A bi-monthly update on the work of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)


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In this issue







From the Executive Secretary
Land is becoming a central element of the world’s efforts to cope with climate change and promote sustainable development. UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja discusses how the Convention to Combat Desertification is coming into its own. Full story...

A sampling of recent publications on the web about soil and sustainable land management.

Pioneering conference will raise curtain on COP9 in Buenos Aires
An unprecedented scientific forum aiming to establish new soil health indicators will be the curtain-raiser for the 9th Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD, hosted by the Government of Argentina, that is set to agree measures to improve Convention performance. Full story...

Integrating the drylands and climate change agendas
Land Day event in June echoes a growing global recognition of soil’s role in greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration, and spurs plans for joint action programmes with United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Full story...

A shift in donor perceptions: Sweden’s Ambassador Bo Kjellén sees “start of new era” for the UNCCD and the fight against land degradation. Full story...

World Day to Combat Desertification sets record
More than 30 countries showcase their commitment, while the European Space Agency, one of many participating international bodies, demonstrates the work of its earth observation satellites. Full story…


Soil: a new medium for policy convergence

Welcome to our new online news service. Every two months, we aim to report on progress in the fight against land degradation and desertification in Africa, Asia, Asia-Pacific, the Americas and Europe. There is much to tell. With the growing realization that land is central to the world’s efforts to cope with climate change and promote sustainable development, soil has become a new medium for policy convergence. Our Convention is coming into its own.

Hard science This first issue covers, among other things, the growing potential for joint action between the Rio conventions. Land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss are tightly linked, and best confronted as one great challenge. We need more science about soil to promote that synergy, and, at long last, hard science is coming to replace the assumptions that hindered the Convention’s early development. To support this welcome trend, we are refashioning our Committee on Science and Technology into a broader source of data for effective policy.

Later this year, we will gather in Buenos Aires from 21 September to 2 October for the 9th Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD. Our decisions at COP9 will set the Convention’s future course and affect the lives of millions living in the world’s drylands.

A major aim at COP9 is to establish a monitoring system, built on results-based management approaches with commonly-agreed indicators, to support Parties in the implementation of UNCCD’s ten-year strategic plan and framework to enhance the implementation of the Convention (2008-2018). The indicators and the monitoring system will be at the core of new reporting guidelines to capture the most relevant information on investments made and results achieved in combating land degradation and mitigating the effects of drought.

Three “firsts” In addition, this global gathering of the Parties will witness the first UNCCD Science Conference (see next story) and the first Sustainable Land Management Expo, which aims to attract civil society actors, in particular business, as full and active stakeholders of the UNCCD. To top it off, COP9 will be made carbon neutral through the purchase of verified emission reductions for participants’ air travel and a tree-planting project in the host-country Argentina.

Work on documentation for COP9 and the White Papers for our groundbreaking Science Conference is well advanced.

Hasta pronto en Buenos Aires!

Luc Gnacadja
Executive Secretary
United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

“A major aim ... is to establish a monitoring system, built on results-based management approaches, with commonly-agreed indicators to support Parties in the implementation of the ten-year strategy”

Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja


Towards a new-look CST

One of the three main objectives of the ten-year strategic plan for the period 2008-2018 (The Strategy) is to make the UNCCD “… a global authority on scientific and technical knowledge pertaining to desertification/land degradation and mitigation of the effects of drought.”

In terms of stature and impact, this achievement would help put the UNCCD on par with its sister convention, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

From the start, the UNFCCC had the good fortune to draw political muscle from the compelling scientific data compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an authoritative body formed in 1988, four years before agreement on the UNFCCC. In contrast, however, the UNCCD has lagged in implementation partly because of what observers call its “science deficit.”

Baselines Two reasons are usually given for the comparative weakness of the Convention’s empirical foundations. The first is that much of the science simply is not there yet. Due partly to the difficulty of establishing baselines and measuring progress, research into the holistic causes and impact of soil health and soil degradation has lagged behind comparable investigations of air and water, flora and fauna.

