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UN Rio Conference on Sustainable Development


Association of World Citizens

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Rio Plus 20 – UN Desert Decade

In Current Events, Environmental protection, Solidarity on May 20, 2011 at 8:30 PM


By René Wadlow


The United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development will take place in Brazil on June 4-6, 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Thus the popular name of the upcoming conference: “Rio plus 20”. The Conference will be an opportunity to bring together all the UN-designated efforts underway or the protection and wise use of Nature. As humanity, we are at the mid-point of the UN-designated Water for Life Decade (2005-2015). We are at the start of the International Decade of Deserts and Desertification (2010-2020) and nearly halfway into the UN-designated 2011: Year of Forests.

UN-designated Years rarely make newspaper headlines, and most governments limit themselves to voting for the Year in the UN General Assembly and then go on as before. The designated Year or Decade gives some legitimacy and support to the UN and the UN Specialized Agencies which are already working on the issue. However, successful years are always the result of non-governmental organization (NGO) activities. The most successful UN-designated Year was 1975: The International Year of Women.

In 1975, there were already, worldwide, women’s organizations, often well-structured, and which were prepared to use the designation of the UN Year as a platform to present their work, to network among themselves and to reach out to new partners. Moreover, 1975 fell into a period of intense discussion in Western Europe and the USA on the role of women, on relations between women and men, and what was generally called “consciousness-raising” among women. The emphasis was on the ways – sometimes subtle and often less so – that women were hindered in their full development as persons.

Deserts have no such already-organized supporters. Thus it is more difficult to draw attention to issues of desertification and the livelihood of people living at the edge of deserts. However, there are important issues related to deserts. World citizens are making an effort to highlight the Decade as in the following essay: 



By René Wadlow

God created lands filled with water as a place for man to live; and the desert so that he can discover his soul.


The decade 2010 to 2020 has been designated by the UN General Assembly as The International Decade of Deserts and Desertification. It is estimated that dry lands cover approximately 40 percent of the world’s landmass. The Decade marks the efforts begun in 1977 with the UN Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi. The desertification conference was convened by the UN General Assembly in the midst of a series of catastrophic droughts in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa. The conference was designed to be the centerpiece of a massive worldwide attack to arrest the spread of deserts or desert-like conditions not only in Africa south of the Sahara but wherever such conditions encroached on the livelihood of those who lived in the desert or in their destructive path. The history of the conference is vividly recalled by James Walls in his book Land, Men and Sand (New York: Macmillan, 1980).

At the conference, there was a call for the mobilization of human and financial resources to hold and then push back the advancing desert. “Attack” may have been the wrong word and “mobilization” too military a metaphor for the very inadequate measures taken later in the Sudano-Sahelian area. In 2010 at the start of the Decade, there are real possibilities of famine in West and East Africa on the edges of the desert. Niger and Mali and parts of Senegal and Chad in the Sahel belt are facing the consequences of serious drought as are parts of northern Kenya and Somalia.

The most dramatic case is that of Darfur, Sudan which partakes of the Sahel drought but which also faces a war in which the conflicts between pastoralists and settled agriculturalists have become politicized. It is estimated that 300,000 have been killed since the start of the war late in 2003. Some two and a half million people have been uprooted. The agricultural infrastructure of homes, barns and wells has been deliberately destroyed. It will be difficult and costly to repair this destruction. The Darfur conflict highlights the need for a broader approach to the analysis and interpretation of active and potential armed conflicts in the Sahel region. This analysis needs to take into consideration the impact of environmental scarcity and climate variation in complex situations.

Earth is our common home, and therefore all, as world citizens, must organize to protect it. It is up to all of us concerned with ecologically-sound development to use the Decade to draw awareness to both the dangers and the promises of deserts. What is the core of the desertification process? The destruction of land that was once productive does not stem from mysterious and remorseless forces of nature but from the actions of humans. Desertification is a social phenomenon. The causes of dry land degradation include overgrazing, deforestation, agricultural mismanagement, fuel wood over-consumption, and industry and urbanization. Thus, by preventing land degradation and improving agricultural practices, action to combat desertification can lead to increased agricultural productivity and alleviate poverty. Humans are both the despoiler and the victim of the process. Increasingly, populations are eking out a livelihood on a dwindling resource, hemmed in by encroaching plantations and sedentary agriculturalists, by towns and roads. Pressure of population upon resources leads to tensions which can burst into violence as we see in Darfur and which spilled over into eastern Chad.

The Sahara (in Arabic, الصحراء الكبرى‎, "Aṣ Ṣaḥrā´ al Kubrā", "The Great Desert" in English) is the world's largest non-polar (hot) desert.

Desertification needs to be seen in a holistic way. If we see desertification only as aridity, we may miss areas of impact such as the humid tropics. We need to consider the special problems of water-logging, salinity or alkalinity of irrigation systems that destroy land each year. The value of UN-designated decades is that the process of identifying major clusters of problems, bringing the best minds to bear on them so as to have a scientific and social substratum on which common political will can be found and from which action will follow.

Desertification is a plague that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat, and the socio-economic systems by which they live. Because desertification disturbs a region’s natural resource base, it promotes insecurity. Insecurity leads to strife. If allowed to degenerate, strife results in inter-clan feuding, civil war, cross-border raiding and military confrontation. Yet dry land communities have great resources that can be put to fighting poverty and desertification, provided they are properly empowered and supported.

Only with a lessening of insecurity can cultivators and pastoralists living in or near deserts turn their attention to adapting traditional systems. There can be no reversion to purely traditional systems. But for insecurity to abate, a lengthy process of conciliation must begin and forms of conflict resolution strengthened. People must be encouraged to understand that diversity is a crucial element of ecologically-sound development. Judicious resource management breeds security and an improved quality of life for everyone. We can see what efforts can be made to encourage reforestation and to slow the unwanted advances of deserts.

An overview of global desertification: Now is the time to take action.

The contrast between widespread rural poverty and environmental degradation, on the one land, and the opportunities which can be created on a small scale through community empowerment, access to groundwater and sustainable land management, defines the ideals of the Decade of Deserts. The Decade is not about fighting deserts, it is about reversing land degradation trends, improving living conditions and alleviating poverty in rural dry lands. Thus, the Decade of Deserts can be a decade during which we can learn more of the lives of the people in and on the edge of the deserts.

Deserts can also have a positive image. There is a significant role in the literature and mythology of spirituality – the 40 years in the desert before entering the “Promised Land” of Israel, the 40 days in the desert before starting his mission for Jesus, the life in the desert of the early Christian church fathers. Today, there are an increasing number of spiritual retreats in the desert chosen for its silence and for the essential nature of the landscape. Thus, it is a Decade in which we can all usefully participate. 

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Painting by Lona Towsley.

Note: The UN website for the Decade is

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