Back to search

25 years of Growing Together: A convention is born after more than two decades


Gunilla BjorklundDr Gunilla Bjorklund was a former negotiator of the Convention where she represented the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Some international agreements emerge quickly. But the birth of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification was a long tortuous journey. In particular, it was undermined by the perception that it was a development Convention. Yet the evolution of its sister Rio Conventions on Climate Change and on Biological Diversity shows that a purist approach to environmental conservation is at best misguided, and at worst dangerous.

Sowing the seed: 1972 to 1977

The international process that led to the negotiation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) begun decades earlier. Interest to develop an instrument within the United Nations framework emerged as early as 1972 immediately after the UN Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE) took place in Stockholm, Sweden. Later, Sweden was to play a lead role in the establishment of the Convention, completing the “unfinished business” of UNCHE.

Few developing countries actually participated at the UNCHE, as most countries did not view the Conference as dealing with issues concerning them. For instance, transboundary air-pollution, which was a major subject at the Stockholm Conference, was primarily an environmental problem among and between European countries at that time.  Still, UNCHE had an impact on developing countries.

The gestation period - 1977 to 1990

At least two important outcomes relating to desertification/land degradation came out of the Stockholm Conference. First, the United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) was established. Second, the United Nations Conference on Desertification, UNCOD, was held shortly after. 

UNEP was created following the Stockholm Conference to deal with the outcomes of UNCHE and was established in Nairobi, Kenya. This was the first United Nations agency to be located in a developing country -- and an African country that was already experiencing severe land degradation and desertification. Mostafa Tolba, UNEP´s second Executive Director, knew of the critical need to address land degradation and desertification, and the increasing loss of productive land. The disastrous Sahelian Drought of 1976 made action to address land degradation and desertification important and urgent. UNEP, under Tolba’s leadership, organized the UNCOD in 1977, which resulted in the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification, PACD. 

The process from UNEP to UNCOD under Tolba can be summed up as three parts; a political process, a scientific process and a financial process. The attempts made to join these processes together had mixed results. For example, in 1986, more than 15 UN agencies and organisations agreed to cooperate on activities in the social and economic areas and created the UN Steering Committee for the Program of Action for African Economic Recovery and Development, UNPAAERD. This is because the drivers of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas were viewed as social and economic.

By contrast, the efforts to join the political, scientific and financial actions focused on the effects of land degradation were unsuccessful, until the negotiation of the UNCCD. This was not only because the activities under the Convention aimed to address land degradation. During the negotiation of the Convention, it became apparent that the causes to land degradation arose not only from social and economic activities, but due to a combination of climate variations and human activities.

Within the UN system, UNEP “owned” the political process. From 1978, its Governing Council reviewed the implementation of the Plan of Action, and reported to the UN General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council. 

Different scientific programmes – many of them linked to UNEP – were set up in the process leading up to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). For example, the Desertification Control Programme Activity Centre (DC/PAC) and a data-base known as the GEMS/GRID. Many of the scientific programmes had an implementation component. Most of these programmes focused on Africa. The United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Office (UNSO), a joint venture between UNEP and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), provided both scientific and practical assistance to countries in the region, and cooperated strongly under with the DC/PAC and GEMS or UNEP/GRID. 

Most of the financial contributions for projects came through assistance provided bilaterally, from one country to another, or through multilateral sources, such as Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UNDP, UNEP or the World Bank. 

The funding issue was often tricky for organizations such as UNEP that are not set up to work on projects at the country level. In 1977, the Consultative Group for Desertification, DESCON, was created to help UNEP’s leadership to mobilize resources to support strategic work for such field activities. Developing countries viewed DESCON as a funding mechanism. More than mobilizing resources for specific projects, DESCON, through its fundraising activities, had a powerful, positive unintended consequence. It created significant awareness among donors. DESCON would also influence the Convention nearly two decades later. Its discussions formed part of the basis of the financial negotiations for the Convention. 

My first official meeting as a governmental representative for Sweden was to attend a DESCON meeting held in 1990.

The births of the sister Rio Conventions: 1990 to 1992

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development – UNCED – was held 20 years after the Stockholm Conference. But it was significantly different. The UNCED approach was more global than the Stockholm conference before it, and partly set the tone for the environmental negotiations since. For a start, all UN member countries participated in the Rio Conference. Also, two conventions - one on global climate change and the other on the global loss of biological diversity – were opened for signature. But the most important change was opening up the process to the participation of non governmental participants. 

Prior to the UNCED process, the Preparatory Committees (popularly called PrepComs), made up entirely of government representatives, prepared the text to be negotiated. The negotiation rules permitted non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to participate only as observers in the plenary meetings. Here, on invitation, they could take the floor to speak. But they could not participate in the closed-door meetings where most of the important negotiations took place. There was, however, one exception. 

A Dutch ambassador, J.G.W. Alders, who was coordinating the negotiations on one of the Agenda 21 chapters that was focused on the work of Major Groups – which includes NGOs, women’s groups, youth and faith organizations – succeeded in getting acceptance for NGOs to participate in the closed meetings on this subject.

“We need to let the ones concerned to be present during the negotiations,” he argued. This was a game-changer for the negotiations, including the negotiations of the Agenda 21 chapter on desertification. 

