Address by the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the
Opening Ceremony of the Second Festival of the Cultures and Civilisations of World
Deserts, Dubai: 16 April 2005.
Your Royal Highness, Crown Prince of Dubai
and Minister of Defence, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum,
Patron of the World Deserts Foundation and President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika,
of the World Deserts Foundation, Sarif Rahmani,
And Representing the Secretary
General of the United Nations, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi,
It is indeed a great privilege to be able to join you here
today to share thoughts on how we may address the shared developmental challenges
faced by people living in the desert and dry-land regions of the world.
geographer, Richard Elwood Dodge once wrote that:
"It is not by chance
that several of the great religions of the world have been the products of the
arid regions. The clear skies, the brilliant stars, the far-reaching visions,
the wonderful colours of the rocks, have found expression in poetry and legend
and man has been led to high things as he has wandered amid the exhilarating silence
of the deserts."
(R.E. Dodge as quoted in Rodes, B & Odell, R,
'A Dictionary of Environmental Quotations', P.46)
Perhaps it is because
of the harsh conditions facing those living in the deserts that many of these
regions have been able to impart to humanity, advanced cultures and great civilisations.
Indeed, when faced with trying circumstances, human endeavour and ingenuity reach
higher levels to overcome what may seem insurmountable obstacles. Usually with
fewer resources than better endowed regions of our common globe, the inventiveness
of the human mind of those in desert regions, like others in similar inhospitable
conditions, ensures that they are able to do more with less.
Yet, at the
same time, we know that even with the creativity of our brothers and sisters in
these desert regions, the challenges they face need a collective response from
all of us.
One of the objectives of this Festival is to develop a Charter
for the Sustainable Development of Desert Regions. In doing so we should seriously
reflect on the numerous agreements that the international community has adopted
in the past and ask ourselves whether they have been implemented or not. If they
have not been implemented, we should seek ways of strengthening the hand of the
United Nations and the Secretary-General, in ensuring that these agreements are
These agreements include Agenda 21, an agenda for
sustainable development into the 21st century, as well as the Millennium Development
Goals and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. In addition there is a host
of other international conventions and agreements that speak to the many issues
relevant to this Festival.
As many of us know, deserts
cover some 20% of the land surface of our planet, and provide livelihoods for
about 1 billion people. If taken together with arid dry-lands, they represent
almost 40% of the global land surface area and are home to more than 2 billion
While recognising the significant contributions to world civilisation
imparted by the peoples of the deserts, modern society has presented daunting
challenges to the perpetuation of the desert cultures and traditions that have
sustained mankind for centuries.
The stark reality is that by far the largest
portions of these challenging environments occur as features of developing and
poor countries. Eighty out of 110 countries affected by significant land degradation
are in the developing world. It has been said that half of the farming regions
of the world's first civilizations are now deserts.
(Phil Holiday, quoted
in Stephanie Mills, ed., In Praise of Nature, A Dictionary of Environmental Quotations,
In Africa alone, 36 nations are affected by dry lands degradation
or desertification, often accentuated by the impacts of drought. The 1990 Global
Assessment of Soil Degradation estimated that as much as 330 million hectares
of land are degraded - roughly the equivalent of one third of all cropland and
permanent pasture in Africa.
The core developmental issues faced by desert
peoples relate fundamentally to the extreme sensitivity and vulnerability of desert
ecosystems to changes in the environment - changes due primarily to the activities
of human beings.
Desertification, while being in itself a part of the natural
process of change, has in recent times accelerated largely due to human's interventions
in the environment.
As responsible governments we are today called upon
to be increasingly aware of such human induced and natural forces when developing
our national and global programmes for sustainable development, while, at the
same time, ensuring that we limit human influences on sensitive natural systems.
amongst strategies for consideration has to be those that address the impact of
land-use practices in desert and dry-land regions, which result in land and environmental
resource degradation, and accelerate the rate of expansion of deserts and dry-lands.
even greater concern is the fact that deserts remain extremely vulnerable to global
warming and climate change. Climate change, not only further exacerbates the process
of desertification, but can undermine the very integrity of the desert ecosystem
itself, accelerating the process of degradation of the land and environmental
resource-base upon which impoverished communities depend.
of desert ecosystems, erosion of the cultural heritage of desert peoples, and
the increasing number of people dependent on the natural resources of deserts
for their basic livelihood creates a classical "poverty trap".
I have indicated earlier, solutions to these developmental challenges do exist.
All that is required is commitment, cooperation and political will to ensure practical
action by every nation and the international community.
However ladies and
gentlemen, I must hasten to add that respect for cultures and civilisations of
the desert must not be used as an excuse to leave people in the desert without
any prospect for development. We in Africa know very well what the implications
of resource based differential treatment can be for peace and stability. The potential
for conflict between people living in the desert and those living on the edges
is not academic, it is real. Perhaps conference in the next days can deliberate
further on this matter.
Further, we need to create awareness about these
and other issues at all levels and ensure that we work better together so as to
achieve our objectives. We also need to recognise the unique cultural heritage
and indigenous knowledge bequeathed to the world by desert peoples and ensure
that these do not become extinct, but rather that we harness them for the benefit
of all of humanity.
This Second Festival of the Cultures and Civilizations
of World Deserts is a vital part of this education and awareness process and I
am sure this will create the possibility of promoting cultural and scientific
exchange not just between desert countries, but also with other countries that
do not necessarily experience the same desert conditions.
aspect of the solution is to galvanise urgent action to break the downward spiral
of poverty and environmental degradation by reducing dependence on local natural
resources. This could be achieved through broad based, people-centred and equitable
social and economic diversification and development.
the social and economic well-being of people living in resource-poor environments
requires access to markets, finance, technology and high levels of innovation
and skill, as well as appropriate integrated environmental conservation strategies
Accordingly, it is vital for the international community
to support and assist sustainable development by providing access to the markets
of developed countries, technology transfer, capacity building, and through the
provision of financial assistance.
This type of cooperation should also
include cooperation between desert countries as well as south-south trade agreements,
and cultural and scientific exchanges. In the area of financial assistance, cooperation
should also include debt relief and, in the case of heavily-indebted Least Developed
Countries, debt cancellation.
As part of this concerted and integrated action,
it is important for governments and communities to develop and put in place the
capacity to implement appropriate policy, legal, institutional and governance
systems to create a climate conducive to sustainable development.
African continent, the African Unions' programme, The New Partnership for Africa's
Development (NEPAD) identifies combating desertification and land degradation
as one of eight priority intervention areas under the Environmental Initiative,
and represents Africa's determination directly to address this challenge.
Ministerial discussions that will begin tomorrow should take these considerations
into account. This meeting needs to send a clear declaration to the UN Convention
to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,
the Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as the World Trade Organisation.
focused action, full implementation of commitments and co-operation in desert
regions of the world is needed if our global sustainable development goals are
to be met.
The reality is that the current funding levels of the financing
mechanisms, in particular for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, remain
insufficient to address these challenges in many developing countries. It would
be a mistake to view desertification and plight of those whose lives are further
impoverished by desertification, as anything but a global responsibility. This
responsibility clearly requires a significant transfer of resources from the developed
countries to the developing countries.
I trust that out of this meeting
we will be able to develop a set of recommendations to improve mechanisms of collaboration
among governments, inter-governmental organisations, non-governmental organisations
and the UN agencies on environmental, socio-cultural and economic aspects of sustainable
development in desert regions.