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Home Desertification Conference Programme


by Ms Wilma Lutsch, Deputy Director,
Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, South Africa


The international community has long recognised that desertification is a major economic, social and environmental problem of concern to many countries. The efforts to combat desertification started in 1977, when the United Nations Conference on Desertification adopted a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. Unfortunately, the problem of desertification intensified and, as a result, the Conference on Environment and Development which was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, supported a new integrated approach to the problem, emphasising action to promote sustainable development at the community level. It also called on the UN General Assembly to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to prepare this Convention by June 1994.

South Africa was part of these negotiations since 1994 with the readmittance of the country into the international arena. Realising the potential of this Convention to social and economic upliftment of the inhabitants of this country, South Africa decided to sign this Convention in January 1995 and the ratification thereof was finally formalised on 30 September 1997. With these actions South Africa is now committed to the Convention and reconfirms its devotion to responsible environmental management and sustainable development.


  • The Convention defines desertification as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities. Eventually the land can no longer sustain crops or vegetation and loses its ability to produce food and sustain life. (Land degradation occurs everywhere, but is only defined as desertification when it occurs in the drylands).
  • Desertification is therefore not the expansion of existing deserts: it is the destruction of productive land in dry areas mainly because of misuse or overuse. We are not referring to slow natural processes, but to rapid degradation caused by people.
  • According to the Convention, arid, semi-arid and dry sub humid areas means areas, other than polar and subpolar regions in which the ratio of annual precipitation to potential evapotranspiration falls within the range from 0.05 to 0.065 43% of Africa falls into one of these categories.
  • Land degradation is a big problem all over the world. Nowhere is the crisis more acute than in the drylands which stretch across more than a third of the Earth’s land surface. Some 70% of the drylands used for agriculture around the world is already degraded. Thus desertification now damages almost 30% of the total areas of the world.
  • In South Africa the UN Environment Programme calculated that 90% of the country is arid, semi arid or dry subhumid and is therefore prone to desertification in South Africa. A recent study done by the National Botanical Institute suggests that land in 25% of magisterial districts in South Africa is already severely degraded.
  • Land degradation is exacerbated by inequitable land ownership. As a result of the unjust distribution of land resulting from previous discriminating policies, agricultural land in the former homelands has been overgrazed and overcropped for decades and in many cases is now degraded almost beyond repair. In addition, land tenure laws and practises in the former homelands and townships and townships did not encourage people to conserve land they did not have a stake in.
  • As a result of the loss of productive land which can no longer sustain the population, people migrate to cities, contributing to the many social, economic and environmental pressures facing urban areas. Estimates vary, but it may be assumed that more than half of the population live in areas which are functionally urban. Continued rapid urban growth is expected which impacts on valuable agricultural land. Present economic theory and practice fails to reflect the impacts on valuable agricultural land. Present economic theory and practice fails to reflect the impacts of resource and energy use by cities on the carrying capacity of the land from which they draw their resources. The ecological footprint approach is now well established as a method of understanding cities in relation to the sustainable use of resources by humans. (Each individual in a city requires and consumes resources such as wood, food, materials and fuel and water at a particular level. In addition, there is also a need for an ecological system to dispose of wastes. When transposed to a city level, and depending on its population, it can be calculated that some cities require as much as 20 times their area for the provision of these resources).
  • Land degradation is both a cause and a consequence of poverty in the world’s most arid countries. The key to restoring damaged lands, improving food security and making the transition to sustainable agriculture and land management is to break the cycle where poverty forces people to over-exploit their land just to survive another day. A recent report on poverty in South Africa indicates that 19 million people, almost half of the South African population can be regarded as poor (giving a monthly household expenditure level of R353 per adult) of which the rural areas contain 72% of those members of the total population who are poor. Women are clearly more likely to be poor than men: the poverty among female-headed households is 60% compared with 31% of male-headed households.
  • In rural areas, land degradation is aggravated by the fact that more than 80% of households have no access to piped water and sanitation and 74% of rural African households needs to fetch water on a daily basis. Improvement of access to water is naturally a critical component of programmes to strengthen the asset base of the rural poor. Provision of dependable water can have a strong positive effect on food security and income generation for rural women, substantial livelihood gains are likely by releasing labour spent on obtaining water and providing water for small farming and other enterprise.
  • Energy poverty is the condition of having less than a certain daily level of energy consumption necessary to maintain a minimum standard of living. Energy is divided into three sub sectors: electricity hydro carbon (including coal, gas and paraffin) and bio-mass (wood dung and crop waste). In South Africa, most of the poor meet their energy demands using bio-mass fuels, or a combination of bio-mass fuels and hydrocarbon fuels. The task of collecting this has severe social and health costs which accrue primarily to rural women and children and if the land is poor, these people cannot meet their energy demands.
  • This Convention commits every government that signs it to draw up a national strategy to deal with land degradation, to allocate sufficient funds to tackle the problem and crucially to consult local people before any decisions are taken. This Convention is the only UN treaty that obliges governments to involve local people in solving national problems.


