"Desertification is a global problem"

Ambassador BO KJELLEN has seen it all, from diplomacy and development to even sports. A "family man", as he describes himself, addicted to music and badminton, the 62-year-old Swede began his career with the foreign ministry and has thereafter represented his country in various international fora. Leader of the Swedish delegation to the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, Kiellen's latest assignment sees him as the chairperson of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the Rio Convention to Combat Desertification.Anil Agarwal spoke to him recently

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What are the highlights of the Desertification Convention?
The pillars of the Convention, as I call them, are firstly, the bottom-up approach, the fact that local participation is essential and that governments and NGOs together undertake to create an enabling environment for local participation. The second pillar is the establishment of partnerships of different kinds and a better coordination between donors. There is also the possibility of creating national desertification funds. The third pillar is an effort to combine land and water management and to give full justice to social and economic factors. The fourth is the role of science and technology.

Desertification is a global problem. That is why the Convention itself has four regional annexes for Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Mediterranean area.

In the follow-up to various conventions, one problem has been funds which have actually not materialised. What is the scenario with respect to the Desertification Convention?
You are right. We have a scarcity of funds at present. The Swedish have for a long time felt that we should avoid creating specific funds for different conventions because there are big financial institutions like the World Bank. I perfectly agree with the solution we found in this Convention, that there be what is called a global mechanism, which is supposed to be an institution that would facilitate the flow of resources by actively involving national governments and big international institutions.

At the same time, I do not think it is a good idea to have an overall fund for the Convention as national desertification funds should be able to operate with reasonable resources. judging from the information on Africa, which we already have, there is a lot of money already going to the drylands. We can milise these existing resources in an efficient way through the existence of the Convention. But, this does not detract attention from the fact that in the generally successful follow-up to Rio, the lack of new money is an obstacle. I do not see any major openings for new ODA (overseas development assistance) in government budgets that are getting squeezed, but at the same time, we all know that there is a lot ofmoney around the world that can be tapped.

In the early phases of the Rio Convention it was believed that it would bear special reference to Africa. What is the current scenario? Does it aim only at Africa?
No, it is clearly a global convention. The African countries had earlier, before Rio, proposed a regional Convention which was later enlarged to the concept of a global Convention. But priority for Africa is clearly set out in the text of the Convention. Certainly, there are good reasons for that. One being that African countries are suffering more from the problems of desertification and drought.

Land management is a highly complex subject and requires ecosystem specificity. When you got into this issue, I am not sure how much of an expert you were in the field of dryland management. Did the Convention educate you about certain substantive issues which you feel very strongly about now?
Yes, you are right in saying that I am not an expert in land management. I became chairperson of these negotiations, I guess, partly because I had been chairing work in the PrepCom (Preparatory Committee) of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), where the desertification issue was negotiated. But I actually came to work on development cooperation through field experience. I was Ambassador in Hanoi in the '70s when Sweden started some very big development cooperation projects like a paper mill.

If I may so add, the infamous Swedish paper project?
Well, the fact is that the paper mill is now recognised as quite a successful project. It became more expensive than was expected. One of the reasons for this was that to put up the paper mill we were cooperating with the Vietnamese, which slowed down the process, but this also meant that a lot of Vietnamese got an opportunity to learn how a big industrial project operates. I have on all occasions said that what we can do is create tools for the people to generate better conditions for themselves with, of course, the help of the governments. But we have often tried to impose methods that were not good. I have felt on various occasions that there are several reasons for going back to the teachings of Gandhi on the role of the villages, the strength and the capacity of the local population. Although I have learnt a lot, I have certainly not become an expert on land degradation.

I have seen a lot of projects on land management in India and abroad and feel very strongly that scientists are not experts in this field. Therefore, in this particular area, have you made any special attempts to bring in NGOs with real grassroots experiences?
Yes, I think that we can say that we have. In fact, grassroot NGOs have been very active in Africa. They have made a number of impressive presentations of exactly the kind of projects that you have mentioned. So I think we have managed to maintain a rather healthy distance with the kind of experts that you are talking about. Of course, there is always an interest to get people who have expertise in different fields. What we have is a panel of experts and some very good social scientists with expertise in land tenure.

So the contribution that I have been able to make in this respect is to push towards a horizontal overview, which helps us not to buy all the arguments that come from experts.

Has the Desertification Convention pushed nations to recognise that this is an issue that has to be handled by communities at a local level?
Yes. In fact, the governments that have signed the Convention have committed themselves to creating this, enabling environment fields at the local level. I don't think there exists any other legally binding document that recognises this as much as our convention. I think that the Rio Conference itself was a sort of breakthrough for NGOs. I am personally convinced that if NGOs had not been so actively present, as they were, particularly, during the Fourth PrepCom, I doubt if Agenda 21 would have got off the ground. I am of the opinion that the real strength of Chapter 28 is in local involvement in Agenda 21.

On the issue of land-based products which are declining in the world economy in terms of trade, how does one square this? And was this an issue that was raised in the context of the Desertification Convention ?
It has not been raised. The issues you have raised, to my mind, have a dimension which should be handled in a more general way. I must say that in the Commission on Sustainable Development, where they discussed the land issue as a particular topic in 1995, these problems were mentioned. But it is very difficult to get after them. Sweden has recently entered the European Union, and we are fighting hard for the reform of the European Common Agricultural Policy. I feel that ultimately, the power of the consumer will have a considerable impact.

What do you see as the future? Are you actually going to reverse land degradation?
Well, you know, you have to be an optimist. There is a Finnish author and philosopher who has coined the term "provocative pessimist". He says that a provocative pessimist is much better than an "unreflected optimist". It means that we see tremendous risks ahead when we look at these trends that have to be reversed but, at the same time, this has to lead to action and the willingness to consider different policies and methods.

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