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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2001

The U.S. Commitment to Combating Desertification

Kenneth C. Brill, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Remarks prepared for presentation to the conference "Breaking the Links Between Land Degradation, Food Insecurity, and Water Scarcity," sponsored by Earth Action and the International Fund for Agricultural Development
Washington, DC
June 20, 2001

The Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) addresses the fundamental causes of famine and food insecurity, especially in Africa, with a focus on poverty relief and the dissemination of scientific information, technology, and know-how. We consider the Convention a unique and innovative environmental agreement. What makes it unique is its grassroots approach, which recognizes the crucial importance of education and empowerment at the local level to any successful anti-desertification strategy. This approach is exemplified in the national action plans for combating desertification which have been developed by affected country parties.

In developing these national action plans, Parties have worked hard to involve local communities, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society in general. In many cases, this has not been easy. Many countries have a long tradition of top-down, centralized land management. But the CCD national action plans represent an attempt to produce more effective solutions to desertification by involving those most affected, incorporating their needs and their knowledge into the final plan. It gives people a real stake in the outcome of their plan and increases the chances of success.

The CCD has the potential to have beneficial effects beyond combating desertification. By strengthening civil society in general, and by promoting local, government, and NGO cooperation both nationally and regionally, beneficial synergies can be created which can help to solve other local, national, and regional problems.

The United States became a Party to the Convention to Combat Desertification on February 15 of this year. I would like to take a moment to recognize everyone -- members of Congress, nongovernmental organizations, the scientific and academic community -- for their tireless and eloquent support of the CCD. But for them, the U.S. would not be a Party now.

The United States is firmly committed to implementing the CCD. Worldwide, desertification affects about 1 billion people and 2 billion hectares of land -- an area the size of the United States and Canada combined. It is a global issue of huge importance, though its effects are felt especially strongly in Africa. Seventy percent of the African continent is subject to desertification. Nearly 40% of Africans rely on marginal drylands for subsistence.

Desertification is a fundamental cause of famine and food insecurity. It deepens poverty and undercuts economic growth. It has been estimated that $40 billion dollars in income is lost each year due to desertification. Desertification can exacerbate ethnic and political tensions and contribute to conflict. In some countries, soil erosion and degradation has led to massive internal migrations, forcing whole villages to flee their farms for already-overcrowded cities.

A famous author once described the human tragedy of desertification in memorable terms:

"And then the dispossessed were drawn west…families, tribes, dusted out…homeless and hungry; 20,000 and 50,000 and a 100,000 and 200,000. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless, restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do…anything, any burden to bear, to find food. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."

Who do you guess the author is, and where are these events taking place? The quotation I just read you is from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and it describes the westward migration from the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930's in the United States. One important reason the United States is committed to combating desertification is that we have been there. Farmers moving onto the fragile plains persisted in using agriculture methods that were inappropriate for that environment. As a result, when a series of droughts hit, their land literally dried up and blew away. Conditions were so terrible that, it is claimed, farmers could actually hear the ground cracking as it dried. So, one reason I am here today is that the United States created one of the most famous examples of desertification ever.

But the other side of that is the fact that the United States eventually managed to recover from this disaster. The U.S. response to this crisis was a successful community-based soil and water conservation program that is still fighting the ever-present threat of desertification in the American West. Through research on soil conservation measures, technology transfer to farmers, and education and training of farmers, ranchers, and local communities -- this should sound familiar to all of you knowledgeable about the CCD -- the Dust Bowl was eventually mitigated and the affected lands returned to productivity.

What would have happened, though, if the U.S. had not had, or not been able to develop, the financial and technological resources that ultimately enabled our success? Many countries now confront just that situation. The United States has contributed over $167 million toward combating desertification over the past 5 years. We will continue to contribute substantial amounts of funding to this effort -- for example, through our voluntary contribution to the CCD, the GEF, our USAID programs, and IUCN. Perhaps the most significant contribution the United States has to make to implementing the Convention, though, is our experience: sharing technology, know-how, and our hard-won agricultural, technical, and scientific knowledge with other nations coping with the threat of desertification.

The U.S. commitment to combating desertification did not begin with ratification, nor will it end with ratification. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed during the Dust Bowl that, "A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." Our historical and on-going struggles against desertification in the United States underpin our commitment to implementing the Convention and working cooperatively with other nations in our common struggle.  

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