ENB:04:01 [Next] . [Previous] . [Contents]

DESERTIFICATION AND THE UN SYSTEM

The recognition within the United Nations system of desertification as a global problem began with a series of resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) during 1974, culminating in resolution 24/337, which decided to convene a United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD). This meeting, held in Nairobi, Kenya from 29 August - 9 September 1977, adopted the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification (PACD). The implementation of PACD was left to governments with an overall coordinating role assigned to UNEP. As a result of UNCOD, two groups were formed: 1) the Interagency Working Group on Desertification, which is responsible for giving guidance to UNEP in overall implementation of the plan; and 2) the Consultative Group for Desertification Control (DESCON) that assists in mobilizing resources for combating desertification.

The international efforts to combat desertification and the implementation of the PACD have been less than expected. According to UNEP, in the 1992 report of the Executive Director, Status of Desertification and Implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action to Combat Desertification, several global conferences and studies identified the following reasons for the failure of the plan: 1) low priority by funding agencies; 2) lack of funds by developing countries to cope with the problem; 3) lack of integration of desertification control programmes into other socio-developmental programmes; 4) failure to include local populations in the solutions; and 5) technical solutions were sought for socio-political and socio-economic problems.

Even before the adoption of UN General Assembly resolution 44/228, which created the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), desertification was given high priority. In resolution 44/172, adopted three days before the UNCED resolution, the GA invited UNCED to "accord high priority to desertification control and consider all means necessary, including financial, scientific and technological resources, to halt and reverse the process of desertification with a view to preserving the ecological balance of the planet," and invited UNEP to provide a report on the progress of the implementation of the PACD. (That report was presented to the UNEP governing council in February 1992 (UNEP/GCSS.III/3).)

Nevertheless, desertification was given little attention during the first three sessions of the UNCED Preparatory Committee (PrepCom). At PrepCom I, decision 1/15 (Soil Loss, Desertification and Drought) invited UNEP to report on the implementation of the PACD and requested the UNCED Secretariat to consult with the specialized agencies dealing with the implementation of the PACD and report on the results achieved, the control measures applied and the need for further international cooperation to combat desertification and drought. They also requested that the Secretariat prepare a study on the ways and means of expanding reforestation activities to combat land degradation and desertification.

At PrepCom II, the UNCED Secretariat presented a document on the protection and management of land resources (A/CONF.151/PC/25). The governments requested the Secretariat to elaborate on these proposals at PrepCom III.

At PrepCom III the Secretariat presented a "Report of the Secretary-General of UNCED on Combatting Desertification and Drought" (A/CONF.151/PC/62) that contained a review of the issues, a report on current work in the area by the various UN agencies and a discussion of progress made in the implementing of measures to control desertification. Annexes to this document included a UNEP progress report, a review of drought monitoring and research activities and reports on reforestation activities to combat land degradation and desertification, and alternative and sustainable systems of production and livelihoods in marginal lands.

Working Group I did not address desertification until the third week of the session and discussion was cut short due to lack of time and unavailability of documents in all working languages. There was criticism, especially on the part of the developing countries, of the proposed programme areas for Agenda 21 (A/CONF.151/PC/42/Add.2). In decision WG.I/L.29, the governments requested the Secretariat to present a revised set of proposals for PrepCom IV and, at the insistence of the African Group, it was decided that Working Group I would put the issue of desertification at the top of its agenda for PrepCom IV.

In November 1991 more than 40 ministers from African states met in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire for a regional preparatory meeting for UNCED and adopted the African Common Position on Environment and Development accompanied by the Abidjan Declaration. Among other things, this document called for a convention to combat desertification as one of the concrete outcomes to be included in Agenda 21.

The draft of what was to become Chapter 12 of Agenda 21 (A/CONF.151/PC/100/Add.17) was tabled at PrepCom IV as the first substantive item of business for Working Group I. The African Group presented a series of amendments, including a new programme area, "Encourage and Promote Popular Participation and Environmental Education Focusing on Desertification Control," to this document and the revised text became the basis for negotiation. By the end of the session, the PrepCom had adopted almost the entire Agenda 21 chapter on combatting desertification. However, they were unable to reach consensus on two paragraphs that dealt with a future binding convention on desertification.

At UNCED in Rio de Janeiro, Ambassador Tommy Koh of Singapore, Chair of the Main Committee, took personal responsibility for holding informal consultations on the issue of a convention to combat desertification. These consultations were facilitated when the US delegation announced that it had changed its position and could now support the idea of a convention. However, when compromise text was brought to the Main Committee, the European Community announced it could not accept a global convention, arguing that desertification is a regional problem not necessarily warranting global action. Intense negotiations followed between the Africans and the Europeans as well as within the EC. Finally, the EC announced that it would accept the wording proposed by the Chair that would request the UN General Assembly to establish an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) to elaborate a convention to combat desertification.

Chapter 12 of Agenda 21, "Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Combating Desertification and Drought", contains six programme areas: (a) Strengthening the knowledge base and developing information and monitoring systems for regions prone to desertification and drought, including the economic and social aspects of these ecosystems; (b) Combating land degradation through, inter alia, intensified soil conservation, afforestation and reforestation activities; (c) Developing and strengthening integrated development programmes for the eradication of poverty and promotion of alternative livelihood systems in areas prone to desertification; (d) Developing comprehensive anti-desertification programmes and integrating them into national development plans and national environmental planning; (e) Developing comprehensive drought preparedness and drought-relief schemes, including self-help arrangements, for drought-prone areas and designing programmes to cope with environmental refugees; and (f) Encouraging and promoting popular participation and environmental education, focusing on desertification control and management of the effects of drought.

As requested by UNCED, the 47th session of the UN General Assembly took up discussions on the establishment of an INC to elaborate a convention to combat desertification as part of a series of resolutions negotiated in an open-ended ad hoc working group of the Second Committee under the chairmanship of Malaysian Ambassador Razali Ismail. (See Earth Negotiations Bulletin, Vol. 3 Nos. 2 and 3.)

In early October 1992, the African Group held consultations on a draft resolution establishing the INC-D. The final draft was forwarded to the Group of 77 as a "non-paper" and was later submitted to the Razali Group on 7 November. This resolution was primarily procedural in nature, leaving the substantive matters to be decided by the INC-D and, to a lesser extent, by the organizational session in an attempt to avoid a prolonged debate. The debate within the Razali Group focused on the length of the organizational session; the number and location of substantive sessions; the size and role of the multidisciplinary expert group to assist the INC-D Secretariat in its mandate in the scientific, technical and legal fields; the issue of funding; and the participation of NGOs.

In December 1992, the Second Committee adopted the draft resolution (A/C.2/47/L.46) entitled "Establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee for the elaboration of an international convention to combat desertification in those countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa" and the statement on budgetary implications of the resolution. The final resolution 47/188, as adopted by the General Assembly, establishes the INC-D with a view to finalizing the convention by June 1994 and welcomes the candidature of Ambassador Bo Kjell‚n as Chair. It decides to hold five substantive session, each lasting for two weeks in Geneva, Nairobi, New York and Paris and that the first session, to be held in Nairobi, will devote the first week to the sharing of technical information between experts. It also decides to establish a multidisciplinary panel of experts to assist the Secretariat, a special voluntary fund to assist developing country participation, and a trust fund for existing UN funds and contributions to be administered by the Secretariat. It further requests the Secretary-General to prepare a report on the implementation of the resolution at the forty-eighth session of the UN General Assembly.

[Return to start of article]