International symposium calls for urgent action to combat desertification

Arizona, 17 May 1997 (G-77) - An International Symposium and Workshop on "Combating Desertification: Connecting Science with Community Action" was convened in Tucson, Arizona, from 12-16 May 1997, under the sponsorship of the United States Bureau of Land Management and the International Arid Lands Consortium.
The objective of the Symposium was to allow a significant exchange of ideas between the developers of science and technology related to combating desertification and the community-level decision makers dealing with the problems of desertification and drought on a day-to-day basis. Approximately 200 participants, representing the scientific and academic communities, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, attended the Symposium.

During the week, 18 scientific papers were presented on the Symposium's six topics as well as 140 poster presentations and papers that were made available to participants. A number of participants remained in Arizona for an additional week-long "training package" to learn about efforts related to desertification in the southwestern United States.

Beaumont McClure (US), Program Committee Chair, opened the Symposium on Monday morning, 12 May. John Garamendi, Deputy Secretary, US Department of Interior, acted as the Master of Ceremonies during the Symposium banquet on Tuesday, 14 May. He said the Symposium's work on sharing scientific knowledge is extraordinarily important for the one billion poor people at risk from desertification and famine in the world's drylands.

In a message to the participants at the Sympsoium, Ambassador Daudi N. Mwakawago, Chair of the Group of 77, expressed hope that the Symposium's recommendations would serve as valuable inputs to the UN General Assembly Special Session in June and to the first Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) in October. He reminded participants that the international community agreed at UNCED to treat desertification as a global environmental phenomenon that calls for universal mobilization. He noted the current insufficiency of financial resources and emphasized the need for international cooperation in support of a global mechanism to mobilize new and additional resources to combat desertification.

The International Symposium was welcomed by participants as important and timely and will undoubtedly activate thinking at a time when the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) has just entered into force and is preparing for its first Conference of Parties. The CCD's unique emphasis on bottom-up approaches and scientific cooperation were the driving force behind this symposium, whose contribution to further raising the profile and recognition of dryland issues was commended by participants. The 1997 Symposium linked participants that attended the 1994 Symposium and newcomers into a larger informal network of researchers from universities, government institutes, aid agencies and a few NGOs working on land degradation in over 30 countries.

While many of the recommendations formulated by the symposium emphasized the importance of sensitizing scientists to local concerns and traditional knowledge and practices, it became apparent in many instances that this was problematic. Scientists are often not aware of or focused on policy-level efforts and initiatives to address desertification, nor do they necessarily think it is the scientists' place to take on the task of communicating and consulting with communities. This revealed the considerable gaps between science, policy and community action. The recommendation for NGOs to serve as mediators between scientists, policy makers and communities in this regard provided a tangible and constructive recommendation for how to connect science with community action.
The 1994 and 1997 symposia have contributed to increasing the awareness of desertification by bringing together policy makers, scientists and, to a lesser degree, representatives of communities affected by desertification, to inform each other and the wider international community that there is a considerable level of interest and activity on the problem. Although the recommendations may not be ground-breaking or explicitly operational, they reflect an awareness of the complexities driving land degradation and a recognition that much remains to be learned, paradigms need to be shifted, thinking must be reoriented, action must be taken in a more collaborative manner, and the dialogue must be opened to voices emanating from local communities.