A Call to Restructure Existing International Environmental Law in Light of Africa's Renaissance: the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (nepad)

Publication year2003
CitationVol. 27 No. 01



A Call to Restructure Existing International Environmental Law in Light of Africa's Renaissance: The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)

Leslie C. Clark(fn*)

I. Introduction

"Most basic human needs are linked to the environment.'"(fn1)

The field of international environmental law, a relatively young legal discipline, addresses issues of global environmental preservation within the context of sustainable development.(fn2) Within the corpus of international environmental law, desertification and land degradation have become significant concerns. Although the risk of increased land degradation and desertification affects lands all over the world,(fn3) the continent of Africa has long been identified as the world's region most vulnerable to the problems associated with desertification.(fn4) For example, the Sahel region struggled against land degradation and desertification significantly before global awareness of the problem had been raised.(fn5) Furthermore, nearly every nation in Africa must deal with the risk of desertification.(fn6) Regional organizations throughout Africa have identified desertification as a major challenge to regional sustained development.(fn7)

Although the problems associated with desertification in Africa are not new issues for the twenty-first century, there are compelling reasons to re-review the status of combating desertification and land degradation in Africa at this time.(fn8) Throughout the African continent, nations have recently united in efforts to reduce poverty levels and to create a stage for stable economic growth.(fn9) Deemed "Africa's Renaissance,"(fn10) these shared visions have resulted in an embracing of the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals,(fn11) formation of the African Union,(fn12) development of Senegal's Omega Plan,(fn13) leadership roles at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa,(fn14) and, significantly, in formation of the New Partnership for Africa's Development ("NEPAD").(fn15) These recent efforts indicate a commitment among African nations to address common African problems together.(fn16)

Alongside the recent focus on reinvention and self-determination in Africa, one of Africa's ongoing challenges remains addressing the threats to its important and delicate ecosystems.(fn17) Although the recent African Renaissance movement is still too nascent to formally evaluate its effectiveness, evidence already exists that the strong focus placed on economic development cannot co-exist with a commitment to preserving and protecting Africa's land resources.(fn18)

In an effort to address these competing issues of economic development and land resource protection, Part II of this Comment defines key terms and identifies causes of desertification. Then, the Comment reflects on past efforts to address the problem of desertification in Africa. The 1977 United Nations Conference on Desertification ("UNCOD")(fn19) is introduced in Part III as the initial global attempt to address the issues surrounding land degradation and desertification. Largely due to the ineffectiveness of UNCOD,(fn20) the United Nations called for a subsequent multilateral agreement with binding provisions. Thus, in Part IV, this Comment reviews in depth the resultant 1994 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa ("UNCCD")(fn21) and discusses UNCCD's continued efforts throughout Africa.

Next, Part V reviews the immediate land degradation and desertification challenges Africa faces and the causes of those challenges in the early twenty-first century. Concurrent with these challenges, there is renewed energy and excitement throughout Africa to produce permanent economic stability. With the reformation of the Organization of African Unity into the African Union,(fn22) a stage was created for multilateral state cooperation in addressing the common challenges faced throughout Africa.(fn23) As discussed in Part VI, the NEPAD has primarily occupied this stage since its formation in 2001.

However, NEPAD, with its primary focus on economic development for the purpose of poverty eradication, cannot provide the necessary platform for environmental protection in Africa. Part VII suggests that there must be recognition that land degradation and desertification do not occur in an environmental vacuum; social and political pressures effect how land is used, and poverty influences the immediate actions of those most restrained by it.(fn24)

Therefore, in Part VIII, this Comment concludes that past efforts and current energy generated by NEPAD are not enough to adequately address the specific and devastating problem of desertification in Africa. This Comment urges that the existing 1994 UNCCD must be updated to require environmental impact disclosure, recognize current conditions, and provide means for enforcement at the local level. The update must be forged to give not only African governments the incentive and focus to address the issue but also to pledge to the African peoples that poverty, land degradation, and desertification need not continue indefinitely. This pledge must be made in concert with the empowerment of local communities to achieve the "bottom-up" approach that previous efforts have promised.(fn25)

In summary, this Comment warns that recent, continent-wide economic development strategies have threatened the ability of Africa to combat desertification. Therefore, the existing desertification treaty, UNCCD, must be amended to ensure its ability to effectuate environmental protection.

II. Key Terms and Causes of Desertification

One of the ongoing problems with addressing the issue of desertification is defining the problem itself.(fn26) Prior to the 1992 Earth Summit, the term "desertification" had been used variably with other terms including desertization, desert-encroachment, aridization, aridification, and zerotization.(fn27) An early 1990s definition utilized by the United Nations described desertification as the "diminution or destruction of the biological potential of land, which can ultimately lead to desert-like conditions."(fn28) Subsequently, the United Nations updated the definition(fn29) to include the key aspect of human agency by declaring, "[D]esertification is land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities."(fn30)

Although implied by its name, desertification is not simply the geographic spreading of desert areas. Instead, desertification refers to the deterioration of healthy drylands(fn31) into lands that no longer support human habitation or agricultural productivity.(fn32) To further complicate the issue, desertification is viewed differently from the biological science and social science perspectives. The biological science consideration of land degradation involves both reversible and irreversible changes, while social science presumes that land degradation refers only to irreversible damage.(fn33) For the purposes of this Comment, the social science view is employed because of its consistency with the Action Programme concept of the UNCCD.(fn34)

In addition to the various definitions of "desertification," there are various theories to explain both direct and indirect causes of desertification.(fn35) When the problem first caught global attention, the leading theory was that desertification was primarily caused by the climate and related to pre-existing natural conditions.(fn36) However, by the early 1990s, there was a general recognition that land degradation and desertification were not only caused by natural conditions and phenomena but also exacerbated by human activities on the earth.(fn37) Overcultivation, overgrazing, salinization of soils, and deforestation(fn38) are now considered to be among the primary causes of land degradation.(fn39) In general, when these activities occur in the world's sensitive dryland areas, the degraded land no longer supports human life.(fn40)

Desertification and poverty are caught together in a downward spiral. Approximately forty percent of the world's land has been classified as drylands,(fn41) and approximately thirty-eight percent of the world's population (approximately 2.3 billion people) live in these areas.(fn42) The over-intensive agricultural and livestock practices that contribute to desertification are engaged in by those whose goals are not to degrade their environment but to provide sustenance for themselves and their families.(fn43)

III. 1977 Plan of Action to Combat Desertification

The first major effort to address the problem of desertification on a global scale occurred with the 1977 UNCOD,(fn44) which developed the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification ("PACD"). Discussion of UNCOD in this Comment is divided into two sections: Section A covers development of the Plan, while section B analyzes its results. This first attempt to address the global problem of desertification served to identify common causes and articulate goals for combating the conversion of productive lands into areas incapable of supporting local populations.

A. Development of the Plan of Action to...

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