearly 80 per cent of the island uninhabitable and largely deprived it of the ability to grow large amounts of food.  Due to its isolation, Nauru already paid several times the global average for certain grains, he said, adding that the Government of Venezuela was supporting his country’s land-rehabilitation programme, which included planning and seeding to renew barren land.  The success of that programme was proof that, when countries mobilized political will and when resources were provided, degraded land could be restored — even in the most extreme cases.

Participating in the interactive discussion were Heads of State and senior Government ministers from Swaziland, Fiji, Nepal, Italy, Lebanon, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Mali, Timor-Leste, Madagascar, Mozambique, Iran and Gabon.

Interactive Panel Discussion II

In the second interactive panel, co-chaired by Heinz Fischer, President of Austria, and Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, delegates made it clear that issues of desertification, land degradation and drought must be tackled if sustainable development was to succeed.  They emphasized that hunger threatened peace and security, highlighting the need to increase the capacity to preserve natural resources.

Many delegates expressed alarm over the situation in the Horn of Africa, saying it was part of a pattern of land degradation and drought caused mainly by mounting population density and dwindling natural resources, and exacerbated by climate change.  Attainable goals for anti-desertification goals were needed and countries must band together to implement practical scientific solutions.

Botswana’s representative described land degradation as “one of the most formidable challenges humanity has ever faced”, emphasizing that agriculture was at the centre of his people’s livelihoods as well as those of most Africans, and that desertification would prevent many across the continent from meeting the Millennium Development Goals.  Though Botswana had formulated a national action programme, overcoming the complex challenge would require comprehensive efforts, he said, calling for additional resources beyond current pledges of official development assistance and expressing hope that the matter would figure prominently on the agenda of “Rio+20”.

Delegates from several African countries spoke of the massive decrease of arable land throughout the continent over recent decades, saying it had caused large migrations of affected people, who in turn were a source of tension in areas where they sought help.  Land pressures made it nearly impossible to achieve sustainable development and poverty-reduction targets, and could wipe out development gains, a number of delegates said, calling for new technology to be made more widely available.  “Disparities and unequal treatment of important conventions mean that timely funds aren’t provided to countries for assistance,” South Africa’s representative said.

Ecuador’s representative said sustainability was not only an environmental matter, and would require “change in the relationship between capital, labour and politics”.  Technology transfer must be accompanied by the elimination of intellectual property barriers, she stressed, adding that little could be done without a change in unsustainable patterns of consumption, particularly in developed countries.

Delegates from outside Africa also said that soil degradation was an increasingly serious problem for their countries, reporting reduced agricultural yields and general environmental problems as a result of erosion affecting much of their populations and economies.  Sri Lanka’s representative said his country could become a desert as it coped with increasing demands on its agriculture, forestry and wildlife.  “The high population density and the recent improvement of living standards of the general public have created terrific pressure on all natural resources, including land resources of the country,” he said.  “Being an agricultural nation, over 37 per cent of the Sri Lankan population is dependent directly on agriculture related activities for their sustenance.”

Germany’s representative recalled that during the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or “Earth Summit”, in Rio de Janeiro, the international community had assumed that land degradation and drought were not global problems and only affected individual countries and regions, especially those in Africa.  However, recent studies showed that land and soil degradation occurred in all continents and had increased worldwide.  “Our world’s growing population simply cannot afford to lose the very ground we stand on,” he said, calling for an immediate open dialogue on the issue.  He said his country’s experience as one of the biggest donors in the field of sustainable land management and combating desertification showed that land degradation could be prevented and directly improve local living conditions, he said, cautioning, however that the scientific base must be enhanced to yield reliable data on the global dimensions of land degradation.

Delegates from other developed countries said they would offer experiences on sustainable land management that could serve as examples for others, with some speakers advocating the establishment of a panel of experts solely dedicated to desertification.  All levels of society, including the private sector, must participate and take concerted actions, they said, urging the entire international community to cooperate in that effort.

“We should think about land when we talk about climate and about biodiversity when we talk about soil degradation,” Switzerland’s representative stressed.  “Unfortunately, of these three problem areas, soils are often disregarded in discussion on sustainability, despite the vital functions they perform that are essential to life and the survival of our planet.  I would like to express the hope that this day will go some way towards raising the profile of soil conservation in our political agendas.”

The representative of the Republic of Korea said that mainstreaming sustainable land management into national politicise could serve as a good example for other countries, adding that his country’s Government placed a high priority on achieving national development through successful deforestation.

Tajikistan’s representative said that soil degradation over the last 20 to 25 years had reduced agricultural yields, and erosion had caused environmental problems.  Given the importance of those challenges, Tajikistan had acceded to the Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Government was undertaking many efforts which, however, were hindered by a lack of funds and staff.