The second is the halting progress of its Committee on Science and Technology (CST), a subsidiary body of the Conference of the Parties composed entirely of government representatives and charged with providing to the COP “information and advice on scientific and technological matters relating to combating desertification and mitigating the effects of drought.”

Some consider the CST’s membership criteria restrictive, and the principle of broader scientific input has been gaining credence throughout the last decade. Since 2001, the UNCCD Parties have been forthright about the CST’s shortcomings and sought to improve it. At the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP8) in Madrid in 2007, the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC) stated: “The CST must better service the needs of Parties, and in this respect it would benefit from the participation of more independent expertise.”

More room for the scientists That now seems to be underway. Alongside other reforms to the CST’s scope and composition, and under CST auspices, Parties have agreed to an open forum of the world’s top land management experts, the 22-24 September UNCCD Science Conference in Buenos Aires. “This is a welcome decision,” says Dr Rattan Lal, a leading soil scientist and featured panelist at Land Day (see below). “It’s become abundantly clear that food security, climate change, water scarcity and environment quality can't be properly addressed without restoring degraded and desertified soils,” he told UNCCD News. “The best scientific know-how needs to be harnessed much more productively, at a strategic, global level as well as locally, to inform policymaking.”

The ground-breaking conference is the first in a planned series of formal consultations to “generate practical, actionable recommendations for deliberation by the Conference of the Parties.” Organized by the Drylands Science for Development Consortium, it will take up two-and-a-half days to showcase the best and latest soil and land management know-how, and expects to attract over 400 participants.

Three working groups are crafting background papers that were open to online comment until the end of June, 2009. From this research, the conference in the Argentine capital will deliver a scientific report on desertification monitoring and assessment, along with policy recommendations to the ensuing COP9 gathering. Sessions will deliberately seek interaction, knowledge-sharing and open debate. “We want to make all our processes more science-friendly,” says UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja. “I call on all Parties to send your best scientists. They won’t have to bother with politics. They will feel welcome.”

The upcoming Science Conference in Buenos Aires (22-24 September) will round up the best know-how




Gaucho at work in San Antonio de Areco, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina




“The Committe on Science and Technology must better service the needs of Parties, and ... would benefit from the participation of more independent expertise.”

Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention, 5th session (CRIC5), March 2007


Land Day stakes a claim on climate change agenda

Despite the richness and variety of issues it covered, a conference in Bonn called Land Day (6 June 2009) followed a recurrent theme. Billed as a cooperative effort by eight partner-organizations*, including the UNCCD, to focus attention on the importance of desertification, Land Day gave voice to the mounting realization of soil’s central importance to environmental health and human well-being. Some 170 participants, many on a break from the climate change negotiations taking place a five-minute walk away, came to listen and participate.

Integrated agendas?  Earth Institute director and keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs said he was “thrilled about Land Day, about the integration of the urgent agendas of the drylands and the global climate change negotiations.” Via video link from New York, he told the audience: “There is no more important combination of themes on the planet.”

Many speakers described how land-use issues can serve as “entry points” for concrete measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Recent scientific evidence and the gathering momentum of climate change have led previously skeptical players to reassess earlier beliefs. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer recounted how, as a negotiator representing the European Union, he and many others in the early 1990s had successfully resisted the inclusion of land and forestry in the Kyoto Protocol: “We were perhaps too successful,” he told the conference, adding, “Now things have changed, dramatically.”

Yvo de Boer went on to extol the “large mitigation potential of agriculture”, mainly through carbon sequestration in soils, and predicted corresponding financial rewards. “A successful outcome in Copenhagen will include incentives for the agricultural and forestry sectors to adopt decisive mitigation measures,” Mr de Boer said. “I am quite confident that the negotiations will find ways and means for full carbon accounting.  This will ... enable the linking of climate change to the broader development agenda.”

Awareness raised Thomas Heimgartner, a specialist on policy coordination and the environment from Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, told UNCCD News: “If the intention was to raise awareness about the significance of agriculture and land use for greenhouse gas emissions as well as the challenges facing joint action by the Conventions on Desertification and Climate Change, then Land Day was a success.”

