PERHAPS no environmental problem affects the poor of the world as much as desertification. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) says this has affected 900 million people and 6.1 billion ha. But desertification is an issue far more complex than just degradation of land. During the recent desertification convention at Bamaco in Mali, RAVI SHARMA spoke to Bo Kjellen of Sweden, the chairperson of the International Negotiating Committee for Drought and Desertification, on the politics of the sand and the successes and failures of the desertification convention.
In 1977, the UN organised a conference on desertification in which a resolution was passed to start a fund for desertification control. Besides, UNEP also started a desertification programme, but most industrialised countries showed no interest in this. Do you think there has been a change in their perception?
It's difficult to say that there has been a change in perception on funding. For the past 15-20 years, Sweden has not favoured special funds. In fact, we have seen too many examples of funds that have been proposed but never operationalised. We realise that a certain critical mass has to be acquired and that's why we prefer to put money in existing institutions -- multilateral financial institutions and programmes such as the UN Development Programme and the UN Children's Fund.
The best prospects for financing under the convention would be to arrange for a whole range of financing -- multilateral and bilateral. The convention in any case would do well to establish criteria for financing and help mobilisation of new funds. Developing countries are beginning to realise that it may not be after all a question of new funding, but a need to spend existing funds efficiently.
Why is the convention trying to strengthen the aid mechanism to increase the quality of aid within the same structure of aid and charity though it has been said that aid and charity do not really result in a very good performance of environmental projects? Besides, it is said that a specific convention cannot deal with a large issue like debt. But then, either you deal with issues like debt in every convention or you never get another opportunity. And, some of these problems are influenced more by the conventional market than by aid and charity.
I think aid has different objectives. One is obviously an expression of the solidarity that should exist between the North and the South. With the kind of glaring economic inequalities that are there, I think the desertification issue is a useful device to bring them closer to each other. But, it's also important that we show results because the money that flows through the aid channels is the money paid by the taxpayers in the North. At times, it seems the solution lies in getting away from too much thinking in terms of plans or action projects.
Apart from this, even the low-income countries need to get integrated into the global economic life. Governments have to promote economic and structural policies that are rational in that way and that is where I see the importance of the attention to the local level lying at present. It may well be that the donors as well as recipient governments believe that by pumping money into certain projects, such as those combating desertification, we are really making a big contribution. But perhaps the people at the grassroot level do not feel that way. I think we need more genuine participation.
I don't agree that by making aid projects efficient you can make a significant impact on desertification unless you do something about the declining purchasing power of the exports of developing countries. To increase export revenues, you need more cash crops, but land degradation and food insecurity are increasing because the most productive lands are being used for cash crops. Though you can work at the grassroot level to sort out the problems this will have only a marginal impact.
Indeed, we are faced with serious problems because we are all in this interdependent economy and can't get away from it. The commodity prices of developing countries have clearly declined and one has to reflect on that. At the same time, we know the possibilities of influencing the international commodity market or the terms of trade are very limited. We have accepted the market economy at the global level. One way of correcting the global imbalances is giving aid -- not as a form of charity but as a rational way of organising the world economy.
As for the debt issue, one would hope this (desertification) convention would help in pushing forward some of the debt rescheduling schemes and strengthening efforts that are already under way with regard to the African debt. I don't think this convention can bring about any sensational solution, but there is a possibility of reaching an agreement to try to solve this dryland problem in a more rational way than we have done before. I feel we have made progress on issues of international trade from the days of the UN Conference on Trade and Development in 1964.
Are you saying that there is a wider popular perception in the North that desertification control is important enough for taxpayers to contribute towards?
Yes, I think there is such perception in many countries and the economic and environmental problems of Africa are becoming more obvious during these negotiations, which are focussing on that region. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where development cooperation is more difficult than it used to be. Nevertheless, I think there is scope for cooperation and perhaps simple solutions to the energy problem. I am happy that in a country like Sweden global environmental problems have been put on top of the political agenda.
What is your idea of an ideal desertification convention?
My idea if an ideal convention on desertification is one that is not just a framework convention. We should have a convention containing a lot of concrete commitments. On the side of the developed countries, it will include ensuring a reasonable flow of financial and
Even in your ideal convention, you do not think of hard economic issues like trade and debt. Do you really feel that at this stage in history, governments in the industrialised world are helpless to intervene in the market?
See what is happening in Europe. Governments are not very good at intervening in the market even in the European framework. However, because this (desertification) convention is part of a more general framework, it will hopefully meet every year to discuss the transfer of resources and technology.
You said that the convention is more innovative than others. My understanding is that it is an action programme like a tropical forestry action plan, but set in a legal framework. Is that what you mean when you say it is different from other conventions?
Yes. In a way, the legally binding framework is a different one. You recall that there have been discussions to develop a convention on forests, which resulted in a forestry statement that was not legally binding. These differences are not very significant. It is more significant that we are tackling a problem like desertification, which at one stage was put aside at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). I know the African countries, in particular, were very concerned and now this issue has gained importance after UNCED. To me, the innovative character of the desertification conference will have to be developed during the negotiations.
The present discussion of the convention seems to be binding for developing countries, but isn't it rather short on the commitments of developed countries?
I think it is too early to say, but it certainly has to be binding on the developing countries. Developing country governments will have the burden of carrying out this policy. But I think we have already established a joint responsibility between the North and the South, in so far as the development policies of the South are concerned. The donors in the North have as much responsibility as the governments of the South.
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