The Declaration on the Commitments to Enhance the Implementation of the Obligations of the Convention to Combat Desertification” may sound a mouthful. But it is unlikely to still the hunger of those ravaged by the devastating sweep of desertification around the globe and in the Subcontinent. The Fourth Conference of Parties (“COP4”) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), was held in the affluent city of Bonn, hardly impoverished for being no longer a capital city. On the contrary, the city is doing well as an upgraded international congress centre. And the city’s wealth was evident in the mass of its inhabitants thronging the shopping centres, even while delegates met to discuss an excruciating problem affecting the world’s poorest one billion in more than 100 countries, mostly in Africa. The only gift to the meek that have inherited an earth scorched by desertification was the Bonn Declaration. A poor man’s gift at best, produced after painful negotiations over 12 days, reflecting goodwill and little else from the better-endowed delegations among the 175 countries gathered for COP4.
Desertification is too dry a subject to get anyone excited, it seems. It is about the parched regions of the world that are neither exotic nor enticing for tourists, even the eco-tourists. Desertification brings to mind images of creeping desert sands, but the term actually refers to land degradation, loss of soil fertility and conditions of drought that transform once-fertile agricultural dryland regions. Poverty, political instability, deforestation, improper irrigation, climate change, urban expansion, migration, famine, food scarcity and loss of life and livelihood are all both causes and consequences of the vicious cycle of desertification.
Those hardest hit by desertification are the poorest in the poor countries. The Convention, which came into force six years ago and is now ratified by 172 countries—the US being one of the last to do so—is a poor cousin of the conventions on biological diversity and on climate change that emerged from the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. It is literally a poor man’s convention, both by subject and the funding neglect it suffers from. Implementing the CCD is as remote as in the beginning, mainly because desertification is not a priority for the donor nations. It is not fashionable, and does not carry the same glamour associated with eco-politics. Simply said, the poor have not been able to ‘sell’ desertification.
The aim of the Convention is to protect the more than one billion people and their degraded lands by promoting effective “preventive” and “regenerative” action. To use a cliché, the fight against deserti-fication is about “sustainable development”. But how this is to be achieved is a question that has gone unanswered through the three earlier conferences that preceded Bonn. At COP4, a discerning observer would have been constrained to say that if money is what is required to fight back desertification, it certainly will not be forthcoming.
Of course, the Bonn Declaration did “reaffirm its obligation” to provide substantial financial resources and other forms of support to affected developing countries and to promote the mobilisation of new and additional funding, including (incredibly) from the private sector. The only area where this general call for funding was explicit was the Declaration’s request that the parties take action “to improve and facilitate further access” of affected countries to the resources of Global Environment Facility (GEF).
Given that the fight against desertification is stymied for want of money, the tight-fisted approach of the developed countries was a way of showing the poor countries the door. What the poorer countries had been lobbying for was a full-fledged funding mechanism for the Convention, but at COP4 they realised soon enough that no such mechanism would be allowed to be created by the rich nations. Once this grim realisation dawned, it was rearguard action all the way to settle for the next best—a ‘window’ to fund anti-desertification work via the GEF. Even this was resisted by the richer planetary brethren till almost the very end.
So, at this point, fighting desertification, there is not even a budget to run the secretariat. The industrialised countries are dead set against any fresh financial commitments as a matter of ‘principle’, and suggest “multi-source financing”. Indeed, every developed country delegation took the line that funding must be found “within the existing framework of development cooperation”. Aggressively led by the European Union, the argument was that the donors’ efforts could never substitute for action from the affected countries themselves. For, surely, none understood the problems of desertification better than the people from the affected areas. “This valuable knowledge must be drawn upon, not only at the local level, but also at the national and regional level to ensure sustainability”.
It would be a laughably righteous conclusion, this call for use of “traditional knowledge” to solve desertification, if the problem were not so serious for a thousand million people. And the posture is in stark contrast to the indulgent one adopted by the North and the multilateral institutions when it comes to topics such as globalisation, the environment or human rights. When environmental, economic, trade, political and security interests of the North are involved, there is no dearth of interventionist prescriptions. Instead, here the starving and the dying are told that they alone know best how to survive and are not in need of a rescue lifeline.
Simply put, the developed world is asking the affected countries to fight their own battle. There is nothing in the Convention to Combat Desertification to motivate the rich nations—unlike in the Conventions on Biodiversity, Climate Change or Persistent Organic Pollutants. Their own populations are not directly affected (as yet), nor is there much for the private sector to profit by investing or selling technology. Desertification does ofcourse affect the long term security of the industrialised North (through migration,global instability, etc), but not where it matters today for the decision-makers.
Even in the suggestion to use the GEF window, there is a catch: the “implementation annex” to the CCD adopted in Bonn makes the countries of Eastern and Central Europe also “parties”, together with the developing countries of the South. “New and specific attention” would be devoted to countries of Central and Eastern Europe “affected by drought and desertification in consideration of their particular conditions which include problems and challenges related to the process of economic transition”.
Since these economies are eventually to be integrated into Fortress Europe—NATO, EU and the rest of it—this is simply an attempt to hijack desertification funds to develop Western Europe’s backyard. The underbelly of Europe must be well fed. So much for the Convention’s stress of the “global dimension of desertification”.
COP4 was expected to be a point of departure—moving from reports, assessments and analyses to a declaration of commitments to implement. Yet, in Bonn, much of the time was spent in reviewing country reports—34 of the 150 received between 1999 and 2000. The rest will have to await money and a mid-session conclave in spring 2001. Bonn was to have been the place to launch special efforts to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought between 2001 and 2010. But no country is opening its wallet, and now the mass of humanity is being made to compete for scarce resources with the Eastern and Central Europeans.
In many of the affected developing countries, the state has either collapsed, or been sucked into multiple conflicts. It is in no position to carry out the basic task of governance or provide the survival infrastructure for citizens. Yet, such countries are being asked to generate the political commitment and marshall the resources to battle desertification. Of course, it is convenient for these governments of the South, and their elite, to adopt the jargon of “partnerships with people and ngo’s”. This, too, is why the pious call in Bonn for partnerships with sections of civil society was such a convenient and knowing fraud.
All that Hama Arba Diallo (executive secretary of United Nations Secretariat of the Convention to Combat Desertification), could say, then, was: “But what can be done. We have to carry on and hope to combat desertification as best as we can”.
An alliance of disabled poor states tied to unwilling rich countries cannot be expected to march in step with the demands of the world’s poor. There are not even enough ngo’s interested to put up a façade for “sections of civil society”. Barely a few hundred are accredited to the CCD, compared to the thousands for the Rio environment convention. Issues like biodiversity, climate change and persistent organic pollutants offer better prospects as income generators for ngo’s and corporates, as much as for governments. Even in South Asia, with expanse of desertifying land, the Desertification Convention does not stir much interest—it is a ghettoised problem handled by the bureaucrats of the environment ministries. The minister himself is not interested, and it does not figure on the horizons of foreign or finance ministries.
The fate of the victims of desertification spread over three continents is unlikely to change very much between now and ‘COP5’ in September 2001, or between now and ‘Rio Plus 10’ next year. Desertification, forgotten by governments of South and of North, will only spread more. If the poor cannot fit in to the scheme where they can attract investment and interest by way of technology, exports and know-how transfer, then they must be condemned to the causes of their poverty.