Another positive sign of the push for convergence was the announcement of a five-country pilot study, still in the planning stages, to test money- and time-saving ways to jointly implement the UNCCD’s National Action Programmes (NAPs) and the UNFCCC’s National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs). The countries will be chosen by the UNFCCC and likely represent Africa, Asia, the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe.

See conference presentations 

*Land Day’s co-organizers: Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ - Germany), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Global Mechanism (GM), International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and UNCCD secretariat. 


From sustainable pastoral farming to global water management, the Land Day event in Bonn promotes soil’s role in adaptation to climate change, carbon sequestration and the post-Kyoto framework

“SLM must become an integral part of a new green deal in Copenhagen”

A sampling of remarks by some of the 20 featured speakers, moderators and panelists at Land Day on June 6, 2009


“The full mitigation potential of agriculture was not considered during the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol because of scientific uncertainty at the time. Yet since then, science has caught up, and CO2 sequestration in soils can be monitored with much greater accuracy... At the climate change talks, Parties are currently discussing land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) and how best to take this forward. Both the scientific progress and nationally-appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) in developing countries provide an opportunity to unleash the mitigation potential of this sector.”
Yvo de Boer
Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)


“We are convinced that there is large untapped mitigation potential in the sustainable management of land... Land degradation contributes to climate change. Whereas the role of deforestation in climate change is uncontested among the climate community, the problem of land degradation is not yet sufficiently acknowledged… Sustainable land management [SLM] must become an integral part of a new green deal in Copenhagen.”
Adolf Kloke-Lesch
Director-General, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany


“The drylands include the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. We are already seeing the harrowing effects of climate change on poverty, survival, health, hunger, human well-being. And the heavily impacted drylands have become among the most unstable parts of the world… We haven’t seen a coherent, consistent, persistent, scaled, science-based approach to these challenges, because the resources and the political attention haven’t been there.”
Jeffrey Sachs
Director, Earth Institute, Columbia University; Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals


“It is important to compensate farmers for ecosystem services. This would promote the adoption of restorative land use and recommended land management practices.”
Dr Rattan Lal
Professor of Soil Science, School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Director, Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Centre; The Ohio State University


“The world needs a new framework that takes into account the links between climate change and land use, land use change and forestry.”
Barney Dickson
Head, Climate Change and Biodiversity Programme, United Nations Environment Programme-World Climate Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC)


“Sustainable land management and the UNCCD are obvious entry points for climate risk management and ensuring food security.”
Anna Tengberg
Global Focal Point for Land Degradation, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)


“To receive funding, you have to demonstrate that you’re reducing emissions. So, to materialize the huge potential of land and soil to mitigate climate change, you need to develop methods of measuring emissions reduction in land use and forestry.”
Robert Acosta
Coordinator, UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA)


“At national and local level, plans often compete with each other… Does each Convention really need its own exclusive action programme? We must strive for a coordinated and integrated way of implementing NAPs, NAPAs and NAMAs.”
Anneke Trux
Head of CCD Project, GTZ (Germany) 

“I am thrilled about Land Day, about the integration of the urgent agendas of the drylands and the global climate change negotiations.”

Jeffrey Sachs
Director, Earth Institute, Columbia University, speaking in his video address

Executive Secretaries shake on it: UNCCD's Luc Gnacadja (right) and UNFCCC's Yvo de Boer at the Land Day event



“Humanity has full responsibility now for the whole planet and our survival is at stake”

Sweden's veteran environment negotiator Bo Kjellén sees growing global interest in the Convention


Cheerful, patient and determined, Sweden’s Ambassador Bo Kjellén shepherded the UNCCD into existence in the early 1990s. Today, many regard him as the leading elder statesman of the Rio Process. Though retired from government now and serving as Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, he continues to track the global response to land degradation. Bo Kjellén recently chaired the opening panel discussion at the UNCCD’s first Land Day event in Bonn, where he spoke with Timothy Nater. Excerpts:

On where things stand now – I’ve been involved with climate change and the UNCCD for almost 20 years, and I believe we’re at the start of a new era for the Convention. We’ve learned a lot during this period. While the Secretariats of the UNCCD and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have worked together pretty well for many years, there’s been a general lack of coordination between national capitals on desertification and climate change in the past.