The guiding principles of the Convention are:

3.1 Participation of local communities

The first principle of the treaty commits Parties to ensure that decisions on the design and implementation of programmes are taken with the participation of populations and local communities and that an enabling environment is created at higher levels to facilitate action at national and local levels. It is this principle who guided the team to ensure that the NGO community is fully represented and acts as a full member in the development of a policy to combat desertification.

3.2 Partnerships

The second principle again breaks new ground by stressing the need for international partnership and co-ordination and improved co-operation and co-ordination at sub-regional, regional and international level. Regarded as leader in Africa, much is expected from this country as far as the combating of desertification is concerned. As a special Annex for Africa was negotiated, being the continent who suffers most from this debilitating problem, South Africa has forged close ties with sub-regional, regional and international role players.

3.3 Co-operation at all levels

Apart from the different vertical levels of co-operation in global context, the horizontal co-operation among role players within the country is of the utmost importance to secure the success of the implementation of this Convention.

Therefore the third principle of the treaty extends the concept of partnerships within the affected countries and in doing so, re-emphasises the importance of ensuring the participation of people and communities. It lays down that co-operation among all levels of government, communities, non-governmental organisations and landholders should be promoted to establish a better understanding of the nature and value of land and scarce water resources and to work towards sustainable use.

3.4 Needs of developing countries

The fourth principle says that the special needs and circumstances of affected developing countries should be considered. We in South Africa have vast opportunities in this respect to cater for the needs of the people formerly barred from decision-making processes, especially those in rural areas.



  • an integrated approach
  • The treaty also insists that programmes to combat desertification must not be conceived and implemented in isolation but should be integrated into development policies as a whole, addressing the physical, biological and socio-economic aspects of the processes of desertification and drought.
  • enabling international economic environment
  • The Convention makes it clear that Parties are obliged to give due attention to the effects of trade, marketing arrangements and debt on the affected developing countries, with a view to establishing an enabling international economic environment conducive to the promotion of sustainable development.
  • integrate strategies for poverty eradication into efforts to combat desertification
  • Parties are obliged to integrate their anti desertification efforts with strategies for poverty eradication.
  • co-operation among affected countries
  • The general obligations of the treaty stress the importance of co-operation within intergovernmental organisations, at sub-regional, regional and international levels.
  • promote financial mechanisms to channel financial resources to affected countries.
  • Parties should promote the mobilisation of new and additional funding and encourage the mobilisation of funding from the private sector and other non-governmental sources.


  • Developing country parties and those that are affected have the following obligations:
  • to allocate adequate resources in accordance with their circumstances and capabilities
  • to establish strategies and priorities to combat desertification
  • to address the underlying causes of desertification with special attention to the socio-economic factors contributing to desertification
  • to promote awareness and facilitate the participation of local populations
  • to provide an enabling environment through laws, policies and programmes


  • to support the efforts of developing parties
  • to provide substantial financial resources, promote new and additional funding and mobilise the funding
  • to promote access to appropriate technology, knowledge and know-how.


Parties shall encourage the co-ordination of activities, particularly the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Parties shall encourage conduct of joint programmes, particularly in the fields of research, training, systematic observation and information collection and exchange.


  • According to the Convention, the purpose of a NAP is to identify the factors contributing to desertification and practical measures necessary to combat desertification. Parties should prepare, publicise and implement them as the central element in their strategies.
  • Keeping in mind Article 10 of the Convention, South Africa has, after the ratification of the Convention, an obligation to develop a NAP. According to the Convention, a NAP shall specify the respective roles of government, local communities and land users and the resources available and needed. NAP’s shall, inter alia:
  • incorporate long term strategies to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought, emphasizing implementation and be integrated with national policies for sustainable development.


