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International Programs News & Views Volume 14

April 1999 

DROUGHT, DRYLANDS DEGRADATION, AND DESERTIFICATION

The future of the U.S. -- its security, its prosperity, and its environment -- is linked to the rest of the world.  American businesses and workers compete in a global economy shaped by global trends.  American agriculture is more than twice as reliant on foreign trade than the U.S. economy as a whole.  Exports are U.S. agriculture’s source of future growth in sales and income.  Agriculture is one of the few U.S. industry sectors that consistently runs a trade surplus.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) plays a vital role in this continuing trend by helping landowners and operators conserve the natural resource base that maintains America’s competitive advantage in farm and forest products trade.

Last years drought in several crop production areas reminded us that drought is a permanent part of the character of arid and semi-arid lands in the U.S. and its territories.  Drought, drylands degradation, and the continuing struggle to achieve sustainable drylands management is also a worldwide phenomenon that has occupied the interests and the attention of the international conservation community for many years.

The purpose of this News and Views is to provide background information on the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), which will be considered for Senate ratification this year.  Some suggested talking points are included for possible use in conversations with conservation partners and agricultural organizations in your state and/or around Washington. 

Background

The Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa, is the third post-Earth Summit treaty to be signed by the U.S.  The others are the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  The U.S. actively participated in the intergovernmental negotiation process that developed this treaty, and NRCS has been a key member of the U.S. Delegation since 1993.  The U.S. signed the Desertification Convention in June 1994.  The CCD entered into force in late December 1996, after 50 countries had ratified it.  Currently, over 130 countries have ratified the CCD, and the ratification package was sent by the Administration to the Senate in August 1996 -- no action has yet been taken.  President Clinton reaffirmed his support for U.S. ratification of the CCD during his visit to Africa in March 1998.  Secretary Glickman was a keynote speaker at a business briefing on the CCD which was sponsored by the Administration in September 1998.

NRCS actively participates in this post-Earth Summit environmental agreement because of our continuing concern for, and commitment to, sustainable use of natural resources -- here in the U.S. and abroad.  In fact, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of having created, and eventually contained and mitigated, the worlds premier example of desertification -- the “Dust Bowl.”  Our President at that time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, summed up the true scope of the problem when he said, “a nation that
 destroys its soil, destroys itself.”  Today, drylands on every continent are being degraded by inefficient farming, grazing, forestry and irrigation practices.  Such resource over exploitation is generally caused by economic and social pressures, ignorance, conflict and drought.

This treaty also focuses on Africa.  Africa’s high proportion of fragile drylands, where almost 70% of the population is still engaged in agriculture (compared to 2% in the U.S.), and where over 70% of farmers are women, makes sustainable drylands management essential to food security and human survival.

Talking Points on the CCD

NRCS has always believed that those people who work the land are the ones who will ultimately conserve or destroy it.  That is why NRCS has been involved since 1993 with the negotiation and implementation of the CCD.  The CCD is unique among the post-Earth Summit environmental treaties because it stresses the involvement of local people -- those actually working the land, particularly women -- in planning for sustainable drylands management.

About 40% of the U.S. is considered arid, semi-arid, or dry sub-humid and, therefore, susceptible to the processes of desertification.  These lands comprise almost half of the continental U.S. west of the 100th Meridian, and encompass the 17 western states.  They also extend northward into Canada and southward into Mexico.  Thus, the U.S. is an “affected country” under the terms of the Convention.

Four deserts (Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert) make up a large portion of this drylands area.

Causes of desertification in the U.S. include improper agricultural practices.  Our country learned some very painful lessons in the 1930s “Dust Bowl” days.  Improper livestock grazing, poor mine reclamation practices, proliferation of roads and trails and other abuses of natural resources by the public, urbanization, the introduction of invasive exotic species, poor fire management policies, and deforestation are some of the major causes of land degradation and the desertification process.

The CCD places no new financial obligations on the U.S. for overseas development aid.  Unlike the treaties on climate change and biological diversity, there are already significant development aid flows from the U.S. and many other developed nations.  The CCD promotes more efficient use of existing aid flows through better coordination among donor countries, improved planning for drylands management that involves local peoples in developing countries, and better “matches” between donor funds and aid project needs through a small coordinating unit.

Although the problems associated with desertification are more serious in Africa and other regions of the world, we are faced with them here in the U.S. as well.  Each country needs to share the lessons it has learned and its expertise so that the world as a whole can combat the problem of drylands degradation.  Over the years, NRCS has learned much about conservation from other countries -- we hope to learn more in the future. 

Editor:  Gail C. Roane (retired), International Programs Division