A two-day meeting on desertification in Geneva has issued a call for governments in affected countries to take more action.This content was published on April 13, 2006 - 11:09
The conference, organised by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the United Nations, ended on Wednesday evening and focused on the human side of desertification: hunger, poverty and forced migration.
This year has been designated the International Year of Deserts and Desertification by the UN.
The world body estimates that almost a quarter of the earth's surface and more than one billion people are affected by desertification. The problem is especially acute in Africa.
"Desertification is not a cause of poverty but is much more a consequence of poverty and of lack of development and lack of political will to invest in development," said Liliane Ortega, SDC official and Swiss representative to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
Ortega said the participants, many of whom had direct experience in the field, concluded that it was not just more foreign aid that was needed.
"The message was mobilisation must come at the political level and from the affected countries," she told swissinfo.
"It was not just a question of trying to find more money, but that there can be a partnership between the West and the developing world... that [the affected countries] have to act themselves but with the support of the West."
The UN has classified the onward march of the deserts as a "major threat to humanity" which is reinforced by climate change and the loss of biological diversity.
The UNCCD is aimed at combating desertification and mitigating the effects of drought. Adopted in 1994, it has 191 members, among them Switzerland.
Ortega is aiming to present the results of the Geneva symposium at a UNCCD meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October. Some of the participants who took part in the conference will also be attending.
In addition to climate change, the UN says population growth, deforestation, intensive agriculture and livestock farming are factors in desertification.
The consequences for local populations can de devastating. Food insecurity brings rural poverty and environmental refugees, which in turns puts pressure on the social, political and economic fabric of countries.
The SDC, along with the UN, believes a two-pronged approach is needed which not only addresses ecological devastation but also the human rights of those living in arid zones.
Both organisations are hoping that events like the Geneva conference can raise awareness of an issue that is often forgotten by the international community.
According to the UN: Almost 30 per cent of the world's habitable space is threatened by desertification.
Degredation of the dry lands in Africa has destroyed 500 million hectares of farming and grazing land.
Every year ten million hectares are lost to agricultural production worldwide because of desertification.
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the secretariat of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) jointly hosted the conference on "Desertification, hunger and poverty".
The issue of desertification was given global recognition with the adoption of the UNCCD in 1994 but since then limited progress has been made. Switzerland was one of the first countries to ratify the convention in 1996.
The SDC is involved in anti-desertification programmes in Africa, Asia and Latin America, supporting projects in water conservation, reforestation, preservation of soil productivity and combating erosion.
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