Rio's Stepchild

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification is a non-starter. Administrative and financial matters get the better of any serious attempts to deal with global desertification. Though the desert is expanding, the North is not interested

By Anju Sharma
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Rio's Stepchild

-- (Credit: amit shanker / cse)desertification threatens 41 per cent of the total land area on the Earth. It will affect 900 million people in 100 countries, most of them in the least developed parts of the world. The industrialised North, which is not really facing this threat, is hardly interested in dealing with the problem, at least when compared to its interest in other global environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity, which are crucial to its business interests. The second conference of parties ( cop -2) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification ( ccd ), held in Dakar in early December, was a non-event compared to the frantic politicking at the climate change convention in Buenos Aires in November or the biodiversity convention in Bratislava in May. The three conventions originated from the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

With no stakes for developed country participants, aggressive industrial lobbyists were missing, and non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) from the North were conspicuous by their absence. A survey carried out earlier this year by a German ngo found a marked lack of enthusiasm on part of ngo s from the North in the desertification convention, which was created after heavy lobbying by the South in the face of opposition from countries of the North at the Rio Earth Summit.
Portents Several factors are leading to desertification: population and livestock pressure, poverty, national debts, international trade in cash crops, and poor governance; all of which put direct and indirect pressure on land. The first conference of parties, held in Rome, Italy, in September 1997, dealt mostly with the question of funding activities under the convention as developed countries were unwilling to part with significant funds to fight desertification.

cop -2 was to finally put to rest teething problems faced by ccd , including its financial mechanism, and clear the coast for further work on the 'bottom up' approach that the convention espouses in the fight against desertification in future meetings. In the 'bottom up' approach, countries are expected to prepare national action plans with the active participation of affected communities and the civil society, taking into account traditional methods. Women's groups and local communities are integral to the action plans.

However, cop -2 was mired in administrative decisions, which even spilled over to the agenda of the next conference of parties. Countries of the South did not come to Dakar with too many expectations. The financial mechanism, which was to be operational from January 1, 1998, was stalled due to lack of funds. They reiterated the demand made at Rome for countries to provide the necessary resources.

It was decided during the early stages of the ccd negotiations that a 'Global Mechanism' will be set up by ccd to encourage and assist donors, recipients, development banks and ngo s to mobilise funds and channelise them where they are needed. This Global Mechanism will be managed by the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development ( ifad ).

A memorandum of understanding between ifad and the ccd secretariat was to be signed at cop -2. But, once again, the decision was postponed to the next meeting, much to the disappointment of developing countries. However, the various parties were asked to function as if it was already operational.
Disagreements There was friction while deciding the functions of the ccd secretariat, which will shift to Bonn in Germany and start functioning from February 1999. The secretariat put forward to the parties a medium-term strategy for its functioning. The proposal found support from the Group of 77 nations ( g -77) and China, but was opposed by most developed countries. They felt the secretariat should restrict itself to a facilitating and coordinating role for parties, whereas the strategy suggested an operational role, which should be left to the Global Mechanism, the Committee of Science and Technology ( cst , set up to advice parties to the convention ) and specialised agencies involved in combating desertification. The developing countries saw this as an attempts to reduce the secretariat to its lowest common denominator, which would tend to confirm that ccd was a 'poor relation' of the other Rio conventions.

There were disagreements on the administrative and support arrangements for the secretariat as well. The meeting passed a decision calling on the un General Assembly to finance the conference servicing costs arising from sessions of the cop and its subsidiary bodies from the un regular programme budget for the period of their institutional linkage. However, delegates from the us (which is not yet an active member of the ccd ) said these costs should be borne solely by the country parties on a voluntary basis. The us Congress proposes to withhold its share of conference servicing costs for all conventions funded from the un regular budget.

Parties were also unable to decide on whether a 'simple majority vote', instead of a 'two-thirds majority vote', should be permitted when consensus is lacking on decisions. While g -77 and China supported a simple majority vote, Japan, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand insisted on consensus decisions, particularly on financial matters. This would enable developed nations to stall any financial decisions disagreeable to them, which would not be possible in the case of a simple majority vote. At cop -2, cst established a panel of ten people from around the world to elaborate links between traditional and modern knowledge in fighting desertification. This panel is to identify and report to the cst successful experiences and conclusions relating to threats and other constraints, including socio-economic impacts confronting traditional knowledge and practices; strategies for integrating traditional and local knowledge with modern knowledge based on specific case histories; and mechanisms for promoting and exchanging successful approaches. Sunita Narain, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, was selected as a member.

A Parliamentary Round Table, attended by 36 parliamentarians from 22 countries, formed part of the conference. It issued the 'Dakar Declaration', which noted the link between desertification and poverty. Parliamentarians from the South called for the equal treatment of the three Rio conventions during the Round Table.

Mobilisation of sufficient funds to make the convention a success continues to haunt the ccd process after cop -2. It is unlikely to go far if it has to continue depending on loans and scraps from the World Bank ( wb ) and the United Nations Development Programme. The Global Environmental Facility ( gef ), set up as the funding mechanism for the biodiversity and climate conventions, funds some desertification projects indirectly when they fall into the general category of 'biodiversity'. wb is now speaking about linking soil projects eligible as Clean Development Mechanism ( cdm ) projects under the climate convention. This seems to be an attempt to show the g -77 and China another carrot and draw them into participating in what is a very controversial mechanism.

The next meeting of parties is scheduled to be held in Recife, Brazil, on November 15-26, 1999. It is expected to consider implementation reports from Africa, modalities and activities of the Global Mechanism, the promotion and strengthening of relationships with other conventions, and arbitration and conciliation procedures.

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