Looking back to the future


In December 2002, coming home from CRIC 1 of the UNCCD (see the website UNCCD dot int and a series of interesting documents concerning the UN Convention on desertification), I decided to launch the creation of a network of individuals interested in desertification and poverty.

If you look for a newsletter (a bulletin) concerning these problems, please contact Miss Laetitia VERDIER at the UNCCD secretariat in Bonn, who is now publishing the newsletter, through her e-mail address: Lverdier ad unccd dot int.

Today, I went back to the first newsletters to freshen up my memories about those early days and can not resist offering you a short review of our first communications on the subject of success stories and best practices. Indeed, we can learn a lot from this early exchange of ideas. I hope you will enjoy “Looking back to the future” and see it as a renewed start towards more efficient actions in the field. Because that is what the poor rural people in the drylands are looking for: ACTION TO COMBAT DESERTIFICATION AND TO ALLEVIATE POVERTY.

Please have a look back at some of the messages exchanged !

2002-12-03 – INFO 001

Dear Friends,

One of the important messages and conclusions of UNCCD’s CRIC1 in Rome (11-22/11/2002) was that there is an urgent need for exchange of information within a network of individuals interested in the desertification problems. Many of us enjoyed very much the presentations of case studies and the ensuing discussions, although seemingly there was no time for in-depth analysis or exchanges of views on the situation in other countries. Nevertheless, CRIC1 certainly was a real success!

Most of the participants will remember that single sentence, repeatedly coming up in different interventions from the podium and the floor: “There is no more time for talking, this is time for action!“. I had a couple of times the privilege and the pleasure of reminding my friends that “REAL ACTION” could be launched by selecting a small number of success stories (best practices) and applying these in small scale projects, but in a large number of countries in all regions. The TPNs seem to be an excellent forum for setting up such comparative initiatives (see the pilot projects of the Asian TPN3 on sand dune fixation and rangeland management to be launched pretty soon). It goes without saying that we still need to exchange a lot of ideas on the way such actions could be optimally planned.

Willem Van Cotthem


2. Namsrai SARANTUYA n_sarantuya@yahoo.com

Congratulations with your great ideas to create such networking among individuals interested in the desertification problems! I think, first of all, we need human networking /it is CAPACITY!/ for achieving a real success in prevention and combating desertification in our countries.

I am looking forward to receive from time to time your messages and also contribute in different ways in information sharing between members of the network.

Dr.Sarantuya, from Mongolia


Yes, of course we are thinking too much in our “private-family-horizon”, but can you actually tell me how to pass on information and data if there are so many problems to start field work? Where to fly to if I can’t even find wings on my body? I’m really glad that there are people like you, reminding us of what we talked about… but I’m in the wrong position. I don’t know what kind of helpful information I can give you. Of course, if I can present any results, I’ll share them with the Yemeni Institutions as well as with a Network to Combat Desertification.

4. SAHEL DEFIS saheldefis@free.fr

Thank you for the new challenge, and for the attached information. It was indeed a great pleasure working together at CRIC 1 in Rome. It is really gratifying to having people always on the move at the helm. Yes, indeed, let’s work closer together on desertification, or better, on anti desertification activities on the ground. As indicated verbally in Rome, SAHEL DEFIS has tested a bag of TerraCottem in Northern Burkina where we work with villagers in Djomga. The first trial on a small vegetable garden was a success, as compared to cattle manure and to another product that we have also been testing with Japanese partners. The work was not conducted in a very scientific manner, but the results were satisfactory.

Tahirou DIAO

5. NGO BIOS (MOLDOVA) – 4 Dec.2002

We were happy to hear from you and to realize that, while we are all thinking things over and getting slowly started, you have already undertaken an excellent practical step. But we do agree with you that the Rome meeting was a success and it needs all of our efforts to make it a greater success in the future.

The network you have so generously initiated is an important endeavour and we will support it any way we can and we will certainly appreciate our being on the mailing list.

We were impressed with all your interventions during the Rome CRIC and the creative ways of drawing the full attention of the audience. It is a rare art.

We, in our NGO, discussed the ways to assist the Convention and we have some interesting ideas. We have even provided to Mr. Marcos Montoiro, NGO Liaison Officer of the Convention, an outline of a case study we could present at a future convention event on some very practical things we have done in one or two villages, starting with the villages almost drowned in garbage, with utterly degraded pastures, the trees of the village forest in process of full destruction, huge gullies and coming to gradual improvements in the vineyards and orchards and creation of entertainment.

INFO 004

Dear Friends, Chers Amis,

Our network for information exchange on all aspects of combating desertification (UNCCD), caring for biodiversity (UNCBD), acting for sustainable development and alleviating poverty, has got a new name: “PEOPLE FOR ACTION”.

Indeed, this network is not just one of those many initiatives to submerge people with (sometimes useful) information. It is strictly oriented towards ACTION.
Therefore, I would like to ask all members of the network to send me by preference information on:

* Successful traditional methods to combat land degradation (soil improvement, water harvesting, plant and animal production etc.)
* Successful modern technologies to combat desertification
* Successful combinations of traditional and modern methods
* Successful projects (soils, water, plants, animals, socio-economy, gender,
poverty, biodiversity, etc.), especially those of the NGOs.

