Desertification Treaty: Evolution, Summary, and Status
Report for Congress
Evolution, Summary, and Status
Updated August 15, 2002
Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Desertification Treaty: Evolution, Summary, and Status
Desertification—land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid land
areas—is generally attributed to a combination of climatic variations and human
activities. It threatens one-quarter of the world’s land, and about a billion people.
The problem is considered acute in Africa, but it afflicts both developing and
developed countries. An estimated 37% of the United States consists of arid, semi-
arid, or dry sub-humid land susceptible to desertification. Several years ago, the loss
in annual income in areas immediately affected by desertification was estimated at
$42 billion a year, including losses of about $5 billion in North America.
Efforts addressing both desertification and drought culminated in the
Convention to Combat Desertification, which entered into force on December 26,
1996. Ratifying countries meet in conferences of the Parties (COP) to address Treaty
implementation; the Sixth COP is planned for October 19-31, 2003. A new
Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention will meet from
November 18-29, 2002, to review reports from parties on Treaty implementation.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg,
South Africa from August 26, 2002, to September 4, 2002, is expected to evaluate
the progress of parties to the Desertification Treaty. The Draft Plan of
Implementation to the World Summit contains agreements on desertification and
actions to strengthen Treaty implementation. How to finance activities under the
Desertification Treaty, and the related role of the Global Environmental Facility,
have been controversial and likely will be subjects of further debate at the Summit.
The United States signed the Desertification Treaty on October 14, 1994. The
Senate adopted a resolution of ratification on October 18, 2000, together with
understandings, declarations, and provisos. The United States ratified the Treaty on
November 17, 2000, and became a party on February 15, 2001. The United States
has dealt domestically with arid lands and desertification through a variety of
programs, and asserts that through its current laws it is in compliance with the Treaty.
The United States Agency for International Development handles the majority of
U.S. activities abroad in support of the Desertification Treaty, estimated at $90
million annually. The United States also makes an annual contribution to the United
Nations in support of the Treaty, which for FY2002 was $1.7 million.
The Treaty emphasizes local programs supported by international partnerships,
and coordination and cooperation among Parties. It incorporates local participation.
It also establishes entities to support the COP, including a Permanent Secretariat, a
Committee on Science and Technology, and a Global Mechanism to help mobilize
and channel funds. Different categories of obligations are outlined. The obligations
of all Parties relate to international cooperation, e.g., regarding research, technology
transfer, capacity building, and mobilization of financial resources. Affected
developing country Parties are to develop and implement action programs to combat
drought and desertification. Developed country Parties agree to support these efforts,
e.g., by mobilizing funds.
In troduction ......................................................1
Definition, Consequences, and Remedies...........................1
Regional Implications ..........................................2
United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification ....................2
History and Origins............................................2
Summary of the Treaty..........................................3
International and Domestic Status ................................5
Evolution, Status, and Key Issues
Definition, Consequences, and Remedies
Desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid
areas (collectively known as drylands). While the causes of desertification are varied
and complex, it is generally attributed to a combination of climatic variations and
human activities that tax the land’s ability to support vegetation.1 The chief climatic
problem is drought, while some commonly cited man-made factors include
population pressure, overgrazing, poor irrigation, deforestation, overcultivation, and
overuse of water supplies. In the past, drylands generally recovered from drought,
but contemporary human activities in many areas may undermine their recovery.
Complicating the problem is that desertification is not the same everywhere, and key
factors are site-specific. Among the contributing factors in a particular area are the
natural environment, natural and other disasters, local and international economic
conditions, land laws and customs, and technologies employed on the land.
While land degradation and poverty often are linked, the nature of the
relationship is unclear. Some experts conclude that land degradation is a primary
cause of poverty in the most arid countries, but it also has been asserted that the
relationship is circular—land degradation leads to poverty, which leads to land
degradation, in a continuing cycle. Many observers agree that the confluence of
poverty and land degradation contribute to diverse social problems, including famine,
civil strife, and mass migration.