But today, the Convention’s 10-Year Strategic Plan (download PDF) and new leadership have coincided with growing concern in all countries over the world’s drylands and their crucial role in climate change. There is a new, environmentally responsible administration in Washington, DC. We have a more complete scientific understanding of the problems facing us and scientists are now actively seeking our cooperation. There’s also a fresh appreciation of some of the Convention’s unique features, especially its focus on the importance of a decentralized approach, local participation and local knowledge. I keep reminding people that the UNCCD deals with the fundamentals of the human condition: sun, soil, water, men, women and children, as well as with the special role of Africa.

On funding – A big handicap for the Convention has been the lack of a stable financial basis. The Convention must rely on how individual governments and donors evaluate its work, through the Global Mechanism. The GM always was an imperfect compromise. As Chairman of the negotiations to create the Convention in the early 1990s, I fought against its creation, but it was the only solution at the time.

With the UNCCD’s new 10-year strategy coming into effect, I believe it’s time to develop a financial mechanism that is more similar to those serving the other Rio Conventions. We also need funding that isn’t dependent on the approval of Ministers of Finance or the donor community.

The UNFCCC Adaptation Fund, which is partly financed through a share in the proceeds from the Clean Development Mechanism, is one example. It could be extended to cover activities to fight land degradation. Money could also be raised in new ways, for example, through a small tax on air travel or the auctioning of emission allowances.

Rio Process pioneer

Ambassador Bo Kjellén worked in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden between 1957 and 1990, serving under Prime Minister Olaf Palme as ambassador to Hanoi in what was then North Vietnam and, later, to the OECD and UNESCO in Paris.

In 1990, he returned to Stockholm as Chief Negotiator for the Ministry of Environment, and led Swedish delegations through the Rio Process and climate negotiations. In perhaps his most influential role, he chaired the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Desertification (INCD) from 1993 to 1997.

Bo Kjellén holds Honorary Doctorates from Silsoe College, Cranfield University, UK (1997), Gothenburg University, Sweden (1999) and Mälardalen University, Sweden (2003).

On the shift in donor perceptions – Another major challenge has been that, from the beginning, and despite the strong support for the UNCCD from the G-77 countries, most bilateral and multilateral donors were never enthusiastic about the Convention. They felt that their development programmes in the drylands were sufficient. They didn’t regard land degradation as a worldwide problem, though of course it always was. But things are different today. The new holistic approach to climate change, forests, agriculture and preserving biodiversity springs from a realization of the central role that land plays in all those areas.

On cooperation with the UNFCCC – I think the two Secretariats really should do more to establish common guidelines and operate a joint system for the implementation of NAPs and NAPAs. If they did this, they would save scarce resources. It’s a job they should perhaps get down to post-Copenhagen.

On the future – I have good hopes. Humanity has full responsibility now for the whole planet and our survival is at stake. The climate negotiations are opening our eyes to this and to the absolute necessity to find common solutions. I have great respect for the climate negotiators, who must operate under very strict constraints set by their respective governments. It’s a tough and exhausting process. But I agree with Yvo de Boer, who predicts an ambitious deal in Copenhagen. Further down the line, I believe that things in 2050 will look better than some of us predict today.

See also Bo Kjellén’s recently-published book, A New Diplomacy for Sustainable Development: the Challenge of Global Change (Routledge 2008)

“I remember just how tough the final negotiations were in 1994 in Paris, where it was only largely thanks to outstanding personalities like Ambassador Bo Kjellén that the convention was finally established at all.”

Klaus Töpfer
Former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and former Minister of the Environment, Federal Republic of Germany



World Day to Combat Desertification breaks record and highlights land-related challenges

