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Contrary to popular perception, desertification is not just about the advancement of deserts into neighbouring areas. While that may certainly be included in the term, desertification for the most part describes a more widespread process of land degradation in areas which are sometimes hundreds of kilometres from the desert border. Desertification is taken by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) as comprising a "range of processes leading to the reduced capacity of dryland areas to produce useful outputs."

These processes are many and varied, such as the erosion of soils through water and wind, falling levels of soil fertility and damage to its structure, loss of vegetation cover and change in its species composition, reduced availability and decline in the quality of water supplies, loss of wildlife and a fall in the biological diversity of plant and animal life. While these processes provide the most evident signs of degradation, the fundamental underlying cause still lies with unsustainable human activity. In the past, drylands recovered easily from climatic conditions like long droughts, but overgrazing, overcultivation, deforestation and poor irrigation practices often undermine the land’s ability to sustain life and vegetation. The age-old strategies which people in dryland areas used to employ to protect their resources have in recent decades become less practical due to changing economic and political circumstances, population growth, and a trend towards more sedentary communities.

The overuse of land can also in some instances be linked to specific economic conditions or inappropriate land laws or customs. Poor people, particularly poor women, often don’t have access to the best land, forcing them to depend on the most fragile areas and resources. International economic forces can also contribute to the problem, with international trade patterns sometimes leading to the short term exploitation of local resources for export, leaving little profit at the community level for managing or restoring the land.

Although there is currently dispute over the full extent and degree of desertification in the world’s dryland areas, what is painfully clear is that it is widespread and represents a global problem of major proportions. Over 250 million people are directly affected by it, and the livelihood of a further one billion people is under threat. In spatial terms, an area equal in size to that of Ireland is becoming unproductive every year around the world. The United Nations puts the estimate of annual income lost in areas immediately affected by desertification at around U$42 billion. It is not, however, this enormous economic cost that is the most worrying aspect of desertification, but rather the link that exists between dryland degradation and food production. It has been calculated that in order to provide the world’s growing population with a nutritionally adequate diet, there would need to be a tripling of food production over the next fifty years. This will prove to be a difficult task even under the most favourable of conditions, and if desertification is not stopped and reversed, food yields in many affected countries will experience a decline.

Although the situation in Africa is particularly acute, the rest of the world is certainly not exempt from this problem. The densely populated Asia and Pacific regions contain roughly 1.4 million hectares of degraded drylands, while parts of Italy, Spain and other European countries also suffer from it. Surprisingly the continent which has the highest proportion of its dryland severely or moderately desertified is North America, with 74 percent compared to Africa’s 73 percent.


History of the Convention

The impetus behind the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) came from the United Nations Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In recognition of the fact that desertification is a leading cause of poverty in the world’s most arid countries, the international community decided to adopt the Convention in order to restore damaged lands, improve food security, and encourage the transition to sustainable agriculture and land management. After a series of five negotiation sessions the treaty was finally adopted on 17 June 1994 and entered into force with the fiftieth country ratifying it on 26 December 1996. Since then the number of countries that have formally ratified the convention has risen to 159.

Each year the parties to the convention meet to review the progress in its implementation at an event officially called the Conference of the Parties (COP). COP – 1 was in Rome, Italy in 1997, COP – 2 was held in Dakar, Senegal, and COP – 3 took place in November 1999 in Recife, Brazil.

How the Convention Operates

In many ways the Convention to Combat Desertification represents a strong departure from the previous top-down approach employed by development projects. The spirit and letter of the convention reflects the philosophy of participatory development. This philosophy recognises the rights of local communities over their resources. It is them that have the greatest stake in improving agricultural productivity while ensuring the long-term ecological balance of their fragile lands.

Central to the procedure of the CCD is the drawing up of National Action Programmes (NAP), which sees communities and their leaders, non-governmental organisations, experts and government officials coming together to produce an accurate summation of the problems and actions currently being undertaken in their country to combat desertification.

This first step in the process also has the added benefit of contributing to democratisation in these developing countries, as it sees the government, NGO’s and rural communities establishing a fruitful relationship that was sadly in many cases lacking before. In the drawing up of these NAPs, countries are entrusted with the task of discovering those legislative areas that may presently be hindering the fight against desertification, as well as identifying projects and activities that can be expanded and made more effective with further funding.