The economic loss from desertification is substantial. Several years ago, the
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated the loss in annual
income in areas immediately affected by desertification at approximately $42 billion
a year, including losses of about $5 billion in North America. UNEP also concludes
that there may be higher indirect economic and social costs outside the affected areas,
such as from the migration of “environmental refugees” and losses to national food
Diverse remedial measures exist to halt desertification, including reducing
grazing, rotating productive activity (such as agriculture), afforesting areas, providing
1 This definition is drawn from Article 1 of the Desertification Treaty.
2 “United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification,” Fact Sheets 3 and 8,
[http://www.unccd.int/publicinfo/factsheets/menu.php],visited August 9, 2002. These
figures have not been updated for several years.
alternatives to fuelwood for energy, or providing alternative livelihoods to people in
arid areas. These measures may be difficult or controversial to implement in
particular areas, because they may require changes in longstanding practices. Several
years ago, the UNEP estimated the cost of combating desertification at between $10
billion and $22 billion annually for a 20-year program.3
Desertification threatens approximately one-quarter of the land in the world, and
about a billion people in both developing and developed countries. Desertification
often is associated with Africa, where 73% of the drylands are moderately or severely
desertified, but it afflicts regions all over the world. In recognition of the global
nature of the problem, the Treaty contains four regional annexes for combating
desertification in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Northern
Mediterranean. Moreover, North America has a higher proportion of drylands
affected by desertification—74%—than Africa. However, Africa’s significantly
larger dryland area and its weaker economic conditions have made it harder for
African countries to deal with desertification. Accordingly, combating desertification
has been a priority of Africans in discussions about the environment.
Some 18 developed countries, including the United States, are directly affected
by desertification. By one estimate, 37% of the United States consists of arid, semi-
arid, or dry sub-humid land susceptible to desertification.4 These lands are located
in 17 western states, stretching from Mexico to Canada. Desertification in the United
States has been associated with western grazing and water management practices.
The United States has a long history of managing its drylands and combats drought
through a variety of programs and institutions.
The indirect effects of desertification abroad have been widely noted.
Desertification may prompt increased U.S. foreign aid and, in some cases, migration
to the United States. It also may reduce trade and other business opportunities and
threaten the sustainability of agricultural production that feeds the world’s increasing
United Nations Convention to Combat
History and Origins
In 1977, the United Nations adopted a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification
at a Conference on Desertification in Nairobi, Kenya. Under the plan, carried out by
the UNEP, relatively little money was spent on various remedies including
3 Ibid. Again, these figures have not been updated on the Desertification Treaty web site.
4 Fact sheets on desertification prepared by the Administration, through the State
Department. Hereafter referred to as Administration fact sheets.
reforestation, alternative energy sources, and water resource management. Despite
this and other efforts, in 1991 the UNEP determined that overall land degradation had
worsened, although in limited areas the problems had been remedied. A lack of
coherent assistance for affected countries has been cited as a primary reason for the
failure of previous anti-desertification efforts.
Desertification was among the major issues addressed, but not resolved, by the
1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).5 The
Conference recommended that the United Nations General Assembly establish an
Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INCD) to draft, by June 1994, a treaty to
combat desertification. African countries in particular supported this proposal, and
the United States backed it after overcoming initial reluctance.
Established early in 1993, the INCD held five negotiating sessions before
adopting the Desertification Treaty on June 17, 1994.6 The Treaty was opened for
signature on October 14-15, 1994, and it entered into force (took effect) on December
26, 1996, 90 days after ratification by 50 countries.7 The United States became a
party to the Treaty on February 15, 2001. As of August 9, 2002, 181 countries have
ratified the Treaty, including nearly all major developed countries. Ratifying
countries are considered Parties to the Treaty, responsible for its implementation.
Other countries may become Parties 90 days after their ratification of the Treaty.