At the time, the secretariat organizing the Conference, which was based in Geneva, would develop the initial text for each chapter with the assistance of experts. Governments used these texts as the starting point for the negotiation. 

I was one of the experts that contributed to the draft text for the chapter on desertification.

During the first Prep Com, governments mainly added text to the draft provided by the secretariat, and also structured the chapter. The Chair, assisted by his vice Chairs, were required to produce a draft that could form the basis for negotiations. The structure of the draft text on desertification was influenced by several factors, including “lessons learned” from the Stockholm Conference in 1972. 

Agenda 21 has 40 chapters. Chapter 12 deals with “Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Combating Desertification and Drought”. In the UNCED-process, negotiations of the chapters run in parallel negotiating sessions.  African countries regarded desertification – in particular – as an issue of utmost, global importance.

The Chairman of the working group dealing with Desertification was the Swedish Ambassador, Bo Kjellén. Mohamed Mahmoud El Ghaouth, one of his vice-chairs, was the lead negotiator for Mauritania. Hama Arba Diallo, a former foreign minister of Burkina Faso who had become the United Nations official in charge of Africa  in the Conference process, was another important person in the negotiating team. Ghaouth and Diallo and ministers from their  respective countries invited Ambassador Kjellén for a field trip to Mauritania and to Mali, in the context of exploring the possibility of discussing a desertification instrument. 

I was invited to participate in the joint field trip as Ambassador Kjellén’s expert.

The trip was highly informative. We saw the impacts of desertification and its effects on the living conditions of the people, including women, and the different measures in place to combat the processes in the areas, from the savannas to the desert. At their ministries, we discussed the issues and measures taken. 

I recall Bo Kjellén emphasizing that the regions would be excellent for solar energy, and have since seen and learned about the advantages of using solar energy in these regions.

Desertification-stricken countries, particularly those from Africa, argued that the severe consequences of land degradation and desertification matter for the areas affected, and are on par with the  rich world’s concern of biodiversity loss, and the Biodiversity Convention. They wanted a convention, the desertification convention. 

“Desertification has for too long been the poor relative of environmental issues”, Mostafa Tolba wrote in the World Atlas of Desertification published in 1992.

Not surprisingly, Maurice Strong, in his opening statement at the 1992 Conference said, “I also recommend that you mandate negotiation of a convention on desertification and deterioration of arid lands, which is threatening the lives and livelihoods of so many people in the developing world, notably in Africa.”

A convention is born: October 1992 to June 1994

The first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on the convention to combat desertification (INCD) took place in Nairobi in May 1993. The final session was held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in June 1994, where the Convention to Combat Desertification was agreed after a long final night of negotiations.

The Convention is often referred to as one of the sister Rio Conventions. But the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Biodiversity Convention were both products mainly of parallel Prep Com negotiations held towards the Rio Conference. Both opened for signature in Rio. By contrast, the INCD of what became the UNCCD was partly a response to and an outcome of the UNCED process. The Desertification Convention opened for signature in 1994. 

At the time, many parties referred to desertification as a development, not an environment convention. This generated disagreements among developed countries over whether some of the activities proposed to “combat desertification” should come under the Convention or under development assistance, for instance, poverty reduction activities with a component to reduce land degradation. 

This divergence of perception made the issue of financing the Convention one of the most divisive for the negotiations. Whereas the Global Environment Facility was designated the main financial instrument for the Climate Change and Biodiversity Conventions, the Convention to Combat Desertification had limited success. A major reason was this perception – that it was a “development” convention, unlike the UNFCCC and CBD which were deemed environmental conventions that demanded new and additional resources for implementation.

The issue of financing the Desertification Convention was so divisive, we spent most of the days and nights of the second week of June negotiating it in the UNESCO basement. It was finalized on 17 June 1994, with an agreement to establish the Global Mechanism. The Global Mechanism is not a Fund or a Facility. Rather, it would be the tool “to promote actions leading to the mobilization of substantial financial resources…..” For the developed countries, this was a positive outcome that would ensure that the existing, but fragmented funding of desertification activities could be made more effective and efficiently. On the other hand, developing countries affected by desertification believed the Mechanism would make it easier for them to identify relevant bilateral and multilateral cooperation programmes that are available to implement the Convention.

Despite its early birthing challenges, the Convention’s evolution has a bright ending and promising future.

In 2006, during the sixth session of the UNCCD’s Conference of the Parties in Havana, Cuba, the GEF became a financial mechanism for the UNCCD, complementing the work of the Global Mechanism. In 2014, the Mechanism relocated from Rome, Italy, to Bonn, Germany, where it is now co-located with the UNCCD secretariat. 

The social and economic transformation advocated and needed globally today to secure the earth from climate change and the sixth mass extinction of biological diversity show just how closely environment and development issues are tied together. In 2015, the international community agreed to pursue a global target to ensure all countries work towards keeping a healthy balance of productive land by accelerating the recovery of degrading land, while avoiding and reducing land degradation. Furthermore, there is greater awareness that solutions to climate change, biological loss and combatting land degradation and drought will be achieved faster, when they are tackled together.


See also: