Sergio Zelaya, Coordinator of the Policy Advocacy and Global Issues Unit (PAGI) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Secretariat, answers Karsten Schulz’s questions on the role of social sciences in UNCCD processes, revitalization of the UN body, land management or local governance.


Zelaya, UNCCD

KARSTEN SCHULZ: How do you perceive the role of the social sciences in the UNCCD process? Especially in regard to the view that the natural sciences predominate in programmatic and information sharing processes?

SERGIO ZELAYA: I think that, from a theoretical point of view, social sciences should play a larger role in the programmatic process of UNCCD implementation. The nature of the text of the convention that was negotiated by Parties twenty years ago reflected the need to include the priority issues on the social and economic fronts that the countries had. And I think, even though the scenario has changed a lot since then, the priorities for the developing countries are still economic development: poverty reduction and economic growth. In addition, one of the objectives of the developed countries in the international community is to provide cooperation for the alleviation of poverty and for sustaining economic growth. So there is a coincidence among the developed and developing countries in regard to the long-term objective of human well-being. In the convention, this is also included theoretically. In practice, it hasn’t been like that. Now, the role of social science in these programmatic processes has been very weak in comparison to the natural sciences. Both of them have been weak. But the weakest is still the role of the social sciences.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: My second question regards the dynamics between developed and developing countries, especially at COP meetings. From your point of view as a negotiator, do you think that there is a divide in the interests of those two country groups, or do you think that interest groups are rather related to issues than geographical location? Or is there a combination of both?

SERGIO ZELAYA: A combination, yes. I think that the UNCCD as well as the other Rio conventions are a manifestation, a spillover of the United Nations system as a whole. There is a dialogue between developed and developing countries. And the structure of the United Nations, with the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and the cooperation partners etc. reflects this idea. And, as I said, the UNCCD is also a reflection of this. This is one point. It is supported by the Articles 5 and 6 of the convention that indicate the obligations of    affected country Parties and developed country Parties. So different responsibilities are given to different groupings of countries. The same can be said for the issue of climate change for example. There are the Articles 2 and 3 of the UNFCCC, where it is said that reduction of greenhouse gas emission concentrations should take place without causing damage to social and economic growth and the countries that have caused these emissions should be responsible. For them, this is the same principle. So, that is one side, the side of the United Nations. But there is another side, the side of the local, the national governments. In developing countries, and even in affected developing countries, DLDD is not a priority. This set of issues is yet to be a priority. For them, as said, the priority is economic growth and poverty reduction. Only if combating DLDD is perceived as helping to achieve poverty reduction and economic growth, it will be part of the package that they can submit to their own governments and to the cooperation partners. The same can be said about the developed country Parties. They don’t have DLDD as a priority issue. There are other priority issues in their frameworks of cooperation and one can see very easily in an empirical study that on a country by country basis desertification is included at a very low priority level. So, none of these two groups have DLDD as a priority.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: Ok, thank you. This directly leads to my third question. The question concerns the paper “Revitalizing the UNCCD”. In this paper it is said that the interest in DLDD issues has been relatively low among climate negotiators.

SERGIO ZELAYA: I agree completely. But can I ask you one question before? What do you think about this paper?

KARSTEN SCHULZ: Well, I think that some of the judgments that are made in this paper are relatively harsh, because there are different political dimensions that have to be taken into account. For instance the position of the Parties. One cannot simply say that UNCCD negotiation capacities or policies alone are responsible for this lack of interest. It must be clearly said that even the best negotiators can not shift a country’s priority just like that. Many developed countries also do not like to see themselves just in a donor role. They expect to get something back for their engagement. So I think this paper is …



SERGIO ZELAYA: Well, I agree with your assessment. But let me add one thing on the issue of politicization. The instrument of the convention was politicized since the beginning. So many developed and developing Parties saw this instrument on a different level vis-à-vis climate change and biodiversity, because the UNFCCC and CBD were negotiated based on sound scientific studies. This convention, however, was more of a political manifestation or declaration. Even though there were highly technical preliminaries.

For instance in 1974 there was an international meeting on desertification and another one in the 1980s. In the 1990s, when the convention came to life, twenty years of research needed to be integrated. But it wasn’t like that. So since the beginning, the convention has been seen as politicized. There is evidence for this, institutionally and on the negotiation side. Institutionally, in developing countries the convention is either negotiated by ministers of the environment, or by those of agriculture or foreign affairs. In the developed world, it is very easy to see that many countries have allocated the responsibility for this convention to their ministries of foreign affairs. The ministries of foreign affairs by their own nature are political instruments.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: Of course, and not environmental.