Following the adoption of the Treaty, the INCD held five additional negotiating
sessions (for a total of ten sessions). These sessions addressed interim activities to
implement the Treaty, such as a resolution regarding urgent action in Africa, before
the Treaty took effect and the First Conference of the Parties (COP) convened in
Summary of the Treaty8
The objective of the treaty is “to combat desertification and mitigate the effects
of drought in countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification,
particularly in Africa, through effective action at all levels, supported by international
cooperation and partnership arrangements, in the framework of an integrated
approach which is consistent with Agenda 21, with a view to contributing to the
5 The Conference also is known as the “Rio Earth Summit,” owing to its convening in Rio
de Janeiro, Brazil. See CRS Report 92-374 ENR, Earth Summit Summary: United Nations
Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Brazil, 1992.
6 The full title is the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those
Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa;
hereafter it is referred to as “the Desertification Treaty” or “the Treaty.”
7 Article 36 of the Treaty describes the procedure for ratification and entry into force.
Countries may bring the Treaty into force through procedures other than ratification. For
instance, non-signatory countries may accede to the Treaty at any time. In this section,
ratification is used to encompass these other procedures.
8 This section summarizes key portions of the Treaty and its Annexes. For a summary of
desertification issues, see “United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification,” Fact
Sheets 1 through 15,[http://www.unccd.int/publicinfo/factsheets/menu.php]. For the text
of the Treaty, including its annexes, see [http://www.unccd.int/convention/menu.php].
achievement of sustainable development in affected areas.”9 Parties are to give
priority to African countries, in light of persistent and severe problems there, while
also assisting other nations.
The Treaty emphasizes local programs supported by international partnerships,
and coordination and cooperation in combating desertification, research, technology
transfer, capacity building, creating awareness, and mobilization of funds. It seeks
to avoid past problems by incorporating a bottom-up approach involving the full
participation of local people. In recognition of the critical role of financing, it asks
all parties to help mobilize financial resources and to direct them to the local level.
Different categories of obligations are outlined, depending on whether they
apply to: 1) all Parties, 2) affected country Parties, both developing and developed,
and 3) developed country Parties. The obligations of all Parties relate to international
cooperation, especially regarding the collection, analysis and exchange of
information; research; technology transfer; capacity building; promoting an
integrated approach in developing national strategies to combat desertification; and
ensuring that adequate financial resources are available to combat desertification and
mitigate the effects of drought.
Developing country Parties affected by desertification are committed to develop
and implement national, sub-regional, and regional action programs. The purpose
of the programs is to identify factors contributing to desertification and measures
necessary to combat both desertification and drought. Other affected countries, such
as the United States, may choose to prepare action programs, or, more generally, to
establish strategies and priorities for combating desertification.
Action programs are to be developed in consultations among affected countries,
donors, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. The Treaty
identifies items that must be, and others that might be, incorporated in action
programs. For example, action programs must include long-term strategies, provide
for effective participation of local populations and non-governmental organizations,
emphasize preventive measures, and be flexible and modified as needed. Criteria for
developing these programs, in accordance with particular regional conditions, are
detailed in five “regional implementation annexes” for Africa, Asia, Latin America
and the Caribbean, the Northern Mediterranean, and Central and Eastern Europe.
The first four were original to the Treaty; the Annex for Central and Eastern Europe
was added in 2000. The annexes also provide a framework for cooperation among
Parties in these regions.
Developed country Parties agree to support affected countries, especially
developing ones. The support includes providing financial resources, promoting the
mobilization of funding, and facilitating access to technology, knowledge, and
9 The Desertification Treaty, Article 2. Agenda 21 is the extensive (500+ page) “action
plan” to achieve the sustainable development principles agreed to at UNCED in 1992.
The Treaty creates a Conference of the Parties comprised of all ratifying
countries. Other organizations may participate voluntarily, as did the United States
before becoming a party to the Treaty. A primary function of the COP is to review
reports of the Parties on Treaty compliance, and make related recommendations.
