A conference with a difference

17 October 2011 | Blogs

17.10.11. To counter growing risks of land degradation and drought caused by desertification in drylands, home to more than two billion people, the tenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) opened on 10 October and runs through 21 October, writes Wynne Boelt of the UNCCD.

“We now see increasing attention given to desertification and land degradation issues,” UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja said at the opening of the Plenary session. "I am confident that this meeting will pave the way to an even stronger role for our Convention."

Mr. Gnacadja was joined at the conference opening by Mr. Lee Don Koo, Minister of the Korea Forest Service, who was elected President of conference, Mr. Kim Du Kwan, Governor of Gyeongsangnam-do, and Mr. Yann Arthus-Bertrand, cinematographer and Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Environment Programme.

More than 5,000 participants are expected, including the 194 Parties to the UNCCD, as well as civil society organizations and media in the first conference of its kind held in Asia, which has more people affected by desertification, land degradation and drought than any other continent. Three days after its opening, participants from nearly 150 countries have arrived in Changwon for the event.

The usual business of the COP and its Committees started promptly on Tuesday morning and continued through Thursday, along with a range of regional group and other meetings and side events. The key topics so far include the UNCCD’s 10 Year Strategy, the draft advocacy policy frameworks under development, synergies in reporting under the Rio Conventions, streamlining the Convention’s institutions, enhancing scientific cooperation with other UN scientific subsidiary bodies, and the UNCCD’s fellowship programme.

This session of the conference, however, shows a departure from the past. The diversity of activity signals a desire to make the issues of desertification, land degradation and drought, which are typically viewed as dry as their environments, to be practical and accessible to the general public. Two innovations outside the formal conference agenda illustrate the point.

Eenvironmental consciousness is being translated into action. As with the previous conference, participants have the opportunity to off-set their carbon footprint by paying for it. Thanks to the Gyeongnam Provincial Government and SK Telecom, the COP is reducing paper use by going "papersmart", and it is the first major UN conference to do so. "Papersmart" means minimizing paper use for all conference-based documents by switching to digital devices whenever possible. Many of the conference participants are using tablet personal computers to obtain conference documentation, including the daily conference journal. The use of tablet PCs is expected to substantially reduce the conference’s overall paper use and lower the conference’s carbon footprint.

On the issue of accessibility, the other innovation is the involvement of celebrities in the Conference of the Parties. On Tuesday, 11 October, Mr.Gnacadja named Dennis Garrity, outgoing Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, and South African gospel singer, Deborah Fraser as UNCCD Drylands Ambassadors. Six months ago, world-famous Spanish footballer Carlos Marchena was also named Drylands Ambassador. In addition to using their star power to capture new audiences, the Ambassadors are keen to engage actively with targeted constituencies to bring about behavior change.

On Tuesday, the Rio Conventions Pavilion, located in an exhibition area outside COP10, also opened as a platform to raise awareness, build capacity, and share information and knowledge about the latest practices to combat climate change, halt the loss of biodiversity and reverse land degradation. The first sessions of the Pavilion considered securing ecosystem services for cities in the context of the Rio Conventions and the Land Degradation Assessment in Drylands project, which developed standards for assessing and monitoring land degradation.

A session was held on the challenges and opportunities for sustainable forest management and its linkages with biodiversity and the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) Programme. The series of discussions have focused on: ecosystem-based approaches to climate change; dryland protected areas; integrated economic assessment of land resources and ecosystem services; sustainable land and water management; the People’s Republic of China-Global Environmental Facility’s partnership on land degradation in dryland ecosystems; decision support tools for monitoring and assessment of sustainable land management by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); and Central Asia countries initiative on land management.

These are complemented by the side events, which showcased practical action on the ground. In one such event, representatives from 11 countries shared their experiences on measuring poverty, desertification and land degradation, as part of the UNCCD Impact Indicators Pilot Programme, to help gain consensus on developing standard global statistical indicators on poverty and land degradation. Another side event discussed the local landcare approach to sustainable land management. This is an approach to sustainable land management where community-based and grassroots organizations lead the way to improving people’s lives and protecting natural resources. Landcare has mobilized farmers and other land users at the local level around the world to effectively improve land management. “What people are doing on the ground is what it’s all about,” Drylands Ambassador Dr. Garrity said.

The World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) considered knowledge management and decision support for sustainable land management: a common global platform for up-scaling sustainable land management best practices. The event also served as an opportunity for the second launch of the TerrAfrica book: Sustainable Land Management in Practice.

These are just some of the numerous events and happenings that are taking place in and around COP10. A review of next week’s programme suggests COP10 will record quite a few firsts…watch this space!