Mr Simone Quatrini, Coordinator of the Global Mechanism's Policy and Investment Analysis Programme was interviewed by the cultural programme Detto Tra Noi (Between You and Me) broadcast live on SAT2000 on 13 November 2008. We are pleased to publish the transcript of the interview that describes the GM's work, what desertification is, what is being done to tackle it, and the expectations of the 7th Session of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (CRIC.7) that Mr Quatrini was attending in Istanbul.
SAT2000: With us today on the phone from Istanbul is Mr Simone Quatrini from the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Mr Quatrini coordinates the GM’s policy and investment analysis programme for the sustainable management of natural resources. Mr Quatrini, before telling us about your mission here in the Turkish capital, could you explain what the Global Mechanism is and does?
Mr Quatrini: The Global Mechanism is the financial instrument established by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa (known as the UNCCD), in 1994. The Global Mechanism provides financial assistance and services to developing countries affected by serious drought and desertification. Through our work we help the governments of these countries identify public and private sector resources to make the long-term investments needed to combat desertification. We are based at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in Rome and currently work in 54 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are also involved in about 20 international cooperation programmes to support multi-country initiatives. Our main partners are the World Bank, the regional development banks, specialized United Nations specialized agencies such as IFAD, the Food and Agriculture Organization - FAO - and bilateral and multilateral cooperation agencies such as the European Commission.
SAT2000: We know that you are attending an important conference in Istanbul. What is this conference about?
Mr Quatrini: The conference aims to define new parameters and tools to measure progress towards the goals that have been set for the coming decade in the fight against desertification. The 193 countries that are Parties to the Convention, plus international organizations and civil society representatives are attending the conference that comes at a critical time of international financial crisis that risks overshadowing serious problems for which there is no quick fix - desertification and climate change being a case in point.
SAT2000: Mr Quatrini, you have used the word 'desertification' several times. Can you tell us what desertification means, what causes it and who it affects?
Mr Quatrini: Contrary to what the word may imply, desertification is not just the spread of existing deserts, but above all, the gradual, progressive deterioration of soil productivity with the resulting loss of organic matter, vegetative cover and biodiversity. Nutrient-rich soil, as we commonly know it, is exceptionally complex and takes centuries to form. Just think that it takes one hundred years for a single centimetre of fertile soil to build up. Yet it is very fragile, especially in regions where the arid and dry climate already represents a threat. Drought, infrequent but sudden and very heavy rainfall, wind, and climate variations are all natural enemies of the soil. Added to that, unfortunately, is human intervention, in the form of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Harmful agricultural practices such as deep ploughing, intensive irrigation and wild flooding, together with soil contamination and pollution, deforestation and fires, are just some of the main anthropic causes. These factors can trigger sometimes irreversible processes of soil deterioration and desertification.
Desertification is a global phenomenon that affects all continents to varying degrees. The hardest hit countries are the developing countries, where desertification is coupled with poverty in all its dimensions. Today it is estimated that about one billion people are threatened by desertification. The situation is particularly dramatic in Africa, where about 60 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture, while 46 per cent of the land is at risk of degradation, or already severely degraded. The problem also exists in temperate climates; in Italy about 27 per cent of the land is considered to be vulnerable to desertification. The regions most affected are Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia.
SAT2000: You mentioned deep ploughing. Can you explain what it is and how it contributes to desertification?
Mr Quatrini: Ploughing is a mechanical land cultivation practice that generally uses ploughs to prepare the soil for sowing a crop. The ploughing depth depends on how much soil is turned over. If ploughing goes beyond 40cm in depth, it is generally considered deep ploughing. This can have negative consequences on the fertility of the soil, especially in hot, arid environments where the compacting of soil in the ploughed area and the oxidation of organic matter can, over time, lead to the gradual deterioration of soil quality. A more effective substitute is surface ploughing and, in some cases, even no-tillage techniques.
SAT2000: What measures have been taken by the international community to address the global phenomenon of desertification?
Mr Quatrini: When the international community realized the enormous damage that was being inflicted on the planet, a decision to take action was reached and a series of intergovernmental negotiations launched. This lead first to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and subsequently, in 1994, to the adoption of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The Convention represents a great innovation in international politics because it places the interests of the communities that are directly affected at the centre of attention and proposes a new approach to international cooperation and solidarity based essentially on the participation of all those directly or indirectly concerned with this extremely complex phenomenon.
SAT2000: What examples can you give to illustrate the work done so far?
Mr Quatrini: First I need to put this work into context. Desertification is an age-old problem and over the centuries the affected populations have learned to adapt to it and live with it. Recently, however, the problem has worsened considerably, mainly as a result of climate change but also because of the growing pressure on the environment deriving, as I mentioned earlier, from various agricultural, commercial and industrial activities. Demographic growth can trigger soil degradation and desertification because of the substantial pressure it puts on natural resources, the conflicts it creates in terms of control of these limited resources and the migratory movements it generates; exodus from rural areas and increasing urbanization. Essentially three tools have been put developed to tackle these issues: firstly, at the political-institutional level, international treaties are being adopted; secondly, at the scientific level, the current trend is towards interpreting climate change scenarios to define and better plan interventions to prepare for and respond to such changes; lastly, on a practical, tangible level, we are trying to identify and apply innovative technologies integrated with traditional knowledge and practices.
There are many examples of projects that have yielded significant results in the field. I would like to tell you about one of them to illustrate this: a a micro-project in an arid region of South Africa that has helped a group of small scale poor farmers to form a cooperative to grow and sell red bush tea which, in addition to being a very pleasant drink, has important antioxidant properties. The tea is derived from an indigenous plant that promotes the preservation of soil productivity in an extremely fragile environment. The project began in 2001 with a modest contribution from the Global Mechanism. Today the cooperative exports its tea to Europe, the United States and Australia. This project was recently selected by an international jury as one of the best examples of a successful micro project benefiting local communities. The Global Mechanism contributes to mobilizing financial resources for projects of this kind and for many others of varying dimensions.
SAT2000: What can we expect from this conference and, more generally, in the near future?
Mr Quatrini: The Istanbul conference will be useful, we hope, in winning the confidence of the international community through the setting up of a joint framework for monitoring the initiatives under way and the commitments made. It should also be said that much remains to be done from the point of view of research and the transfer of appropriate technologies to deal with this problem, from industrialized to developing countries. There is definitely also a lot still to be done in terms of communication. I think these are the main challenges we will have to rise to in the near future. However, it is essential that everyone contributes to ensure that commitments made by governments at the international level are translated into virtuous behaviour in everyday life. We must call for more intelligent land management. Perhaps we also need a cultural revolution to raise awareness and increase the sense of responsibility towards these problems that are everybody’s business.
Download the original interview in Italian (pdf, Italian 35KB)