The Treaty establishes entities to support the COP. It creates a Permanent
Secretariat to handle various administrative functions, such as arranging meetings,
preparing documents, and transmitting information. At its first session, the COP
decided to locate the Secretariat in Bonn, Germany. In addition, a Committee on
Science and Technology is established to provide the COP with information and
advice on scientific and technological issues related to combating desertification.
The COP also may establish ad hoc panels, through the Committee on Science and
Technology, to advise on particular issues. The Committee on Science and
Technology maintains a roster of experts, consisting of nominations by parties to the
Treaty, from which the ad hoc panels are composed. Several such panels have been
created to date, such as the Ad Hoc Panel on Early Warning Systems
To help the COP mobilize and channel funding, the Treaty creates a Global
Mechanism. Rather than directly provide financial resources, the Global Mechanism
is to inventory relevant programs and provide financial advice and information on
funding to Parties and others. It seeks to mobilize and channel money to increase the
efficiency and effectiveness of resources spent in developing countries on
desertification. It is administered by the International Fund for Agricultural
Development. The Treaty also spells out the financial responsibilities of countries.
For instance, affected developing country Parties are to mobilize adequate financial
assistance to support their national action programs, and developed country Parties
are to mobilize financial resources to support these efforts.
International and Domestic Status
International Status. Countries affected by desertification are developing
and carrying out action programs that spell out how to combat desertification in a
particular area. These plans are seen as the foundation for addressing desertification
and their implementation is evaluated by the parties to the Treaty. Criteria for
developing these programs are spelled out in the five regional annexes to the Treaty.
To date, 42 national action programs and 4 subregional action programs have been
submitted to the Secretariat from the countries covered by the different regional
annexes. This includes 24 national programs from African countries and 4
subregional programs from African areas where combating desertification is a
priority due to its severity on that continent.
The Conference of the Parties to the Treaty has held five annual meetings to
review the implementation of the Treaty and related issues, with the Committee on10
Science and Technology meeting simultaneously. In addition, numerous
10 For the official documents and reports of these sessions, see the web site of the United
Nations Convention to Combat Desertification at [http://www.unccd.int/cop/menu.php]. For
a summary of each of the meetings of the Conference of the Parties, see “Earth Negotiations
intersessional meetings were held each year. The first COP, held September 29 to
October 10, 1997, in Rome, Italy, dealt primarily with organizational and procedural
issues. The second COP was held from November 30 to December 11, 1998, in
Dakar, Senegal. This session also focused on structural issues of the Treaty, such as
the future budgets of the Secretariat, the operation of the Global Mechanism, the
activities of the Committee on Science and Technology, and the relationship of the
Desertification Treaty with other treaties. The third session of the COP met from
November 15-26, 1999, in Recife, Brazil. This meeting continued to address
structural issues, such as the role of the Secretariat. Other focuses included the
implementation of the Treaty in Africa, procedures and mechanisms to review the
implementation of the Treaty in the future, and whether to adopt additional annexes
to the Treaty. The fourth COP took place from December 11-22, 2000, in Bonn,
Germany. Its coverage included mechanisms for regular review of the Treaty; how
to secure long-term financing for the Treaty, including the role of the Global
Environmental Facility (GEF) and the Global Mechanism in financing anti-
desertification efforts; and strengthening the relationships between the Desertification
Treaty and other treaties. The fourth COP adopted a fifth regional annex to the
Treaty, for Central and Eastern Europe, to provide particular guidance for Treaty
implementation in that region.
