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Home Desertification Conference Programme


by Roben Penny, Coordinator, National Action Programme, South Africa


In 1997, the United Nations called a conference on desertification in Nairobi, Kenya and adopted a Plan of Action to combat Desertification. The plan failed because the international community lacked the coordination, financial and political commitment.

It also failed because the plan of action was written by officials in the nation’s capitals, far removed from the actual people most affected by land degradation.

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, the developing countries, led by Africa, insisted that particular attention be given to the phenomenon of desertification and demanded a binding legal framework. On June 17th 1994, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa was officially adopted.


Considering that the people most severely affected by land degradation are among the poorest in the world, the Convention has the potential:

  • to reduce the vulnerability of affected populations by securing their land tenure rights,
  • strengthening the role of women in the implementation,
  • improving productivity of the land and;
  • to create new opportunities for alternative livelihoods, not necessary linked to the land.

Successful implementation of the Convention should improve living conditions, and reduce poverty while also helping to alleviate related problems such as urban migration, loss of plant and animal species, climate change and the need for emergency aid to population in crisis.

The Convention states that the policy must have a "bottom-up" approach and that the local people must be fully involved in deciding how to tackle the problems of land degradation and how to overcome poverty. All this sounds like a lot of developmental politically correct jargon so I have decided to use an example of a pilot project using a "bottom-up" approach.

This illustrates how the needs, concerns and priorities of a drylands community could be reflected in a national policy framework to combat land degradation.

Pilot Project example

A mining company has begun talks with 3 communities that live in an undeveloped, communal area along a coastline and a river estuary. There are small deposits of certain minerals in the area. The community’s viewpoint, which they have strongly voiced, is that the greatest threat to them and the environment, is the mining issue. In their words: "This issue lies above our heads like a dark cloud and has caused us years of extreme anxiety and insecurity. The temporary jobs and money the mine would bring does not constitute and inheritance."

Three tribal community authorities were assisted to identify and invite a group of interested people to attend a preliminary meeting. The invitees were from all levels of government; development agencies; NGO’s and universities and were in some way initiated a process of environmental protection and sustainable economic development for the area.

The community wanted to use the workshops as an opportunity to exchange ideas on development and to get help on how to solve their problems without losing the rich environmental resources they have inherited. They identified provision of water to the households as their top priority. This was followed by better education, agricultural support, clinics, job creation, land reform issues, including women’s legal right’s, better roads, natural resource protection from unsustainable illegal commercial and subsistence practices.

We all know that environmental degradation in a poor area is largely caused by the above identified, basic needs, not being met. So the challenge is how to have these basics needs met while working towards combating land degradation.

The community has already been working on a number of projects but they were struggling as they felt there was no support from the local government, they lacked information and were therefore powerless. Small investigator teams comprising of community members and specialists were then appointed to further the ideas and projects within a draft integrated economic development plan. Community-based eco-tourism is one of the development options as the area is an unspoiled natural environment.

Local government’s involvement right from the beginning in these processes is essential. They are the generators of service delivery and they need to articulate the needs of the community to the next level of government and then regional decision making structures. Local government is the bridge for the communities to national government, resources and polices. Therefore the districts proposals for development have to be coordinated and inline with district and provincial priorities for development.

Through pilot projects like this one we have learnt many lessons that are then used to inform the policy process. These are the taken to a national level where they feed into the National Action Programme.

At the sub-regional level, Southern Africa is a large and diverse region sharing many borders and transboundry natural resources. If something goes wrong in one country it inevitably overflows into the next. Through SADC-ELMS we are busy working together in certain areas and in others we need to find how best to develop partnerships and joint programmes that will ensure equity led growth in the SADC sub-region. Relevant sub-regional institutions should be strengthened and an important factor here is that these programmes must compliment each country’s National Action Programme.


In conclusion the Convention to Combat Desertification is a long term, cross sectoral and therefore overarching policy that should not conflict with any other national or sub-regional policy. While developing the community economic development programmes we should build the institutional capacity of existing departments and organisations from the local to national level, as they will then be in a strong position to enforce, support and monitor the National Action Programme.