Doubts cloud desertification convention

Developing nations fear that the lack of a proper financial mechanism may hinder the world in its battle against desertiflcation

Published: Wednesday 30 November 1994

-- (Credit: Anil Agarwal / cse)Vexatious questions continued to hover over the Convention to Combat Desertification even as government, representatives from all over the world assembled in Paris on October 14 for the signing ceremony of the Convention. The developing nations were apprehensive that the Convention's silence on financial resources could seriously cripple global efforts to battle desertification.

A clause on the need to "rationalise and strengthen the management of resources already allocated for combating desertification" and a provision for the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to redress land degradation - primarily desertification and deformation - only to the extent that relates to the four focal areas of biological diversity, climate change, international waters and ozone depletion did not allay the fears of the developing nations.

The prescriptive tone of the convention has also drawn flak. Says an Indian government official "Advice on issues like appropriate land use and the need for biological conservation go against the grain of a multilateral agreement which is an agreement between equals. The desertification convention seems to revert back to the bygone era of 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed and presented as a fait accompli to Germany"

A sense of dissatisfaction prevailed at the signing ceremony where among others, India, the African nations ,the UK ,the US and Germany had assembled. The speech by- India's minister for environment and forests, Kamal Nath, reflected the sense of a let down. "Like all else that resulted from Rio ,including Agenda 21 ,adequate financial and appropriate technological resources need to be made available if the implementation of this convention is to reality. The GEF includes in its mandate land degradation issues, but this is only a small beginning. The GEF cannot be expected to meet the requirements of every pressing environmental need. The question of a well-defined and more specific financial mechanism must be quickly and constructively resolved. Questions of war and peace seem to have gripped the attention of donor countries to the exclusion of the Official Development Assistance (ODA). The irony of it all is that ODA has actually reduced - in percentage and in real terms -since Rio."

The absence of a strong financial mechanism has been strongly felt from the very beginning (Down To Earth, September 15 1993 and June 15,1993 and 1994). Although the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) concluded by adopting a plan of action in 1977, the North refused to commit any funds.

Desertification re-emerged as the prime issue in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 when the African nations, who felt that the proposed biodiversity and climate change conventions would not effectively tackle the ecological threat to the continent, lobbied for an international convention that would benefit them. The governments at the summit had agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the Convention to Combat Desertification (INCD), which held its 1st session in November 1993. The early sessions Witnessed tussles between Africa and the other countries over priority funding. Similar problems arose at the fourth session of the INCD in Geneva, in March 1994.

However, because of a UN mandate to reach an agreement by June 1994 the convention was adopted on June 18, 1994 after an arduous fifth INCD session, giving rise to a lot of scepticism. According to Indian officials, the Asian and the Latin American countries had to underplay their own grievances in the interests of Africa. As one official said: "The latter perceived the agreement as a sure-fire resolution to their desertification problem." It now remains to be seen whether Africa will actually get the "significant resources" it has been promised.

Not everyone, however, takes such a sceptical view. Narayan Singh, additional inspector general, forests in India's ministry of environment and forests points out, "The need for a convention on desertification is universally acknowledged. The only source of friction was the question of additional funding. Africa, which is the worst affected continent, wanted a greater slice of the pie to the exclusion of other areas." There are, nevertheless, clauses that chart out specific areas of action with regard to Asia and Latin America, he adds.

For 900 million people affected worldwide, the real cause for optimism lies in the convention's humbler efforts to involve NGOs. Experts opine that grassroot level initiatives involving livestock herders and local farmers in low -rainfall areas may prove more effective than high-profile plans.

Towards a greener Earth
AUGUST 1997: An action plan to combat desrtification is adopted by the UN conference on Desertification in Nairobi, Kenya
JUNE 1992: At the Earth Summit, nations agree to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the Convention to Combat Desertification (INCD)
MAY 1993: The 1st INCD meeting is held in Nairobi
JUNE 1994: The 5th INCD session in Paris adopts the Desertification Convention
JANUARY 1995: The 6th session of INCD is to be held in New York

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