The national governments on their side, then commit themselves to creating an "enabling environment" by strengthening existing legislation and wherever necessary enacting new laws. Steps which governments can take in this regard include introducing reforms granting people greater security of land tenure, setting up effective institutions for resolving conflicts over land and other resources, energy policies that encourage sustainable woodland management or the replacement of fuelwood by other energy sources, and the instituting of economic reforms that promote investment and reduce poverty.

An essential outcome of the NAP process is the specifying of resources currently available to combat desertification and those that are still required. Part of these required funds should come from the country’s own national budget depending on its conditions and capabilities, with the rest being accessed from external sources, namely donor countries.

The Global Mechanism, a Unique Funding Process

Being a relatively young convention, the CCD has been able to learn lessons from the past when it comes to the issue of development aid. A central lesson is that the failure of past aid flows can essentially be attributed to them being "supply driven" by the financing agency, handled in a top-down approach by planners and delivered without adequate coordination at all levels.

In an effort at overcoming these past mistakes, the convention seeks to dramatically reshape the international aid process by engaging donor nations, agencies and recipient countries in a new partnership. The first step in this process starts with the drawing up of the National Action Programmes. In its drawing up, all the various stakeholders should work together to evaluate past efforts, identify the country’s needs, and set priorities. Emanating out of this process should be a sense of what particular priority areas require funding as well as what international partners would best be suited to work with them on these issues. From this position of strength, affected countries can then either approach donor governments, regional development banks and international agencies directly or work through the unique funding mechanism designed specifically to access funds for combating desertification, namely the Global Mechanism (GM).

The Global Mechanism is the financial arm of the Desertification Convention. The GM is sometimes confused with the Global Environmental Facility which is in fact a central pool of money that the three Implementing Agencies – UNDP, UNEP and the World Bank - use to fund projects concerned with global environmental issues. It needs to be understood that the GM itself is not a fund, but as spelled out in Article 21 of the Convention invested with the task "to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of existing financial mechanisms and to promote actions leading to the mobilization and channeling of substantial financial resources to affected developing country parties."

It can therefore in one sense be seen as a marketing agent, matching up developing countries required resources to combat desertification with those funds being provided by donor countries and agencies. The reason for it being a brokering institution and not a central fund, is that the problem of land degradation and desertification is very closely related to the development process itself, and in particular, to all aspects of rural development, to agricultural development and to poverty alleviation. "Before we can expect substantial additional funds to be allocated to implement the CCD," as Per Ryden, general manager of the GM stated, "we must insure that existing financial mechanisms are used more efficiently and effectively."

Being a legal document, however, the convention does bind developed country parties to certain financial obligations. The obligations on the part of the developing countries reside with the drawing up of the NAP’s according to the participatory and bottom-up approach described in the Convention. The developed country parties are then legally obliged to provide the necessary financial resources to turn these plans into reality. In this context, the task of the Global Mechanism is to be the agent linking countries’ action programmes and donor resources.


As already stated, land degradation and desertification is intricately tied up with the broader issues of sustainable development. It should therefore be expected that there will exist a number of linkages between the CCD and the other global environmental conventions. There is for instance a high degree of complementarity between the CCD and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), where efforts to combat desertification often go hand in hand with efforts to protect biodiversity. Dryland ecosystems contain a rich biota, including plant and animal species not found elsewhere. As stated by the principal officer of the UNCBD, Olivier Jalbert, in an address at the CCD COP3 "Parties to both conventions could, conceivably, take advantage of the high degree of complementarity between the two Conventions by considering and promoting projects that serve both Conventions."

Another Convention, which has strong linkages with the CCD is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is particularly so with regards to the issue of carbon sequestration and land improvement activities. This issue is of special concern to the CCD, as it allows for the possibility of land improvement projects being funded via a carbon trading mechanism. The Clean Development Mechanism currently being proposed by the UNFCCC will eventually make it possible for projects that contribute to the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions to be funded by developed countries as part of their international emission reduction obligations. This is, however, a hotly debated proposal at the moment, and what is of interest to the CCD is whether carbon sinks will be included in the final accounting procedure. For it to be included though, it is vital that the following issues regarding the potential for land improvement activities to sequester carbon be addressed; namely what is it, how can it be verified, and how can it be sustained. Only once these questions have been adequately answered can the CCD be in a position to argue for the inclusion of carbon sinks into the Clean Development Mechanism, thereby making use of its potentially large ability to direct funds into land improvement projects that sequester carbon.


