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Dire Development Issues Converge in the Drylands

Kanya D'Almeida

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 17 2010 (IPS) - Few are aware that close to one billion people in over 100 different countries are suffering from or severely threatened by intense desertification. Yet awareness is crucial, for it is human behaviour that has led to the proliferation of hyper- arid, uncultivable drylands over the past few decades.

The drylands are home to one of every three people on earth. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

The drylands are home to one of every three people on earth. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

As vast amounts of land are increasingly lost to desertification, the United Nations General Assembly declared the United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification (UNDDD), scheduled to run from January 2010 to December 2020 to raise awareness and develop action plans to protect the drylands.

On Thursday, the European Launch of UNDDD was held in London, home to scores of NGOs, think-tanks and advocacy organisations dedicated to combating land degradation and promoting the sustainability of deserts.

Researchers, activists and policy experts gathered to share knowledge, strategies and perspectives on the crisis, working within the framework that “A decade is time enough for change.”

Jointly organised by the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the European Launch earmarked the culmination of the 2010 calendar year for the Decade, including events in Fortaleza, Brazil; Nairobi, Kenya; Seoul, Republic of Korea and Colorado, United States.

Following the disappointments in Cancún and the failure of countless international treaties to stem land degradation, the Decade presents the international community with an opportunity to act swiftly and urgently to deal with the crisis.

The drylands are home to one in every three people on earth. Some of the world’s most dire issues – from biodiversity and food production, to energy extraction and famine – converge in the drylands.

They are an ancient and natural sanctuary to some of the rarest species of animal, bird and plant life on the planet. According to reports from the UNDDD, “one in every three crops under cultivation today has its origins in the drylands.” They also support half of the world’s livestock.

The poor of China, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia currently bear the brunt of desertification. Last year the BBC reported that desertification in those areas could displace up to 50 million people by 2020. Experts say the impending crisis of mass migrations, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and climate refugees fleeing drought and famine can no longer be ignored.

The European launch focused closely on some of these issues, and sought to highlight the points of intersection between bio-preservation and human safety.

Johannes Kamp, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, told IPS, “We work in Eastern European and Central Asian drylands and biodiversity there is very strongly linked to land use. Human behaviour in those areas has a huge impact on animal and bird life, especially livestock herding, overgrazing and agriculture.”

“So if you want to preserve biodiversity in these areas you have to get people on board and start talking seriously about sustainability,” he added.

Despite the fact that our entire ecosystem relies on a delicate balance of wet and dry lands, industrialised farming has been, and continues to be, the greatest perpetrator of desertification in the world, he noted.

“We do a lot of work in agricultural landscapes in the former Soviet states,” Kamp told IPS. “A lot of the farm land was abandoned after 1991 and this was beneficial to biodiversity, but now much of this land is being taken back for food production – mostly cereal – and cultivation there is driven by world market prices. The demand for food is increasing and this has a huge impact on biodiversity in those areas.”

Luc Gnacadja, the executive secretary of the UNCCD, spoke gravely about the political and humanitarian implications of desertification.

“Climate change is one of the root causes of political conflict from Iraq to Afghanistan,” Gnacadja told IPS. “The crises in these regions are not accidents – they are caused by paltry living conditions, and a lack of access to productive land and water for life. Surely a battle over the bare necessities inevitably leads to conflict.”

As with most other climate-related catastrophes, the world’s ethnic minorities, nomadic communities or other marginalised, impoverished groups pay the highest price for a problem they did the least to create.

To that end, Gnacadja added, it is absolutely imperative that the UNDDD allow ideas, strategies and information on desertification to flow directly from the grassroots into the sphere of the political elite.

“The stakeholders here are not corporations or even the governments,” Gnacadja told IPS. “They are the farmers, the herders, the people who are living and working in the arid areas. They must be allowed to communicate their ideas on what ‘works’ and what does not.”

While the U.N.’s latest initiative has marked out a positive course of action, current numbers and trends on the rate and scale of desertification are ominous, raising serious questions about the viability of sporadic schemes to deal with the magnitude of the crisis.

According to reports from a U.N. University (UNU) conference on desertification, “Africa may only be able to feed a mere 25 percent of its population by 2025, if soil degradation on the continent continues at its current pace, and nearly 75 percent of the continent could come to rely on some sort of food aid by that time.”

It seems that a more holistic, radical change in economic and social conditions is required in order to truly address the issue of desertification.

“The industrial revolution and the spread of urbanisation were the first factors leading to the current degradation of the top soil,” Gnacadja told IPS.

“In the last 50 years, human beings have done more damage to the earth than in all of human history combined. It is possible that by 2050 we would be required to increase food production by 70 percent. We must reverse that tendency… We must act now for the next generation,” he said.

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