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,
Your Excellency, Patron of the World Deserts Foundation and President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika,
President of the World Deserts Foundation, Sarif Rahmani,
And Representing the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen:

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.

The 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 urgently implemented.

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 inhabitants.

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, P. 47)

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.

Chief 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.

Of 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.

The degradation 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".

As 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.

Another vital 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.

Clearly, improving 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 and capacity.

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.

On the 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.

The 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.

Clearly, 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.

Thank you.

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