It was hoped that COP-3 would represent a turning point in the CCD, with attention moving away from the establishment of CCD structures and on to assessing the actual implementation of the convention in affected countries. This sentiment was expressed by the European Union at the outset of the COP when it stated that discussions should concentrate on the national reports of African countries and that they should avoid being distracted by issues of lesser importance.

The national reports of African countries were in fact seen as one of the great successes of the COP, with nearly 80% of them having been completed and submitted for assessment. Many of these reports were drawn up with the full participation of all stakeholders in the respective countries, remaining true to the spirit of the convention’s ideals. They therefore represented a great platform from which discussions revolving around the implementation of the convention could take place.

Unfortunately, however, these discussions did not materialise to the extent that all parties had hoped for. A few of the reasons attributed to this failure include a lack of transparency in how the issues were addressed, the absence of institutional memory in the process and the growing uncertainty over the political will and commitment of developed countries to the CCD. This lack of political will on the part of developed countries was manifested most acutely by the lack of high-level participation on their part. This led some people to draw the conclusion that the Convention has been given a very low priority amongst the industrialised countries.

Another problem identified by participants at the COP was that of the inordinate number of new faces that had suddenly been brought into the process. A perception held by many participants was that the new expectations and ideals which these newcomers brought with them held back the process somewhat, since they failed to reflect details of delicate compromises made at earlier COPs. A further factor contributing to the delay in reaching agreements was that of the relatively low level of decision-making authority among some delegations. This lack of high-level representation combined with the large number of new negotiators unfortunately created a leadership void, having a deleterious impact on the negotiations in the informal groups.

Overall then, COP-3 failed to realise the high hopes that many parties had given to it going into the process. The major issue which needs to be addressed, is that of all the parties' commitments to the CCD, especially those of the developed countries. A concern expressed by some of the NGOs at the COP is that the OECD countries have signed the convention but have never actually committed themselves to directly finance its implementation. The Global Mechanism which was set up for this purpose, has they claim, still not yet become operational. They further claim that the lack of attention given by the OECD country representatives to the national reports presented by African countries at the COP indicates an unwillingness to live up to their end of the bargain. According to them, a greater commitment needs to be shown by these countries, thereby giving NGOs the signal that their proposals will not simply fall by the wayside but rather met with a corresponding flow of funds.


Africa is the continent most affected by desertification and land degradation. Although desertification has been progressing all around the planet, it is Africa, which suffers most significantly from this phenomenon. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the continent is either desert or drylands. At present, already 75 percent of the drylands used for agricultural purposes are degraded to some degree. To make matters worse, Africa is regularly afflicted by severe droughts. Recurring droughts and land degradation are closely linked. While drought increases soil degradation, soil degradation in turn magnifies the impact of droughts. The same is true for poverty and desertification, which in Africa are intimately connected.

Land is the critical resource and the basis for survival for most people in Africa. According to the World Bank, agriculture contributes about 40 percent to the continent's GDP and employs more than 60 percent of its labour force. Thus the quality of the soil and the level of agricultural output is of major importance, particularly on a continent where too many people already suffer from malnutrition. It is estimated that crop yields could be reduced by half over the next forty years if the degradation of agricultural lands continues at present rates. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), land degradation limits food production growth to an average of only 2 percent annually. This is much lower than the average population growth. Consequently, per capita food production is declining which in turn puts household and national food security at risk in many African countries.

When it comes to addressing poverty and desertification, most developing countries are faced with a dilemma. Rural poverty is both a cause and an effect of desertification. "For the rural poor, soil conservation brings an intrinsic conflict: the short-term need for immediate food production and use of fragile resources, against the long-term requirements of conserving natural resources to maintain production levels for future use", says Takeo Shibata, Assistant President at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). In order to reconcile the short-term and long-term requirements, solutions and innovations will need to emerge from within local and rural communities with the financial and technical support of developed countries. It is vital to give the rural communities the capacity to sustainably manage the resources on which they depend. Governments in developing countries also have an important role to play by putting into place structures and instruments conducive to sustainable land use.

Clearly, desertification results from natural as well as social processes. In order to combat land degradation in a sustainable and viable way, human activities and natural variations will need to be considered in an integrated manner. Although the inter-linkages between agricultural production, poverty alleviation and environmental protection are widely understood and accepted, most policies developed to address desertification lack coordination and stem from separate initiatives in the economic, social and environmental spheres. In order to achieve greater impact and effectiveness, policies will need to integrate those three spheres.