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First Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

Rome, 9 October 1997 - Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The importance of this meeting cannot be overstated. Desertification is much more than a curious scientific problem. At issue is the continuing human impact for millions of desperate people facing hunger and despair. Clearly, the undermining of the livelihood of an already impoverished land dependent people is desertification's most obvious consequence and its close linkage with poverty its most visible illustration. One billion people are at risk.

More than five years ago, Heads of State attending the Earth Summit called for urgent action on sustainable development and preservation of our natural resources. Yet little more than five years later the primary message of the Earth Summit - the urgent call for action - has been obscured by fratricidal conflicts, natural and manmade disasters and escalating poverty.

This historical first Conference of Parties provides us with the opportunity, and the responsibility, to answer that urgent call for action. It is not too extravagant to say that this Conference is a chance to give the notion of peace a solid basis. Peace cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Peace to have any meaning, for many who have known only suffering in both peace and war, must be translated into bread or rice, shelter, health and education as well as freedom and human dignity - a progressively better life.

As this meeting draws to a close, it is appropriate to remind ourselves that the real measure of our success is not the Convention itself but rather what happens when we leave here ..... in our own countries ...... in our own organizations .....and in our own lives.

This meeting of the parties must be more than a high point in our expressions of good intentions. It must be the start of the process of fundamental change in order to deal with the issue of desertification.

As both UNEP's GEO report and our new World Atlas on Desertification, point out, around the globe we are literally "losing ground". This is not new news. Why is it then that global efforts to control desertification thus far have had limited success.

The reasons for our failure are apparent, and not dissimilar to the reasons impeding the sustainable development agenda, more generally. Of course, I am speaking of a palpable lack of political will, inadequate resources, emphasis on abstract planning rather than on field action, and neglect of the social dimensions of the problem.

We have the knowledge and technical skills to halt these destructive trends. But it is political and economic factors, not scientific research that will determine whether or not the wisdom accumulating in our libraries will be put into practice.

What is required are resources and persistent and concerted, coordinated action - by those people faced with the problem daily and by national governments and international agencies. Improving productivity on marginal land depends not only on the local residents but also on far-sighted economic cooperation and environmental protection.

Many of you present here today went through the twists and turns of the negotiations and faced the seemingly interminable debates over simple words. You will remember the all night confrontations over the critical issue of money and the Global Mechanism.

But now we have the Convention, and we have well over a hundred committed Governments. Our challenge now is to work out the implementation programme, and we have to do this in a way that involves key constituents in the desertification issue. We have to tackle the issue from the people's perspective.

From the pastoralists' perspective this means, freedom to move across traditional rangelands; sustainable access to traditional and sustainable water; access to markets for cattle products in good times; price support during drought; freedom from disproportionate administrative and political pressure.

From the farmers' perspective this means access to productive land; ready access to water for domestic and agricultural needs; access to health facilities and sanitation, access to credit; access to markets; access to education, freedom from disproportionate administrative and political pressure.

And from local and national perspective this means governments have to balance many different objectives and then ensure that their policies are effectively implemented. What they decide, and how successfully they follow through with implementation, will impact on the productivity of the drylands.

Governments must create the conditions of security of tenure and food security, within which these resilient yet often marginalized people can maintain sustainable livelihoods for themselves. If this does not occur, more people will suffer and require direct support, millions more will migrate and the pressures and social tensions on humid lands and in the urban areas around the world will increase. The seeming endless stream of continuing humanitarian relief after each succeeding crisis is not the answer.

UNEP sees nine issues and challenges in implementing this convention:

First, assessment - the science, the facts, the costs, the numbers. For example - do we fully understand the potential impact of global warming on desertification or the impact of desertification on global warming?

Second, institutional factors and policies - political, administrative, management, fiscal, taxation, land tenure, legislation, institutional and regulatory aspects. How do these need to change so that they enable rather than frustrate implementation?

Third, social dimensions - cultural, inheritance, customs, practices, indigenous knowledge; and tradition. Do we really understand and value these dimensions in decision - making? What is the link between physical degradation and social consequences?

Fourth, economic factors - credit, markets, infrastructure, aid trade and debt. How does the external world impede or facilitate national policies to combat desertification?

If we tackle these four challenges, perhaps the next five become more manageable.

Fifth, access - to land, health, water, education, credit, markets.

Sixth, freedom - from undue interference, from market distortions, from political, administrative and management distortions.

Seventh, coordination - especially between the various global environmental conventions, donors and the various ministries in each affected country. The Consultative Groups are key in this area.

Eighth, responsibility - true delegation of land tenure and responsibility to the pastoralists and croppers in an enabling and participatory environment that will allow them to support themselves sustainably with help as needed from outside.

And ninth, motivation - this is perhaps the key. More than 100 governments have now ratified this convention which calls for a "bottom up" approach - These words and intentions sound good, but what is the benefit to all the people involved between this conference room and the man or woman in the field? What will make the bureaucrat in an inadequately equipped office, feeling over-worked and underpaid, with no practical means or incentive of going to visit the field, actually work actively to put this convention into practice?

International multilateral institutions have a key role to play in facing these challenges. UNEP's commitment, to this Convention quite simply is three fold:

First, to raise awareness by increasing the understanding of the true breadth and nature of this critical issue and of how it can be tackled;

Secondly to encourage, support and help achieve a much better, more quantitative assessment of desertification, its extent and its impact;

Thirdly, to actively support the Committee on Science and Technology and help coordinate as appropriate all scientific activity in the assessment and implementation of desertification control worldwide.

UNEP's involvement with desertification spans more than 20 years. UNEP was entrusted with the coordination of the United Nations Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. UNEP helped to resolve disputes over the nature and definition of desertification. In 1992, UNEP published The World Atlas of Desertification brought together the best and most consistent of these databases.

In the past five years, much new work on desertification and related issues has been done. This has included research and applied work on methods to increase carbon sequestration, to modify global warming, to improve sustainability at village level, to focus on the social dimensions of desertification, to reduce land degradation, to reduce destruction of forests especially for fuelwood use, to mitigate drought, and to preserve biodiversity. In cooperation with the Kenya Government and the Government of the Netherlands we have also released the report of the Kenya Land Degradation Assessment Project. And yesterday, I released the latest extensively revised edition of our World Atlas of Desertification.

Our commitment is long term.

I could not close without taking a moment to convey UNEP's thanks for the personal contribution of Ambassador Kjellen - the person who brought to a successful conclusion the work of the INCD. Clearly the kind of leadership and committment shown by Ambassador Kjellen should be a model for us all. His cause was full participation and more than anyone he will be associated with ensuring the people's perspective in this Convention.

UNEP's congratulations go to all of you and to the dedicated secretariat under the leadership of Arba Diallo. May you all take pride in what has been accomplished.

As I left Nairobi yesterday, the rains had just started. The dryness that leads to despair was being transformed to hope.

And that's what this Convention represents for one billion people on this earth - hope. Can there be any doubt that now is the time to move to action?

Speech 1997/20
Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell
Executive Director
United Nations Environment Programme
to the 
First Conference of the Parties to the
United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

Tuesday 14 Oct 1997
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