the poor

Hama Arba Diallo
describes the work of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in addressing a threat to some of the world’s poorest people, through an international legal instrument

Desertification – the degradation of land into desert-like conditions – threatens to shrink arable land by a fifth in South America, one third in Asia and two thirds in Africa. Many of the poorest people on all three continents will face even greater food insecurity, malnutrition and disease, and many will be forced to leave their homes to survive.

Poverty is a central cause of desertification, forcing people to overexploit land for food, energy, housing and income. Unsustainable land-use practices have greatly disrupted the vital cycle of self-restoration in the world’s drylands.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which entered into force in 1996, is the only international legal instrument that addresses this threat. It promotes a holistic approach, fully taking into account the intricate social and economic aspects of the process.

Action Programmes
The Convention commits its Country Parties – 191 as of December 2004 – to promote techniques and strategies for sustainable land management, while addressing such issues as land ownership, education and capacity building. Its backbone is its Action Programmes. These long-term policy frameworks are prepared by countries at the national, subregional and regional levels. They identify key factors contributing to desertification, devise long-term preventive and rehabilitation strategies, and specify the roles of government, non-governmental organizations and local communities. The Parties to the Convention are now moving from preparing these programmes to implementing them.

The Global Environment Facility designated land degradation as its fifth focal area in October 2002 to ensure that the Action Programmes had sufficient resources. This will provide a critical impetus for sustainable rural development: implementing the Convention has been hampered and delayed for many years by a lack of predictable financial resources. In addition, industrialized countries are to provide ‘substantial financial resources and other forms of support’, including grants and concessional loans, through both bilateral and multilateral channels. Simultaneously, affected developing countries are to allocate adequate resources to these activities, given their circumstances and capabilities.
Those directly affected are no longer ignored or blamed for desertification
The Convention can only be put into practice, and benefit the poorest, if founded on the principle of partnership. It therefore advocates the spirit of a two-way partnership between all stakeholders. Only if affected developing countries and the donor community join efforts and respect each other as allies can the fight against desertification be won. Programmes and priorities are hence to be defined jointly, to ensure efficient, more equitable and democratic coordination – and to avoid duplication.

Coalition building
The Convention also promotes coalition building through stakeholders’ participation. Traditional top-down approaches have failed; but its participatory, bottom-up approach has ensured enduring and effective changes on the ground. It emphasizes the participation of all stakeholders – including local communities, non-governmental organizations, international organizations and donor countries – in the entire process, from decision making to implementation. Those directly affected are no longer ignored or blamed for desertification – but viewed, with their understanding of the land, as prime resources. Indeed, it is primarily through the empowerment of the world’s poor that the fight against desertification and rural poverty can be won

Hama Arba Diallo is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

PHOTOGRAPH: Narciso Saraiva/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Strengthening the rule of law | Partners in law | Justice can be shortsighted | Force of law | A matter of judgement | A law of energy | People | Rule of man, or rule of law? | At a glance: The rule of law | Sebastião Salgado | Sustainable development comes from Saturn! | One planet, different worlds | Nature’s wisdom | Kickback fightback | Conflict and cooperation | Holistic landmark | Empowering the poor | Legal climate | Small is effective | Building the framework

Complementary issues:
Global Environment Facility 2002
Food 1996
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment 2003