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THERE is no environmental problem in the world that affects poor people as extensively or viciously as land degradation or desertification. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), about 900 million people are threatened by desertification, which affects more than 6.1 billion ha -- about 35 per cent of the earth's land area. Each of the 16 years that have passed since the UN Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) 1977 has seen approximately 6 million ha of previously productive land rendered infertile. In terms of income lost, at 1990 prices, this means an annual loss of about $42.3 billion.
A very large proportion of the world's rural poor live on degraded lands. Desertification is the end product of a vicious mixture of economic, political and technological forces, which leaves people economically, socially and politically marginalised. As the land gets further degraded, sheer survival takes up more and more human effort, labour and time, till finally the men are forced to migrate and swell the ranks of the urban unemployed, while the women are left behind to struggle on.
Asia, with 1,312 million ha of degraded drylands, suffers the most desertification. But in terms of severity, North America and Africa are the worst off, because nearly three-quarters of their drylands are affected. Of the world's drylands used for agriculture, 70 per cent are affected to some degree by various forms of degradation.
The environment is not a fixed asset, nor are dryland boundaries static or abrupt, given the high annual variability in mean rainfall and the occurrence of drought, which may last for several years at a time. Hence, attempts to locate boundaries of desertified lands on the ground or to define them in terms of such criteria as natural vegetation, are likely to fail.
Desertification is a slow process in which land productivity and resilience steadily decline. UNEP's latest study lists overgrazing, deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices as the major causes of desertification. But these practices may be motivated by a whole chain of economic practices, which result in poor prices for agricultural and livestock products, or political compulsions like debt, which force a country to promote adverse land-use practices in order to earn foreign exchange.
What makes dryland soils specially vulnerable to degradation is the slowness of their recovery from a disturbance. Because water is often not available or is available only in limited amounts, new soil is formed slowly. Salts, once accumulated, tend to remain in situ. Build-up of organic matter, which is usually consumed at high speed under warm conditions, takes a long time. Moisture deficiency discourages recolonisation by plants that have been removed or damaged. Hence, the ability of soils in dry areas to recover from negative changes is lower than in humid areas.
Hassan M Hassan, senior environment specialist at the World Bank, says the remedy is to link development programmes in dryland regions to the main centres of economic activity. "This," he explains, "would involve providing incentives to farmers, such as guaranteed long-term benefits for their product, and diversifying economic activities."
Unfortunately, global responses to control desertification have been a constant victim of politics. In 1977, after the UN Conference on Desertification, the North refused to support the official outcome of the conference and commit funds to combat desertification. The Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which created a desertification control programme as a result of the conference, had negligible impact as it continuously failed to receive funds from donor countries.
Even when the Global Environment Facility was set up in 1990, desertification control was not listed as an area eligible for support. It was only after former UNEP executive director Mostafa Tolba threatened to withdraw from GEF that desertification control was made eligible for GEF support in April 1992, but hardly any projects have been funded yet. Most GEF money for desertification control is expected only when the operational phase of the fund begins in 1994.
An expert group meeting on desertification and GEF held in 1992 recognised that "no other environmental issue has generated as much distress": In the last two decades, there have been at least 10 million environmental refugees from the drylands. But the meeting concentrated more on global dimensions of desertification. For instance, the report of the meeting points out carbon storage in dryland soils may have a critical role to play in the global carbon cycle. Dryland soils contain the greatest proportion of the world's soil carbonates. The meeting's report says, "Soil carbon accounts for more carbon than all the world's vegetation. The effects of erosion, by wind or water, on this carbon store can only be speculative, but they are potentially very serious."
At the Earth Summit in Rio, too, the North had tried to link the African demand for a convention on desertification to the forest convention, which had been proposed by then. But the African governments stuck to their solidarity with Asian and Latin American countries, who were opposed to the forest convention. In fact, the European Community delegation in Rio openly stated in the main committee that the Africans would get a desertification convention if the South agreed to a forest convention. This open horse-trading led to such an uproar, an intermission had to be arranged and the EC privately reprimanded, after which it tamely agreed to a desertification convention.
However, the politics on desertification have now turned full circle. The first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the convention to combat Desertification (INC-D) held in May 1993 in Nairobi ended in a South-South division.
African insistence that they should be the primary beneficiaries of the anti-desertification funds, which will follow the convention, caused a deadlock among developing countries. The other delegates opposed the African stand because, as one South Asian delegate explained, "If the convention focusses only on Africa, what reason do I give to my parliament to ratify it?"
Articulating the African position forcefully was Moulaye Diallo, head of the Mali delegation, who briefed NGOs, saying: "It is mainly the Asian and Latin American countries that benefit financially from the earlier agreements. Therefore, the desertification convention should be Africa-centred, to compensate for the sharply dwindling aid to the continent."
The problem was accentuated by UNEP figures that show the total land affected by desertification in Asia is marginally higher than in Africa. The Asians and Latin Americans were also worried the North would use its leverage with the African countries to win their support for a renewed attempt at a forest convention. Responding to a question at an NGO briefing, a West African delegate conceded as much, saying African nations would not support the forest convention sought by the industrialised states until the desertification convention is negotiated to "our satisfaction".
Malaysia was among the leading Asian and Latin American countries trying to prevent Northern countries from exerting pressure on African states for the forest convention. Though it has no desert and could not have much interest in land degradation, Malaysia was represented in Nairobi by a large delegation. Delegation head Wen Lian Ting said she did not expect African countries to break G-77 solidarity by supporting the forest convention, but she expressed concern that this could be accomplished through back-door tactics, such as inserting clauses in the desertification convention that would effectively restrict national control of forests.
But all this politics is still not getting any money from the North. African governments have attempted to establish desertification as a "global" issue because of its impact on the global environment. They have also attempted to attribute desertification to climate change, which would give them a stronger case for financial "compensation". A persistent rumour circulating in Nairobi was that in a bid to encourage Northern countries to loosen their purse-strings, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) has decided to abstain from raising any contentious international issue that relates to the basic causes of desertification.
Industrialised countries, still unwilling to offer funds, countered this strategy by blaming desertification on human mismanagement, rather than climate change.
Because most of the time was spent in getting Northern governments to support or reject various positions, the two-week Nairobi meeting ended with bare agreement on setting up two working groups. One of the groups will negotiate definitions and objectives of the desertification convention and global commitments and the other will negotiate institutional and administrative provisions.
In the end, the indications in Nairobi are that even if a desertification convention is agreed upon, it will have little, if any, liability on the Northern countries. Most of the commitments will devolve on developing nations. The convention will have "regional annexes", that will be little more than regional action plans looking for financial support, like any other project.