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April 12, 2013

Canada saw bureaucracy and inefficiency in UN convention on deserts

Rick Westhead and Raveena Aulakh

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Sluggish progress may be one reason why Canada abruptly pulled out of United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) last week, making it the only country in the world not party to the agreement.

In 2009, some of the world’s top scientists met in Buenos Aires and agreed to try to calculate how much productive farmland is turning into desert each year.

Almost four years later, the scientists are still at odds over how to measure it.

That kind of sluggish progress may be one reason whyCanada abruptly pulled out of United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) last weekCanada abruptly pulled out of United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) last week, making it the only country in the world not party to the agreement.

While the Harper government’s decision left opponents bristling — Green party leader Elizabeth May took to Twitter, charging that Harper has turned Canada into the North Korea of environment law — an official with the Canadian International Development Agency, which oversees the disbursal of Canadian foreign aid, said the desertification convention committed too much time to meetings and too little to funding on-the-ground development work.

“As part of our efforts to improve the effectiveness of Canada’s assistance, we are focusing Canadian tax dollars where they can provide real results,” CIDA Minister Julian Fantino said in a statement.

The desertification conference spent about 75 per cent of its estimated $15 million budget on salaries, consultants, conferences and internal office expenses, and about 18 per cent on development programs, a CIDA official told The Star.

Canada committed $315,000 to the desertification conference’s budget this year, down from $350,000 in 2012.

The Conservative cabinet quietly ordered withdrawal from the convention on the recommendation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

The Canadian Press reported on Wednesday that Canada did not inform convention officials about its intention; a convention official was told by the media and it remains unclear whether Canada has formally advised the convention.

Canada did inform UNCCD informally, said an official at its office in Bonn, Germany.

“However, that is not the legal procedure,” said the official who did not want to be named.

There were no signs that Canada was unhappy and was going to pull out, the official said.

“We are sorry to see Canada go . . . it is regretable. We don’t know why it happened, we will dig deeper now.”

Canada signed the desertification convention in 1994 and ratified it in 1995.

At the time, studies by the United Nations Environment Program estimated that 3.2 billion hectares of grazing land was at risk due to drought, aggressive logging and unmanaged grazing.

Desertification in Africa has become intense since the treaty was signed. According to reports, the Sahara is increasing at the rate of 48 square kilometres every year while the Sahel region — the belt between the Sahara and Africa’s rainforests — is experiencing a long-term drought.

The trend has led to mass migrations, malnutrition and thousands of deaths.

Lindsay Stringer, director of sustainability research institute at the University of Leeds in Britain, said debates have ensued ever since the convention’s founding about how to use science to measure fast-spreading deserts.

Stringer said in an interview that researchers have considered indicators such as land cover, access to clean water, and the amount of organic carbon in soil, which is a reflection of how much water and nutrients soil can hold.

But convention officials still don’t agree how to quantify the trend, she said.

Some desertification experts say that’s the problem.

Richard Thomas, an official with the United Nations Institute for Water, Environment and Health, said rumours about Canada’s exit have swirled for past four years.

“Canada has taken a fairly hard line, but not without justification,” he said. “The convention never got much support and has struggled right from the beginning. The convention has been seen as cumbersome, hit hard by gridlock, and it seems to take forever to get any action on the ground.”

Thomas said the U.S. is also signalling its doubts about the treaty.

“Conference officials were having to go back to the World Bank and request more funding but were having a hard time coming up with an answer to the question, ‘What are our success stories,’ ” said Charles Hutchinson, a professor at the University of Arizona, who has consulted to the UNCCD.

Meanwhile, critics are asking whether other treaties Canada signed are also on the chopping block.

“I wonder if there is more to come,” asked Ian Smillie, member of the McLeod Group, a think tank based in Ottawa.

Neither CIDA nor Fantino’s office would answer questions about whether other treaties are also under review.

“Many agencies are waiting to hear from CIDA,” said Smillie. “This decision will add to the nervousness. It is very discouraging.”

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