Parties commit themselves to provide for effective participation of everybody including farmers and pastoralists. This theme runs right through the Convention. The African countries agree in their annex that NAPS shall be a central and integral part of the broader process of formulating policies for sustainable development and that sub-regional and regional action plans should harmonise, complement and increase the efficiency of NAP’s.


The Parties agree to co-ordinate the collection, analysis and exchange of data to better understand the effects of drought.


The Parties agree to support research and development according to their respective capabilities, through the promotion of technical and scientific co-operation to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought.


The Convention promotes co-ordination of scientific and co-operation in the transfer of technology. Both are to be redirected to meet the requirements of the people who most need it, with considerable weight placed on the value of traditional knowledge and skills.


Action programme cannot be effective, and the fight against desertification and the effects of drought cannot be won, unless strong enough institutions exist to carry them out – and the people understand and support what is being done. So the Convention stresses the significance of capacity building and of promoting public awareness.


Rather than setting up a single system of funding, the Convention concentrates on mobilising resources through all existing channels, strengthening them and re-orientating them to fits its integrated, bottom-up approach.

4.12 - INSTITUTIONS (ART 22-24)

  • The Conference of the Parties (COP) is established as the "supreme body" of the Convention and its responsibility is to make the decisions necessary to promote effective implementation of the Convention.
  • The Permanent Secretariat will make arrangements for sessions of the COP and its subsidiary bodies and compile and transmit reports. It will also facilitate assistance to developing country parties, particularly in Africa, to compile and communicate the information required by the Convention.
  • The Committee on Science and Technology which will be composed of government representatives who will survey the existing networks, institutions, agencies and bodies and make recommendations on how to link them better.
  • The Roster of Independent Experts will give information and advice on specific issues

4.13 - PROCEDURES (ART 26-40)

These address issues such as reporting, voting, the resolution of disputes etc.


This Annex provides for the efficient and practical implementation of the Convention to address conditions specific to Africa, such as:

  • The widespread poverty prevalent in most countries,
  • The difficult socio-economic conditions, exacerbated by deteriorating and fluctuating terms of trade, political instability which induce internal and regional and international migrations,
  • The heavy reliance of populations on natural resources for subsistence insufficient institutional and legal frameworks
  • This annex concentrates to a large extent on the contents of the National Action Programme as well as the Sub-regional Action Programmes and the technical assistance and co-operation in this regard.


In regional context, our first allegiance is towards Africa, where this problem is aggravated by extreme poverty.

In sub-regional context, alliances have also been formed within the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), in conjunction with whom a Sub-regional action Programme is being development, as well as conducting various other actions such as workshops on:

  • Early Warning Systems and the CCD
  • the integration of the Kalahari-Namib Action Plan into the NAP
  • the integration of gender concerns in the NAP process
  • the establishment of the Multidisciplinary Scientific and Technical Consultative Committee (MSTCC) on the CCD, as well as to consider a programme of action and future at hoc panels of the CCD, as well as to consider a programme of action and future activities for the MSTCC in the combat of land degradation, desertification and drought in the SADC region, with emphasis on research and development and transfer of technology.
  • Apart from its role in the region (Africa), South Africa is also the co-ordinator of the CCD in the Valdivia countries, - a group of temperate southern hemisphere countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand- whose aim is to promote and foster exchange of information on technical issues between these countries.


  • This Convention is an innovative document which breaks new ground in international environment law.
  • The CCD us a long term, integrated, multi-faceted, cross sectoral, overarching development programme in accordance with Agenda 21, addressing social, institutional, political, cultural, economic and environmental concerns.
  • Economically, this is a programme that has vast opportunities for job creation which will result in the sustainable use of resources and the alleviation of poverty.
  • The gender component which is already in the process of being mainstreamed, provides opportunities for development, education, upliftment and enhanced potential for income generation, thereby reducing the poverty levels in the degraded areas.
  • The CCD adds value in the sense that possibilities are created for:
    • Policy harmonisation – especially sectoral policies aimed at addressing poverty and inequality and integrating them with the government’s macro-economic framework to ensure that poor people are not marginalised further, but brought into the economic mainstream.
    • Exploration of innovative ways of using natural resources in dealing with rural poverty
    • Strengthening of existing structures by implementing and institutionalising policy reforms.
    • Building of capacity at the provincial level to participate actively in national policy initiatives.
    • Improvement in effectiveness and efficiency of human and financial resources
    • Creation of an integrated rural development approach

This Convention can be regarded as one of the most successful models for sustainable development, providing a better quality of life for millions of people all over the world.