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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 51a - Friday, 18 July 2008
New Focus on Rural Development: Where does the UNCCD figure?
By Christian Mersmann, Managing Director of the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD
Current dynamics
As food prices spiral to the top of the political agenda, governments grapple with the immediate impacts and the long-term implications on development efforts, particularly for Africa. As the Executive Director of the World Food Programme recalled, seven meals separate civilization from anarchy. Recent riots in over thirty developing countries are a sober reminder of how priorities must be adjusted. In the name of development aid policies for poverty reduction and sustainable development, industrialized nations are called upon to radically revisit their current food production policies, export subsidies, and contribution to the distortion of food markets in developing countries.

The food price crisis, the potentially devastating impact of climate change on agriculture and forestry, the increasingly limited availability of arable land, the scarcity of water resources and the hotly-debated market demands for agrofuels, have all forced a new focus on rural development in developing countries. Despite high-level political support, important initiatives such as the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) have not by themselves attracted enough interest to have changed development priority setting and to have agriculture and rural development become one of the most important dimensions of national development programming. While climate change resilience has been linked to rural development and food production issues in the global debate, at national level it is rarely an integral part of the development agenda. This focus now is changing.

Just more of the same?
The food price crisis and climate resilience appear to open new windows of opportunity for sustainable land management, but are we really facing an unprecedented situation? The answer is both yes and no.

On the one hand, many challenges remain the same. We are, quite rightly, still doing landscape restoration so that sound natural resource management drives production and productivity and environmental services are provided for sustainable livelihoods. Environment-induced migration to urban centres continues to leave in its wake an increasing number of women-headed households and uncertain land tenure rights. Governments continue to battle with decentralization issues and the effective involvement of civil society and the private sector in decision-making processes and implementation. Governance and coordination, public debate, capacity building and knowledge exchange are still the call of the day. The validity of the paradigm shift from isolated project delivery towards programmatic approaches in development that came with the consensus on sustainable development at Rio in 1992 still holds true.

On the other hand, there are new aspects to the development change agenda. One is the urgent call for immediate action, finance and implementation. Yet we know there is no ‘quick fix’ when it comes to land issues in development. Long-term solutions that assess risks and weigh trade-offs as part of overall development planning processes, are a prerequisite for sustainability. Could it be that we are putting programmatic approaches at risk, so as to avoid losing the political momentum offered by climate resilience and food security? We have no time, yet time is precisely what we need to develop commensurate, lasting solutions.

Secondly, there is the huge knowledge gap between implementing institutions in developing countries and those working at the international level and on global policy processes. The results of international negotiations need to be mainstreamed and repackaged for public consumption, to induce action on the ground, while national research institutes and civil society organizations have a role to play in transferring eco-compatible knowledge. Information on financial development opportunities under the emerging ‘climate change finance regime’ must be easier to come by. Action plans - including UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) National Adaptation Plans for Action (NAPAs) and UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) National Action Plans (NAPs) - must be strategic documents that provide a framework enabling climate resilience and sustainable land management to be tackled in existing programmes, and not as a parallel process.

Thirdly, all stakeholders need to evaluate the potentially important role of subsistence and small-scale farming for the climate change market. While the link to mitigation is obvious, the link to adaptation is equally crucial, but needs more substantive clarity. Subsistence farmers and their communities constitute over 60% of Africa's population. Macro-economists have traditionally viewed support to subsistence farmers as social welfare for poverty alleviation, yet farming communities have the potential ability to provide environmental services both to their respective countries and to the global community at large. Subsistence farming, as the major driver behind adaptation in developing countries, is a potential macro-economic force that the international community needs to reckon with when designing its approach to post-Kyoto. Forests outside tropical rainforests therefore have to be part of the debate on Reduced Emissions Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), thereby opening up the climate market to the poorer segments of rural populations.

Back to basics
The governments and civil society organizations that created the UNCCD had a vision. They understood that the degradation of land capital was a major stumbling block to development with immediate impacts on the livelihoods of rural communities (e.g. drinking water, renewable energy, health, and education), with direct consequences for economic growth (for instance compromised agricultural, livestock and timber production). The demand on land as a provider of global products and services in terms of climate change continues to increase, while land management certainly falls under the national sovereignty of states, not under ‘global commons’.

Although adopted by 193 country Parties, the UNCCD still grapples with where it stands in the global context of environmental governance. The two fundamental questions that UNCCD constituencies must ask are: “What role does the UNCCD play in positioning land degradation issues strategically within other policy processes such as the UNFCCC, the Convention on Biological Diversity and  the United Nations Forum on Forests, as a platform for policy and strategy development and within institutions like the World Bank?’’ and “What do countries gain from attending a Conference of the Parties of the UNCCD in terms of a common understanding on the way ahead and as regards information and insights, strategies and instruments, to take home for action at national level?”

It is argued that the UNCCD is an important instrument for comprehensive policy and strategy development at the interface. Land degradation and desertification are cross-cutting issues and this has implications for Convention implementation in terms of country-level collaboration between a range of governmental sector institutions and civil society organizations. Equally, the Convention needs to seek opportunities at sub-regional and regional levels among the vast variety of environmental policy processes. As one of the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), the Convention must also strengthen its role within the MEA governance system and beyond, with international finance institutions, international organizations and the NGO community. In other words, to achieve results, the UNCCD needs to be more flexible in its approach, grasp the opportunities that the Convention text presents, and continue to work to free itself from relative isolation.

Upping the stakes
The Ten Year Strategic Plan and Framework adopted by the eighth Conference of the Parties (COP 8) of the UNCCD in 2007, constitutes a solid consensus by Parties of the need to streamline and prioritize action, build scientific evidence and public awareness, develop and advocate for enabling policies, set standards, and mobilize financial resources. Most development cooperation agencies are committed to aligning their country programmes to national priorities and budgeting cycles. They are also seeking to harmonize their efforts among agencies for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness. This provides opportunities for addressing priorities and undertaking comprehensive action given the driving forces behind climate resilience and food security.

The basic issue of what does the UNCCD have to lose or gain, can effectively be addressed through strengthened debate at COP itself. Forward-looking policies should dominate the decision-making agenda of the Convention, supported by a lively Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC) that goes beyond the rather limited horizons of internal dynamics. In this way, the Parties can prepare for consensus on approaches and instruments to mainstream land degradation into the climate change agenda, food security support processes and a number of other sectoral dimensions, such as trade and market access that can act as drivers for implementation and investments.
The new focus on rural development, agriculture and forestry induced by climate change and food security offers the UNCCD the opportunity to position itself at the interface of various processes, as an effective promoter of comprehensive and programmatic implementation of sustainable land management. In this context, the UNCCD can arguably be seen as the best option for the international community to make ends meet in support of agriculture, community forestry and rural development at large.

This enormous opportunity is currently being addressed by the Convention’s institutions, including the UNCCD Secretariat, the Global Mechanism (GM) and the Committee for Science and Technology (CST). Based on the Ten Year Strategic Plan, the UNCCD will be the service provider on integration urgently needed to package the results of negotiations and emerging finance in a meaningful, action-oriented way that will assist country Parties in addressing sustainable land management issues more effectively. The outcomes of COP 9 in 2009 will be a measure of the Convention’s capacity to turn the page and effectively support country Parties to meet the new demands on land, by providing social, economic and environmental services, as called for by the international community.
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