The fifth COP occurred from October 1-13, 2001, in Geneva, Switzerland. It
focused on financing anti-desertification programs under the Treaty, improving the
efficiency and effectiveness of the Committee on Science and Technology, and
preparing for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. COP 5 also
established a Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention,
which will hold its first session from November 18-29, 2002.11 The Committee is to
review reports from parties on the implementation of the Treaty, including earlier
ones submitted during the 3rd and 4th COP sessions and new ones that were to be
submitted before April 30, 2002. Developed country parties were to report on
measures taken to assist countries with preparing and implementing action programs,
including on financial resources being provided. The Committee also will review
information and advice from the Global Mechanism, the work of the Committee on
Science and Technology, reports by various organizations, and relevant programs and
funds of the United Nations. The COP now plans to meet biennially, with the sixth
session tentatively scheduled for October 19-31, 2003, in Bonn, Germany.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), to be held in
Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26, 2002, to September 4, 2002, is expected
to evaluate the progress of parties to the Desertification Treaty in achieving
sustainable development generally and combating desertification in particular. The
Draft Plan of Implementation of the World Summit, prepared by the Commission on
Sustainable Development, contains agreed text on actions needed for more progress
Bulletin” on the web site of the International Institute for Sustainable Development at
11 For more information on the Committee, see the web site of the United Nations
Convention to Combat Desertification at
on desertification and other tentative text that has not been agreed to.12 As part of an
effort to eradicate poverty, the Draft Plan includes agreed upon actions at all levels
to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought through measures
including improvements in land and resource management and provision of adequate
and predictable financial resources to implement the Desertification Treaty. There
is also agreement to support technology and capacity building for non-conventional
water resources and conservation technologies in countries and regions subject to
drought or desertification.
The WSSD Draft Plan outlines a number of actions to strengthen the
implementation of the Desertification Treaty with a stated goal of restoring and
maintaining land and addressing poverty that results from land degradation. These
include mobilizing financial resources, transferring technology, cooperating with
related treaties, amending programs and policies such as those related to development
and land management and rural development, and providing access to information
to improve monitoring and early warning systems.
Among the priorities for achieving sustainable development in West Asia, the
WSSD Draft Plan includes the implementation of programs to combat desertification.
As part of efforts to achieve sustainable development in Africa, the Draft Plan
contains an agreement to provide financial and technical support to Africa to
implement the Desertification Treaty, among other actions.
How to finance anti-desertification efforts under the Treaty, and the role of the
Global Environmental Facility in this regard, have been key issues of debate among
parties to the Treaty. Established in 1991, the GEF helps developing countries fund
sustainable development projects that protect four specific global environment
problem areas.13 The four focal areas for funding projects are: biodiversity, climate
change, international waters, and the ozone layer. Projects addressing land
degradation, as they relate to these four areas, also have received funding. The GEF
reports that between 1991 and 1999 it spent more than $350 million on projects
focused on deforestation and desertification.
Many developing countries have been advocating the creation of a GEF
desertification focal area to raise the profile of the issue and to increase resources for
implementing anti-desertification projects. At a December 2001 meeting, the GEF
Council supported designating land degradation, which encompasses deforestation
and desertification, as an additional focal area for funding projects. This decision
will be presented for approval to the GEF assembly at its October 2002 meeting. The
Council also recommended that the GEF Secretariat take into account the results of
the fifth Conference of the Parties to the Desertification Treaty relating to addressing
the poverty-environment nexus when it develops a program for the new focal area.
12 The Draft Plan of Implementation is available on the website of the World Summit on
Sustainable Development at:
[http://daccess-ods.un.or g/ doc/ UNDOC/ LT D/ N02/ 446/ 85/ PDF/ N02 44685.pdf?OpenEle
13 For more information on the GEF generally or its role in the area of land degradation, see
the GEF web site at [http://www.gefweb.org/main.htm].
At a May 2002 meeting, the Council noted that the GEF would need to work closely
with the Global Mechanism, created under the Treaty, in assisting developing
countries with funding sustainable land management projects.
Many developing countries also support designating the GEF as the funding
mechanism for the Desertification Treaty, as a means of providing direct funding for
anti-desertification efforts. The United States, the European Union, and other
countries have opposed designating the GEF as the funding mechanism asserting that
it would not increase funds for the Treaty and would require amendment and re-
ratification of the Treaty.
