Many of Canada’s deserts were made fertile again through intelligent forestry and land-use policies. Now the federal government has withdrawn from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, claiming that it is just a “talkfest”
In his final presidential address to the US Congress in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt stressed the connections between world peace and pushing back deserts. He warned that the looming disintegration of China and its related Boxer Rebellion had stemmed from national collapse caused by deforestation and the subsequent rampant spread of deserts. His gloomy predictions soon came true, as national governance in China effectively disintegrated, to be replaced by decades of civil war, foreign invasion, and rule by warlords.
Roosevelt lamented that in northern China many once-common tree species—such as the mulberry—were now confined to graveyards and other religious shrines, being guarded only by the vigilance of tree-loving priests. Ominously, in Saharan regions today, many tree species are found only in walled cemeteries, protected from grazing animals, and are absent in the surrounding countryside.
Lands impacted by desertification—stretching from India to Morocco—have becoming havens for terror, extremism and civil war, much as happened in China a century earlier. Just as the Boxers created chaos in the last years of the Chinese empire, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seeks to undermine governance throughout Saharan Africa. Armed conflicts between cattle herders have become routine and the empty sands of the Sahara have become an unpoliced region to smuggle drugs, alcohol, weapons, and illegal migrants from tropical Africa to the Mediterranean.
This stark reality of desertification and state disintegration is a strange counterpoint to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s March 28, 2013 announcement that Canada was revoking its membership in the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Before Canada’s pullout, the convention had been ratified by every UN member state. The revocation came one month before a conference in Bonn, Germany where the Harper government was expected to challenge the scientific evidence on the relationship between desertification and climate change.
Canada’s withdrawal from UNCCD was denounced by former UN Ambassador (and former deputy minister of defence) Robert Fowler. While serving as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy to Niger, Fowler was held hostage in the Sahara for 130 days. His abduction by an al-Qaeda affiliated group gave Fowler great familiarity with the relationship between desertification, extremism, and violence in the region.
Fowler called the revocation “a departure from global citizenship.” He took the view that Harper government “has taken climate-change denial, the abandonment of collective efforts to manage global crises, and the disregard of the pain and suffering of the peoples of the sub-Saharan Africa (among many others) to a quite different level.” He termed the decision “vain-glorious nose-thumbing at the international community’s efforts to tame a very present threat to hundreds of millions of the world’s most poor and most desperate people.” Such an action he believes, “is nothing short of incomprehensible.”
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the only convention arising from a direct recommendation of the Rio Conference Agenda 23 and entered into force in December 1996. It is the first and only internationally legally binding framework to address the problem of desertification. Its Secretariat has been based in Boon since 2006.
Despite Harper’s description of the treaty as a “talkfest,” countries that signed are required to develop a Biodiversity Action Plan. One of the first to do so was African county of Djibouti. It has shown remarkable success in protecting its forests from the sands of the Sahara, and conserving its rare trees, such as the African Olive and the Gabal Elba Dragon Tree, which thrive in arid conditions. Such National Action Programmes of UNCCD are one of the key instruments in the implementation of the convention. They are complemented by regional plans between states. Programs spell out specific actions in local communities to combat desertification in specific ecosystems.
Harper’s action to pull Canada out of the desertification convention came on the eve of an April 2013 conference in Bonn, Germany, which sought to put a price on environmental damage. It was stressed that the very country where Ambassador Fowler was kidnapped—Niger—loses eight per cent of its GDP from land degradation. One of the awards by UNCCD was to World Vision Australia, which has promoted the cultivation of buried root systems, (underground forests) in degraded landscapes to restore the land’s productivity.
In his announcement, Harper made no acknowledgement of Canada’s own past problems on desertification and how treeplanting programs that were generated as a result and now threatened by government cutbacks and pressures from developers engaged in urban sprawl. This has resulted in a native occupation of the recently closed Springwater Provincial Park in Midhurst, Ontario.
Canada helped to foster the techniques being used around the world today to reverse the spread of arid wastelands—fencing out livestock from fragile soil and planting trees that can survive desert conditions. Another Canadian native occupation, the Oka crisis, took place on land where this process began in 1886: a lesson clearly ignored by the current government.
John Bacher is author of Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz , which chronicles the Ontario campaign against desertification during the mid-20th century.