Anti-desertification plan gets official launch in Rio

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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Organisations from Africa, Brazil and France have officially launched a scientific collaboration to fight desertification in Africa.

The collaboration was discussed at the Fight Against Desertification in Africa conference in Niger in October 2011. The 'Declaration of Niamey' adopted at the conference highlighted the need for interdisciplinary research in the fields of desertification, drought and land degradation, focusing on social, economic and environmental issues.

Its commitments were ratified earlier this year (March 2012), with a tripartite agreement signed at the sixth World Water Forum in Marseille, France, between Brazil's National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) of Brazil, the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) in France, and the Pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall (PAGGW), to which 11 African countries belong.

Yesterday's official launch at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), taking place this week (20–22 June), saw the presentation of the collaboration's first concrete actions based on these earlier commitments.

The project's initial start-up capital is US$1.3 million, and it is funded by the three organisations equally. It is 'an original initiative in that it is a South-South-North cooperation', according to the IRD.

The collaboration brings together researchers to devise programmes for tackling desertification (the process by which fertile land becomes desert), particularly in Africa's Sahel region — a belt of semi-arid grasslands, savannas and steppes stretching across northern Africa, immediately to the south of the Sahara desert.

Michel Laurent, IRD's director-general, said the collaboration aimed to build scientific capacity in Africa and strengthen links between scientific and civil society groups for sustainable development in in Africa's arid and semi-arid regions.

'We want to [assimilate] knowledge through both research on the ground, and data on the region's evolution collected through satellites, to help improve policies dealing with desertification, and to enable the betterment of people's lives,' said Laurent.

'The situation in the Sahel area is continuing to deteriorate, with desertification spreading southwards and causing many people to migrate,' he told SciDev.Net.

Laurent added that it was important to restore areas already affected by desertification, through afforestation, pastoralism and sustainable agriculture.

Idriss Déby, president of Chad, told the meeting that desertification was 'affecting millions of people in Africa'. Unless tough action was taken immediately, it would degrade many parts of the continent, making them unfit for human habitation.

Déby said the new collaboration should not lose momentum through protracted scientific discussions, and appealed for international solidarity to help raise funds. 'We need funds to allow us to act now,' he said at the signing ceremony.

Abdoulaya Dia, PAGGW's chief executive officer, said that the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity in desert and semi-desert areas was a high priority for Africa. The new collaboration should evaluate existing traditional knowledge alongside conventional scientific knowledge, he added.

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