From tree-planting ceremonies and photo exhibits to policy initiatives, conferences, concerts and parades, this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification marked a record-breaking flurry of activity by governments, UN bodies and civil society groups alike. By the end of June, the UNCCD Secretariat in Bonn had received reports of more than 50 events in over 30 countries, more than any marked in previous years.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been a close scientific ally of the UNCCD for more than eight years. ESA’s earth observation (EO) satellites provide high-resolution images of land use trends as well as man-made and natural disasters. In 2004, ESA launched DesertWatch, a set of satellite-based information services to monitor and assess the status of land degradation in the Mediterranean basin. Now, ESA aims to develop global applications of the DesertWatch programme for the benefit of all UNCCD Parties. In addition, the space agency’s TIGER initiative helps African countries tackle drought and improve water management. At the official observance of the World Day to Combat Desertification in Bonn, Germany, ESA’s Marc Paganini called satellites a key weapon in the fight against desertification. “EO technology will help establish a sound scientific basis for developing effective adaptation or mitigation measures against the impacts of climate change,” he said.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) marked World Day to Combat Desertification with a call by Executive Director Achim Steiner to governments to address the causes of desertification and “seal the deal” at the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Land degradation affected nearly a billion people in some 100 countries, he said, naming climate change one of its many factors. But anti-desertification strategies, including the creation of market gardens and community nature reserves, the re-introduction of extinct grass species, rainwater harvesting and rotational grazing could turn the tide, he said. These could grow from the blend of modern and traditional, indigenous farming know-how promoted by the US$10 million Desert Margins Programme (DMP) in nine pilot countries in Africa.

Degradation laid bare
In the pale areas in the middle of this ESA satellite image of dryland settlements in central Sudan, excessive land use has stripped away vegetation, forcing farmers’ fields (white and brownish spots) further from the villages.


One example of this blend is the nutritious Pomme du Sahel, or Sahel Apple (right). This hybrid is swiftly gaining fans among farmers and consumers in Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and other dryland countries of Africa. Derived from the native African jujube berry and imported Indian varieties, the bush likes sandy soils and can help restore degraded lands. The fruit, roughly the size of a large plum, is sweet and rich in vitamin C, calcium and iron.

The Sahel Apple is one of several successful developments promoted by the DMP, led by UNEP in partnership with the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Every 17 June, the World Day to Combat Desertification promotes public awareness of drought and land degradation, and what's being done to prevent them. Last year saw about 40 events take place all over the world. “We can’t say it too often,” says Yukie Horie, UNCCD Coordinator for Awareness-Raising, Communication and Education. “Desertification can be effectively tackled. Solutions are possible.”




Securitizing the ground, grounding security. 41 pages; UNCCD. Download a PDF copy

Benefits of sustainable land management. 15 pages; UNCCD, World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, FAO, Centre for Development and Environment. Download a PDF copy

The World Food Crisis, Land Degradation and Sustainable Land Management: Linkages, Opportunities and Constraints. 109 pages; TerrAfrica partnership platform

Closing the Gaps. 107 pages; Commission on Climate Change and Development, Sweden. Download a PDF copy

Accessing climate-change finance for Sustainable Land Management. 28 pages; GTZ, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Germany) and Global Mechanism. Download a PDF copy

Arid waste? Reassessing the value of dryland pastoralism. 4-page briefing paper; IIED; Published 17 June, 2009, on the occasion of World Day to Combat Desertification. Download a copy

Land Use Capability Survey Handbook. AgResearch Ltd; Landcare Research NZ Ltd; 164 pages; Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd; New Zealand. Download a copy

International Year of Planet Earth 2007-2009 – Planet Earth book – 2nd edition, 130 pages; UNESCO, International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). Download a copy

National Geographic cover story on soils (September 2008)



About the UNCCD

Developed as a result of the Rio Summit, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is a unique instrument that has brought attention to land degradation to some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems in the world. The UNCCD benefits from the largest membership of the three Rio Conventions and is increasingly recognized as an instrument that can make an important contribution to the achievement of sustainable development and poverty reduction.

For more information: Awareness Raising, Communication and Education Unit, UNCCD
Tel (Switchboard): + 49 228 815 2800   Fax: + 49 228 815 2898   secretariat@unccd.int


UNCCD News is published by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany

Editor: Timothy Nater
Design: Rebus, Paris
Copyright ©2009 UNCCD
Photo credits: ESA, GLCF/DLR, UNCCD, Samuel de Leon, Itamar Grinberg, Eduardo Amorim/Creative Commons, Markus Staas/IISD, www.istockphoto.com, www.fond-ecran-image.com