The representative of Honduras said that over the last half century, the world has seen a “paradigmatic shift” from the protection of sovereignty to the protection of food security and the people.  Experts had identified a link between desertification and territorial conflict over water, which had become a global problem.  Honduras had implemented a number of projects with the aim of adapting to climate change, but those efforts were just the beginning of the enormous task ahead.

The representative of Bangladesh said her country not only faced frequent floods and cyclones, but also frequent droughts, and its agricultural land was dwindling rapidly as population pressure affected its soil and resources.  Despite formidable challenges, however, development should not be at the cost of ecology and environment, she emphasized, saying that support for climate finance should be provided over and above official overseas development assistance.  Above all, Bangladesh needed access to climate technologies, she said.

Algeria’s representative said Africa was poised to lose two thirds of its arable land, thereby wiping out development efforts.  However, Algeria would have reclaimed 2,000 hectares.

Kyrgyzstan’s representative said mountains covered most of his country’s territory and little of it was arable.  Land degradation was leading to the loss of agricultural productivity and threatening food security.  Soil erosion leading to deforestation and a host of other problems affected most of the population, with economic losses of up to $350 million.

Brazil’s representative said more than 17 per cent of her country’s population lived in semi-arid and dry lands and the Government was committed to finding effective ways to overcome the associated challenges.

Chad’s representative said the development of his country and its future was being compromised by a triple threat.  Located at the “crossroads of the Sahara”, it had seen a reduction of arable land since the 1960s.  To meet the enormous environmental challenges facing all of humanity he urgently appealed for stronger international cooperation to guarantee sustainable development and eradicate poverty.

Closing Session

Assembly President AL-NASSER ( Qatar), reconvening the plenary, underlined the importance of today’s event, in which the world's leaders were meeting for the first time in a high-level format to address desertification, land degradation and drought.  Over the course of the day, they had cautioned that the three pillars of sustainable development — economic, social, and environmental — would be in jeopardy unless those challenges were addressed.  Consequently, they had held an important and intensive debate aimed at realizing development goals and eradicating poverty.

He then delivered his Chair's Summary of the debate — to be forwarded to next month’s Tenth Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in the Republic of Korea, and to the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — stating that said world leaders had stressed that land deterioration and degradation were among the issues affecting the world’s various ecosystems in different ways.  Yet, the main effect was felt in particularly arid lands.

In that context, he continued, participants in today’s event had decided that if arid land was to become a source of common prosperity, land use and policy must be addressed in accordance with sustainable development principles, and more specifically, sustainable land-management practices to combat desertification, land degradation and drought.  Moreover, States must adapt to climate change in a way that would ensure the livelihoods of the most affected.

Speakers had further emphasized that the Desertification Convention must become a means of achieving those objectives, he said.  They had stressed that it was possible to find sustainable solutions to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  A call had been made for strengthening the scientific base of knowledge required to study drought and land degradation.  It had also been suggested that a consultative group devoted to studying desertification, land degradation and drought be established to provide opinions and advice.

Against that backdrop, the Assembly President said, leaders had stated that the link between desertification and famine must be broken, while also suggesting that if the phenomenon spread further, it would contribute to forced migration, famine, climate change, loss of biodiversity and, ultimately, conflict.

Also during the meeting, an appeal had been made to promote the implementation of the Desertification Convention and to arrest soil and land degradation.  In that regard, it was to be hoped that the Tenth Conference of Parties would commit to immediate measures aimed at ensuring that future generations did not fall victim to the current disregard for land degradation.

He noted that Heads of State and Government, as well as other delegates, had taken part in an intensive discussion throughout the day-long meeting, and asked them to consider the “startling” fact that hunger killed more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.  Much of the world’s hunger was caused by interlinked issues including desertification, land degradation, climate change and drought, he added.

In concluding remarks, he said desertification was, therefore, not only killing people, “but killing our development and our future”.  As was so often the case — and evident in the famine gripping the Horn of Africa — it was the world’s poorest people who were most vulnerable.  In the face of such adversity, he stressed, it was necessary to act on “what we already know” — that prevention was the most effective way to cope with land degradation.  Such an effort would go hand in hand with efforts to eradicate poverty and contribute to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals.  Support must also be given to all efforts aimed at disaster risk prevention and strengthening disaster-management capacity at all levels, including through information and early-warning systems, he added.

The President said that a number of important global conferences on sustainable development would provide an opportunity to ensure a higher priority for desertification, land degradation and drought — not only as an environmental concern, but as an integral component of sustainable development.  He urged Member States to participate actively in ensuring successful outcomes based on consensus.  The threat was both “grave” and “growing”, he stressed, concluding:  “It is up to you to ensure there is the necessary political will and international solidarity to combat desertification.”

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.