16 December 2011, Algiers - Meeting in Algeria on the UN day to mark the Decade for Deserts and the fight against Desertification (UNDDD) and the International Year of Forests, Mr Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the UN's top advisor on matters of land degradation and approaches to mitigate the effects of drought, said:
"In drylands as elsewhere, trees sustain the land. They have come to mean the difference between living in abject poverty and a sustainable livelihood. Sadly, the drylands and their forests have tended to be 'invisible' to the public and policy makers with only a small proportion of financial flows to forests directed at dryland forests. Like the drylands, they too are a policy 'blind spot'. This has to change urgently."
He said, "natural desert ecosystems are valuable and must be conserved, but man-made deserts must be avoided. And yet, every minute, 23 hectares of land are degraded through drought and desertification, eating into the economic, social and environmental pillars of our sustainable development. With the world population now over 7 billion, a new initiative to identify the economics of land degradation will be a very important step in providing data to world leaders to ensure this becomes a policy priority. How we manage every inch of the fertile soil available will matter much more than ever before."
"As we head towards Rio+ 20 we need a shift in focus with much greater investment in preventing land degradation. For peace and security to be assured in the future, we must aim to maintain a real balance between the amount of land that is degraded every year, and the degraded land that is recovered. Today, over 2 billion hectares of degraded land offers potential for rehabilitation, yet there is little investment towards its restoration," Mr Gnacadja added.
"Agreeing to an international goal that will make us land degradation neutral can help drive action on the ground. Then, success stories that offer hope, such as the regreening initiatives and evergreen agriculture practiced in West Africa, the holistic rangeland management in East and Southern Africa, and the Great Green Wall Initiative of the Sahara and Sahel can be scaled up and scaled out," said Mr Gnacadja.
The events marking the observance of the Decade included a round-table on the importance of the restoration of degraded land, a visit to the Timimoun oasis and performances by the Fioretto Orchestra of Vienna and celebrated South African Gospel singer, Ms Deborah Fraser, at the Castle of Tinerkouk.
The event host, Mr Cherif Rahmani, Minister of Land Planning and Environment of Algeria and President of the World Deserts Foundation, said the observance is taking place at an oasis in the middle of a desert to highlight the increased threat of desertification and land degradation.
"Land degradation is affecting all countries around the world. It is the poor drylands populations, especially those in Africa, that are the most vulnerable. Algeria is taking a leading role to draw attention to their plight because of the added impact of climate change today, not just in the future," said Mr Rahmani.
He added that "an oasis in the desert might seem an unlikely venue for a performance by the world class Fioretto Orchestra of Vienna, but it is symbolic of our interdependence for survival on the drylands ecosystems and their forests." Mr Rahmani concluded by announcing the participation of Algeria to the very important regional program with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the World Bank on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) desert ecosystems and livelihoods program (MENA-DELP) that will help support rural and oasis people to harness desert ecosystem goods and services to enhance livelihoods and strengthen biodiversity conservation.
Ms Fraser, who was recently designated as a Drylands Ambassador for the Convention said, "music, whether gospel or otherwise is a platform for communication. And I want to use the opportunity I have as a celebrated gospel singer to raise awareness about the importance of the land because there is a strong connection between healing souls and healing the land of the people of God. Second, believers have a responsibility to preserve and sustain nature in order to survive."
The world's dry zones are essential to global food security and stable food prices. Close to half of the world's cultivated systems and 50 percent of its livestock are in the drylands. Dryland or arid zone forests cover some 18 percent of the world's drylands, which provide ecosystem services such as climate regulation and as the buffer against desertification.
The forests in the dry areas are also important sources of pharmaceuticals and raw materials. For a majority of the nearly 2 billion inhabitants that live in the drylands, often the world's poorest, forests are a vital source of livelihood. They provide fodder, fuel, wood for construction, medicines and shade. They protect nutrients, help reduce erosion and flooding and help conserve water. Yet they are under enormous pressure.
At the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) to the Convention to Combat Desertification in the Republic of Korea in October, Parties expressed their deep concern about the threat to productive land and soils caused by desertification. Recognizing the opportunity the Decade offers to all countries to put an end to land degradation, they took a decision requiring all countries to elaborate a programme of work for the Decade.
The Parties also sent a strong message to the Rio+20 process on the need to combat land degradation not only in the drylands, but outside the non-dryland ecosystems as well. In September the UN General Assembly in New York called for much greater international, regional and national efforts to tackle this hidden disease.
Investing in the sustainable management of arid-zone forests will hasten the attainment of Millennium Development Goals, especially poverty eradication, gender equality, improved maternal health and child survival and environmental sustainability.