United Nations links soil protection to poverty reduction

Women in a desert carrying water. Copyright: BMZIn 1977, the United Nations convened the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD), which adopted an anti-desertification action plan.

In the early 1990s, however, it became clear that, in spite of some geographically li­mi­ted successes, the problem had worsened over­all. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Ja­nei­ro in 1992, the topic was once again on the agenda. Subsequently the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was ela­bo­ra­ted and adopted. It came into force in 1996 and has so far been ratified by 193 states.

The UNCCD is the most development-oriented of the international environmental conventions agreed in Rio de Janeiro. In addition to protecting the soil in arid areas it aims to fight poverty. The Convention aims to break the vicious circle of scarce land, hunger, migration and conflicts over natural resources, especially in the poorest countries. Desertification control measures thus help achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially halving poverty, ensuring sustainable environmental management and establishing a global partnership for development.

Soil erosion in Kenya. Copyright: BMZUnder the pro­vi­sions of the Con­ven­tion, the inter­natio­nal com­muni­ty under­takes to
use land, water and plants in the regions threatened by deser­ti­fi­ca­tion carefully and su­stain­ably, in order to halt the ongoing process of destruction. The in­du­stria­lised countries have pledged to support the developing countries in financial terms and through technology transfer, in their efforts to combat desertification. The focus of the Convention is not on promo­ting one-off projects; it embraces stakeholders from all political and societal levels across all sectors.

Important aspects of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

  • All measures provided for in the Convention are legally binding for all signatory states. The population of these states can thus demand compliance.

  • Donor countries and developing countries are to cooperate as partners and share experience on an ongoing basis. Non-govern­mental actors too, such as non-governmental organisations, are to be included in this partnership.

  • The local population is to participate in the planning and implementation of measures to combat desertification.

  • Existing natural resource management programmes and plans are to be coordinated. National action programmes should coordinate all projects aimed at combating desertification.

  • One important precondition for sustainable natural resource management is to establish decentralised decision-making structures in the affected regions.

  • Donor countries are called upon to network their activities more closely with one another and with their partners in order to make more efficient use of the funds available.

Since 1998, the Global Mechanism, the financing mechanism of the UNCCD, has been promoting the realisation of the Convention. It makes information available on existing financing options, and helps applicants access these funds. Since 2002, the UNCCD has also had direct access to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which has established a new focal area, soil degradation. Affected coun­tries can use this window to get financial support for programmes of this sort.

Tangible success

An Ethiopian farmer handling a water pump to water his soil. Copyright: phalanxSince there are neither clearly verifiable criteria for success, nor sanctions in the case of failure, it is difficult to gauge the impacts of the Con­ven­tion. It simply lays out a political strategy. The priorities for economic development and poverty reduction are, however, set by the countries themselves. The success of the Convention will depend largely on whether or not the industria­lised countries and the developing countries at risk from desertification manage to harness the potentials for development cooperation offered by the Convention.

Yet some important successes have been achieved. The UNCCD has raised international awareness of the problems of anthropogenic deser­ti­fi­cation. It has made it quite clear that it is impossible to reduce po­ver­ty and introduce sustainable development in the countries affec­ted, unless the problem of desertification is tackled and a new sounder approach adopted when dealing with natural resources. The Con­ven­tion has helped ensure that in most countries desertification control has now been put on an institutional footing. Via the national action programmes, civil society activities have been encouraged in many countries. Concrete impacts have been seen in food security and income generating projects, and in natural resource conservation projects.

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