UNITED NATIONS, Sep 27 (IPS)
- Empowering and investing in women is the key to combating the effects of desertification and paving the way for rural poverty alleviation in many of the world's least developed countries (LDCs), according to researchers, government policy-makers and United Nations experts.
Desertification is the process of land degradation, which affects many ecosystems -- arid, semiarid, and sub-humid areas -- commonly known as "drylands". Various factors such as climate change, lack of access to and poor resource management, and poverty all exacerbate the rates and effects of desertification.
"Desertification is primarily caused by drought, which we find is due to rising sea surface temperatures globally," said Dr. Alessandra Giannini, a climate scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, who has studied the causes of persistent drought in the Sahel region in Africa.
Looking at sea surface temperatures from 1930-2000 and using climate simulation models, Dr. Giannini and her team found a long-term drying trend in the Sahel during this period.
"Global ocean surface temperatures are likely to continue rising," she told IPS. "What's hard to know is how precipitation at the local level will respond to these rises. And in an area as vulnerable as the Sahel, it doesn't take a lot to cause a change."
If unaddressed, the lives of almost 1.2 billion people in 110 countries will be threatened by the effects of drought and desertification, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which co-sponsored a recent roundtable discussion at the United Nations. Most of these vulnerable populations live in the remote, rural areas of LDCs in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The vast majority of them are women.
Jointly sponsored by IFAD, the United Nations Office of the High Representative of Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS), and the government of Japan, the discussion brought participants from various
U.N. agencies, U.N. country missions, and heads of state to discuss the role of women in combating desertification.
"Women are an important source of knowledge related to environmental management and they also represent a largely untapped resource in the battle against desertification and land degradation," said Cyril Enweze, a former vice president of IFAD, who was at the discussion representing IFAD's president.
"Women are the first teachers of our children, and the first doctors for our children, and the first providers for our children and families, and are an indispensable asset if we are going to make any progress in poverty alleviation," Enweze stressed.
Recognising the complex links between desertification and poverty, the U.N. established the Convention for Combating Desertification, and declared 2006 as the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. The roundtable also coincided with the mid-term review of the Brussels Programme for Action (2001-2010) for LDCs, which sets out specific commitments from LDCs to address environmental issues and ensure gender equality in their capacity building efforts.
"The LDCs did not contribute in any way to global greenhouse gas [emissions], but they will be at the frontline of the negative impact of this phenomenon," said Anwarul K. Chowdhury, undersecretary-general of UN-OHRLLS.
In many rural communities in LDCs, gender equality is far from reality. Men have exclusive ownership and rights to land, water, and livestock resources. They are responsible for managing income generating cash crops, whereas women are in charge of caring for the family, growing the family's food on smaller plots, and collecting water and fuel, according to IFAD, which has invested in dryland development and gender initiatives for the past two decades.
As land degradation takes hold, causing soil fertility and crop and livestock productivity to decline, men are often forced to leave their homes in search of employment elsewhere. Women become the de facto heads of households. They are also forced to travel farther to collect water and fuel as their supply decreases or disappears altogether. Women have to take on the traditional responsibilities of men in addition to their own.
However, unlike men, women do not simultaneously obtain land and water rights, decision-making power, access to services or financial and technological resources. Re-examining laws that discriminate against women -- particularly those pertaining to tenurial rights and ownership of land, water, and livestock -- building capacity through women-led extension services, providing access to markets, and utilising the unique knowledge women possess about the environment around them are some of the primary ways to address desertification, according to IFAD, which also administers the "Global Mechanism", the major instrument for mobilising resources under the
U.N. anti-desertification treaty.
Agreeing that a gendered approach is needed to address environmental problems, some environmentalists argue that LDCs should look at alternative mechanisms to address them.
"African delegations should be asking Europeans why they're not buying trees for Africa and why the European trading scheme doesn't recognise trees as a credit," said Dr. John Van D. Lewis, chief marketing officer of the Climate Investment Network for Carbon Sequestration in New York.
Referring to the system of trading carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, Lewis noted that although the Protocol recognises carbon sequestration credits from afforestation, the European Union's credit trading system does not. In his view, if African countries were committed to battling desertification and rural poverty, they would be inviting the private sector to implement afforestation projects in their countries.
"Donor money is chickenfeed compared to private money," he told IPS.
Climate scientists such as Giannini warn, however, that the success of afforestation programmes depends largely on precipitation levels, which in many dryland areas are highly unpredictable.
Yet some LDCs are making strides in land reclamation programmes using a gender sensitive approach. The Kingdom of Lesotho, a small, mountainous country surrounded by South Africa, is one of the LDCs worst affected by desertification. The women in the country face many of the challenges posed by desertification; most have become de facto heads of households, and therefore, the main players in country's development programmes.
Citing an impressive 58 percent rate of local government seats held by women in recent elections, Prime Minister Pakalitha B. Mosisili of Lesotho, who was the guest of honour at the discussion, and others, encouraged governments of LDCs to invest in efforts that give women greater participation in decision-making.
Mosisili said investing in programmes such as rural electrification would not only free women from the traditional task of collecting fuelwood for cooking, but also reduce the effects of deforestation.
"This would allow them [women] time and opportunity to engage in other more rewarding economic activities, which in turn would raise their self-esteem and status in society," he said. "Coupled with afforestation and other land reclamation programmes, this would have a major impact on prevention of desertification." (END/2006)