Of course, I will also appreciate all kind of information on interesting activities in your country our region. That is the reason why I have included in this INFO 04 messages from the CBD Secretariat (thanks to Juliane ZEIDLER), from and to Edison WOTHO (Botswana), from the CBO Friends of Mpigi Forests (Uganda) and some general messages from “Development Gateway” (for which I recommend your subscription) and from the LINKAGES UPDATE (another subscription to be recommended!).

Should you want to share your information, ideas and data with our network members, please do not hesitate and send me an e-mail with the message you want to convey. I will be more than happy to forward it.

Our Belgian TC-Dialogue Foundation looks forward to link all “PEOPLE FOR ACTION”, aiming at improvement of the standards of living of all people living in the drylands. We know that we (and they!) can count on you.

Willem Van Cotthem

PS. Que mes amis francophones ne désespèrent pas! Je promets d’incorporer aussi tous leurs messages dans la langue de Molière. A eux de jouer!

7. Edison WOTHO

Dear Willem,

Indeed you are a true friend of nature. Personally, I have high regards for you since working with you from AHTEG on CBD. Your ideas are very useful and practical. I agree with you that action speaks louder than words. Hopefully the scientists should demonstrate their findings on the ground. It is important that we come with practical programmes and projects to answer the needs of the poor communities who live in the dryland ecosystems.

Botswana as you know, is a semi-arid country with very erratic rainfall patterns. Our advantage lies on the small population, which has over the years been very practical in managing their environment. As a NFP, I am sometimes frustrated by the lack of resources to complement their efforts. Though our NAP is yet to be finalized, its key elements are now part of the Ninth National Development Plan (NDP9). The NFP office continues to discuss with the civil society best practices of addressing this problem. I was particularly touched by the Youth Programme in Lesotho. However my problem is that the project seems not to have room for self-sustainability.

Of our four (4) small projects, I believe the agro-forestry project is doing very well, but as you know water is a major limiting factor in this country. In addition we a very thin in capacity and in this regard I would appreciate to know if the Government of Belgium would be of any assistance in terms of developing the people I work with on the project.

The developing country Parties require resources to implement some of their noble ideas. The people down there are hungry and need assistance. I personally believe in doing. Results! Results! Results! That should be our slogan at UNCCD. When we talk of alternative livelihoods, we should come up with microprojects because that is the answer to combating desertification and poverty. Too many macroprogrammes, such as NEPAD, will not answer the needs of people living and driving their livelihoods from the drylands.

Once again, I thank you Prof for your great vision and I hope that all will be up to the challenge. One day we should sit down and reflect on your great dream as presented at the interactive dialogue in CRIC 1. My worry is that even NGOs do not reach the people. The projects they introduce are temporary in nature and do not provide a long-lasting solution. Botswana is prepared to make a difference, resources permitting. This why I am eager to personally attend a course on accessing GEF resources.


My dear friend Edison,

Sincere thanks for your appreciation. I hope our little network will bring all likeminded people together and create possibilities to exchange ideas about the success stories in combating desertification and alleviating poverty. Because one thing is sure: WE KNOW HOW TO COMBAT DESERTIFICATION.

It goes without saying that alleviation of poverty and mitigation of drought will never happen in our nice conference rooms, but in the field. A lot of people have shown in the past, through a number of small projects, which can be the best practices in water harvesting, soil conditioning, agroforestry, cash crop production, marketing of Third World products etc.

It is up to us to set up comparative trials with these best practices, in order to decide which of them will offer the best results in all different regions. Of course, not every single method will be applicable in all different circumstances and locations. We have to adapt our traditional methods and modern technologies to the local situations, but we can do it quite easily.

The classical question is: Where to find the necessary resources?

If only we could spend less resources at conferences, seminars, round tables etc., if only we could spend less at huge, and often non-sustainable programmes, maybe then we could save more money for a first series of serious tests of comparative studies of success stories in all regions (and later on in all countries).

But for me the real problem is not the lack of money. It is the human choice of priorities!

Like I said at CRIC1 in Rome, when we speak about possibilities to apply an excellent modern technology like TerraCottem (TC), automatically we get the question: “How much does it costs?”. Or: “Do you have a detailed cost-benefit-analysis?”. We all know that TC brings a solution for water harvesting, for soil improvement and for enhancement of plant production. We all know that TC improves standards of living of poor people in the drylands. Since 1988 it has been proven that TC is one of the success stories in the combat of desertification. Yet, people are still asking about its prize, not about its long-lasting positive effects, so that investment in it should be spread over ten years or more.

But for guns, bullets, land mines, bombs and missiles, destroying life all over the world (and mostly of the poorest), nobody seems to ask these questions about prizes and cost-benefit analysis. I know that the comparison is not a valid one and that at the international level other rules and laws play a dominant role. But I will continue to find it a real shame that WE COULD WIN THE COMBAT AGAINST DESERTIFICATION AND WE COULD ALLEVIATE POVERTY, if only we would stop fighting and would use those financial resources to apply the best practices all over the world.

Maybe, this wish will never come true. But please, let people never ask me again about the prize of TC or any other method to combat desertification, or I will give them the outcome of my cost-benefit-analysis of one bomb and one single missile.

Dear Edison, have a peaceful end of the year and a successful 2003. And let
us continue to work together, hand-in-hand, all of us, people wanting to combat desertification and poverty.

Willem Van Cotthem

(to be continued)

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

3 thoughts on “Looking back to the future”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: