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ENVIRONMENT: Desertification – a Macroeconomic Problem

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 24 2009 (IPS) - Understanding desertification as a macroeconomic problem, with financial, productive, environmental and civil society aspects, is a major concern for Christian Mersmann, the managing director of the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Deforestation causes soil degradation: logging in Chiapas, Mexico.  Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

Deforestation causes soil degradation: logging in Chiapas, Mexico. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

The Global Mechanism’s mandate is to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of existing financial instruments and promote action to channel resources to developing countries affected by desertification.

Mersmann is taking part in the Ninth Session of the Conference of Parties (COP 9) to the Convention, being held Sept. 21 to Oct. 2 in Buenos Aires. The gathering has brought together some 2,500 experts in the fight against soil degradation, which over the next 40 years could forcibly displace hundreds of millions of people around the world, according to a number of studies.

In an interview with IPS at a hotel in central Buenos Aires, the U.N. expert said people in general must internalise the idea that environmental degradation affects the price of the tomatoes they buy at the greengrocer’s or the supermarket.

Mersmann stressed that many Latin American governments are increasingly understanding the macroeconomic effects of soil degradation, and are increasingly aware that enormous investments are needed to restore degraded farmland.

Everyone knows that finance ministers have other priorities, but in view of the loss of agricultural production and jobs, the main task is not to convince the ministers to make funds available, but to establish a multilateral agenda to examine what public policies, private investment and local and international financing are needed, Mersmann said.

Many participants at COP 9 have underlined that soil degradation is not a question of the soil alone, but includes aspects like water availability, vegetation and human development. The first results of the global strategy for 2008-2018 adopted at COP 8 in Madrid two years ago are being evaluated in Buenos Aires.

Mersmann, an anthropologist with extensive experience of programmes to recover degraded soils in Africa, emphasised the risks associated with the widely-held concept in Latin America that “soil (fertility) is inexhaustible,” because of the vast productive or semi-productive tracts of land that are not being farmed. Productive soil “is a scarce resource,” he stressed.

Asked about the effect of monocultures like the vast plantations of genetically-modified soybeans, which due to high international prices are displacing cattle ranching and traditional crops, Mersmann said they are “extremely risky” because market swings can cause the “complete collapse” of a country’s economy.

He pointed out that large-scale production of soybeans has a boomerang effect as it drives up the cost of other products, as in fact has been happening in Argentina, where a political and economic conflict between farmers’ associations and the centre-left government of President Cristina Fernández has been under way since 2008.

Mersmann said that a “green revolution” based on transgenic crops is absolutely unnecessary. On the one hand, presently available technology can be used to avoid the use of genetically modified seeds, whereas in terms of economic sustainability, the crucial European market and, no doubt, that of the United States, will not in future accept genetically altered products, he said.

Finally, Mersmann said the world is already in the midst of a huge conflict over water, which is becoming visible in local disputes. In 10 years’ time, the world will not be seeing traditional wars, but there will be many more local conflicts exerting a large impact on people’s lives, he said.

On the opening day of COP 9, Argentine Environment Secretary Homero Bibiloni acknowledged at a press conference that Argentina, both at home and abroad, is identified with the fertile pampas grasslands, even though they actually make up only one quarter of the national territory.

At the Scientific Conference held parallel to COP 9, the head of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Mahmoud Solh, warned that global food sovereignty is in danger. Forty percent of the earth’s land surface is affected to some degree by desertification, changing the lives of 1.7 billion people, he said.

Argentine geographer and researcher Elena Abraham, head of the Argentine Institute for Arid Zone Research (IADIZA), said that half of the country’s cattle production takes place in the three-quarters of its territory that is regarded as drylands.

The felling of 850,000 hectares of native woods is an indication that by 2036, there will be no forests left to destroy in this country, Abraham added.

On a positive note, UNCCD executive secretary Luc Gnacadja told the conference that between 1991 and 2005, 16 percent of the global arid land area was improved thanks to the efforts of local and national governments.

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