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LATIN AMERICA: Desertification – an Invisible Cancer

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 18 2009 (IPS) - “Desertification is the cancer of the earth,” Argentine geographer Elena Abraham told IPS. “It is a process of degradation that does not manifest itself in spectacular ways but furtively advances, and by the time it is visible there is nothing to be done, and people have to move away, in search of an alternative.”

Her warning came on the eve of the ninth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), to be held Sept. 21-Oct. 2 in Buenos Aires, with the participation of more than 2,500 government officials, scientists and representatives of NGOs from 193 countries.

The UNCCD was signed in 1994 and went into effect in 1996. The international conference on desertification, or COP, was held annually between 1997 and 2001, and every two years since then.

At the COP9, the countries will evaluate a 10-year strategy and plan for the implementation of the UNCCD in the 2008-2018 period, adopted at the COP8 in Madrid in 2007. They also plan to agree on a basic set of indicators for monitoring land degradation, will try to bring greater visibility to the phenomenon of desertification, and will demand more funding to fight the problem.

According to the UNCCD Global Mechanism, 28 percent of land in Latin America and the Caribbean is drylands, arid and semi-arid lands and sub-humid areas that are home to 125 million people, including 60 percent of the poorest people in the region.

And the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a regional U.N. agency, says that of the total drylands, 75 percent are suffering serious land degradation problems due to climate change and poor management.


More than half of the territory of Argentina, Mexico and Paraguay is affected. In Brazil, the vulnerable area is the impoverished northeast. Degradation of land is also a problem in parts of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, Uruguay, and a number of Caribbean islands.

The 12 percent of Guatemala’s territory that is arid is home to 1.2 million of the country’s 13 million people. Earlier this month, President Álvaro Colom declared a “state of public calamity” in the so-called “dry corridor” in the east of the country, where a prolonged drought has affected the food security of hundreds of thousands of families. In the first six months of the year, 462 people died of malnutrition-related causes in the Central American country.

A 2008 ECLAC report, Poverty, Desertification and Degradation of Natural Resources, says the situation is serious in nearly all countries of the region, and threatens the subsistence of a large part of the 120 million Latin Americans living in rural areas.

Argentina is most affected. “It is exactly the opposite of what people think: the humid pampas make up 25 percent of the territory, and the rest is arid,” Octavio Pérez Pardo, director of Soil Conservation and the Fight against Desertification in the Secretariat on the Environment and Sustainable Development, told IPS.

These dry areas, which are particularly fragile, are degraded as a result of climatic factors and human activities. Abraham, the director of the Argentine Institute for Arid Zones Research (IADIZA), said “the leading cause of desertification in the region is the expansion of the agricultural frontier.”

Other factors mentioned by the expert are indiscriminate deforestation, which leaves exposed soils vulnerable to erosion, over-grazing, inappropriate farming and irrigation methods, and growing urbanisation in vulnerable areas.

“The problem is complex because it is not only a question of the physical-biological impact. If drylands are subjected to intensive production practices, population groups are forced to migrate and live in poverty,” Abraham said.

These are the links that the COP9 conference will attempt to make visible, said Pérez Pardo. “Thousands of people migrate – from Africa to Europe, from Latin America to the United States, or from the countryside to the cities, within countries, and a large proportion of them do so because their land is no longer productive.

“The less land there is to farm and the more people there are to feed, the greater the productivity per unit of land we have to achieve,” he said. “If the land is degraded, food security is threatened.”

Abraham said 15 percent of the territory in Brazil is drylands, a much smaller proportion than in Argentina. But unlike in this country, the arid zones are heavily populated, which not only increases the pressure on the soil but aggravates the conditions in which the population must survive.

Faced with that outlook, which affects more than 100 of the world’s countries and two billion people, COP9 plans to establish commonly agreed indicators. “We need to be able to monitor the desertification process, and to do that we need effective indicators,” said Pérez Pardo.

Just as climate change is monitored based on greenhouse gas emissions, experts need to be able to assess land degradation. To that end, the summit will hold the first Scientific Conference, a special segment that will bring together experts from around the world on Sept. 22-24.

“We have to install a culture of monitoring,” said Abraham. “The aim of scientists in this meeting is to make monitoring methods compatible and set standards. Because we have measurements, but at a local, not national, level, which means countries cannot be compared and the evolution of the problem cannot be assessed.”

Pérez Pardo also said the delegates will analyse the financing mechanisms offered by the different multilateral bodies. “There is a deficit of funding for the fight against desertification. It is the global environmental problem that draws the least funds,” compared to the loss of biodiversity and climate change, he said.

“The monitoring indicators and financing are the big internal themes of this conference, and they are absolutely strategic,” said the official, who will coordinate the conference. “The success or failure of U.N. policies on desertification will depend on these questions.”

The representatives will then move towards making the connection between desertification and climate change, discuss the need for afforestation efforts, as forests are fixers of carbon, and demonstrate that the degradation of drylands is no less important than the gradual rise in temperatures, because they are parallel, connected phenomena that have similar consequences.

“What communications policy should be followed in order to achieve, in the case of desertification, the level of understanding and awareness that has been attained with respect to climate change? That is the big question for which we will try to come up with an answer at this conference,” said Pérez Pardo.

 
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