How to finance activities world-wide under the Desertification Treaty, and the
related role of the GEF, likely will be a subject of further deliberation at the World
Summit on Sustainable Development. The preparatory committee could not agree
on key aspects of financing issues, so tentative language on securing financing was
noted in the Draft Plan. The tentative language calls on the Second Assembly of the
Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to designate land degradation—desertification
and deforestation—as a focal area of the GEF, in order to enhance GEF support for
the Desertification Treaty. It also calls on the Second Assembly to consider making
the GEF a financial mechanism for the Treaty as a complement to the role of the
Global Mechanism established by the Treaty to mobilize resources. Related tentative
language states that the Desertification Treaty should have a dedicated, specific, and
permanent financial mechanism as do related environmental agreements.
Domestic Status. The United States signed the Desertification Treaty on
October 14, 1994. The President sent the Desertification Treaty and supporting
documents to the Senate for its advice and consent on ratification on August 2, 1996.
The Senate adopted a resolution of ratification on October 18, 2000, together with
understandings, declarations, and provisos. The United States ratified the
Desertification Treaty on November 17, 2000, and became a party on February 15,
In sending the Treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, the Clinton
Administration asserted that the U.S. obligations would be met by current law and
on-going assistance programs. Consequently, implementing legislation was not
introduced or requested at that time. Further, the resolution of ratification agreed to
by the Senate contained the understanding that no changes to existing U.S. land
management practices and programs would be required to meet U.S. obligations
under certain articles of the Treaty. At the time, the U.S. dealt domestically with arid
lands and desertification through a variety of programs, including the National Forest
Management Act of 1976, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, the Federal
Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act
of 1978, and the Global Change Prevention Act of 1990. The Senate also agreed to
the understanding that the U.S. is not required to prepare a national action program.
The Treaty does not appear to require the United States to appropriate any new
funds. The resolution of ratification agreed to by the Senate included understandings
that the United States is not obligated to satisfy specific funding requirements or
other requirements regarding providing resources, such as technology, to countries
affected by desertification.
After signing the Treaty but before becoming a party, the United States made
relatively modest contributions to the United Nations in support of the Desertification
Treaty. The contributions ranged from $15,000 in FY1995 to $125,000 in FY2000.
After the U.S. ratification of the Treaty, for FY2001 the U.S. contribution increased
to $1.1 million, which was prorated because the United States was a party to the
Treaty during only part of that year. In FY2002, the United States contribution was
$1.7 million. These amounts are based on a United Nations scale of assessments,
adjusted for differences in membership between the United Nations and the Treaty
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) handles the
majority of U.S. activities abroad in support of the Desertification Treaty, estimated
at $90 million annually. Few USAID programs have a stated objective of combating
desertification. Rather, desertification is addressed through programs pertaining to
sustainable agriculture, natural resource management, biodiversity conservation,
forestry management, and integrated water resource management. These programs
are implemented in diverse regions, but primarily in Africa. A focus is on building
the capacity of communities and local institutions to use new technologies and tools
to improve management of lands and resources. USAID also provides input into
technical issues related to desertification and reviews action plans of developing
Since becoming a party to the Treaty, the State Department has focused on
issues related to the effective functioning of the Treaty Secretariat, which handles the
Treaty’s administrative functions. The Department also has supported the idea of
creating a desertification focal area in the Global Environmental Facility, to make it
easier for the GEF to direct money to anti-desertification activities. However, the
Department has resisted efforts to designate the GEF as the funding mechanism for
The resolution of ratification agreed to by the Senate contained a proviso that
two years after the Treaty entered into force for the United States, and biennially
thereafter, the Secretary of State is to report to the Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations on Treaty implementation and benefits to the United States, among other
issues. Thus, the first such report is due on February 15, 2003.
14 For more information on USAID implementation of the Desertification Treaty, see USAID
and Desertification: A Report to Congress, submitted in 2002 in response to S.Rept. 107-58.
Available from USAID.
15 For more information on State Department implementation of the Desertification Treaty,
see Progress in Implementing the United States Convention to Combat Desertification
(CCD), prepared by the Department of State in 2002 in response to S.Rept. 107-58.
Available from the State Department.