SERGIO ZELAYA: Not environmental, and not agricultural or energy-related like the ministries responsible for the other conventions. In Germany, for example, the ministry for the environment is responsible for the Convention on Biodiversity. The UNCCD is associated with the ministry for economic and development cooperation. Of course, these are different ministries by nature. This is the institutional side. On the negotiation side, since I was a negotiator in the 1990s, I reckon that the environmental community, in the developed as well as in the developing countries, came with their hands full to the conventions on biodiversity and on climate change. They didn’t care much about if this convention was going under the ministries of foreign affairs, because they already had a vision for these huge issues to be dealt with in the biodiversity and climate change conventions. But now, the issue of DLDD has been gaining interest and gaining profile.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: I have another question in this context. Was it also difficult for the UNCCD to initiate institutional cooperation because there is a focus on ecological issues on the one hand and on sustainable development on the other hand? Was that hard to combine?

SERGIO ZELAYA: Yes, it was hard to combine and I think there was not enough clarity from the side of the Parties and the Secretariat that services the Parties. From the Secretariat and other bodies, like the Global Mechanism. Is this a sustainable development convention or an environmental convention? If you say sustainable development convention, you have to have the guidelines for sustainability that guide and influence the decisions and must emanate from them. But COP after COP, the issues of sustainable development and the environment are still mixed together and not very clear. So more guidance and vision is needed.


SERGIO ZELAYA: So we need a more strategic vision. And the Executive Secretaries that we have had so far had their own vision. But regarding sustainable development and the environment, a vision has yet to be provided to the Parties.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: A vision for combining both?

SERGIO ZELAYA: Either combining, or going this way or the other way. But some sort of vision.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: But by definition, one could say that the UNCCD is an environmental convention in regard to the Rio process as a whole. Do you think that has been prioritized or neither of it?

SERGIO ZELAYA: Exactly, neither of it. So how can we articulate this issue in a way that can help the affected countries, mostly developing, to address their priority issues? As I said, those priorities are poverty and economic growth. So how can we say: we assist you in your strategic vision, policies or guidelines regarding poverty-reduction and economic growth, including sustainable development in dryland ecosystems, and in view of the livelihoods of the affected communities? This governance is something that is still needed. Raising the awareness for the need to have an institutional focus in developed and developing countries has to be continuously addressed and clearly addressed by the Executive Secretary, the Secretariat, and the bodies of the convention.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: Thank you for these interesting insights. Now, there are some issues that have been identified in order to combine climate change and land issues. For instance sustainable land management and land rehabilitation. Do you think that these issues will be included more clearly in future climate agreements? Because right now, they are more or less incorporated in the issue of deforestation.

SERGIO ZELAYA: Well, sustainable land management is included expressively in the decision 3 of COP 8 of the UNCCD, where is says “DLDD/sustainable land management”. So what the Parties did on the one hand, in my interpretation, is that they identified the negative side, desertification, land degradation and drought, and the positive side, the forward-looking approach. On the other hand, the Bali meeting agreed upon the Bali Action Plan. This plan has building blocks and one of the building blocks is land and agriculture. So land is a building block of climate change adaptation and it is already included in the Bali Action Plan as part of long-term cooperation, action and shared vision.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: And why do you think it has not been addressed that much recently?

SERGIO ZELAYA: Well, in the last 20 years, since the convention on climate change appeared, for negotiators – and I was one, so I know exactly – the idea was to focus on greenhouse gas emissions. Of course there are other issues, like ecosystem resilience for instance. The terrestrial ecosystem, the marine ecosystem, the economic services provided by these ecosystems and social issues like gender, migration and so on. Now these issues were not specifically included, because the idea was to negotiate an instrument to address the ultimate goal of the UNFCCC: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So at that time it was a milestone to say: we have the climate convention and we have instruments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto-Protocol. Then, in Bali, the inclusion of the building blocks was the second milestone. So, from Bali until today, it is only two and a half years. In these two and a half years, much has been done to include the terrestrial and other ecosystems into the negotiations.

The problem is that in Copenhagen, the final document to be negotiated was actually not negotiated and something else came up. Now, during the last two years and for financial purposes the UNCCD has been focusing much more on its linkages with mitigation and the carbon contained in soils, in order to bring resources to the affected developing countries. But this has yet to be seen and under the UNFCCC the negotiations on mitigation will go on. But also on adaptation there are policies and measures that are taken, so that we can be included into the negotiation process. I would like to mention that the last document that is on the website, about a shared vision on adaptation and forests, talks about sustainable land management. And this is because of the advocated approaches of this convention. Actually, I have been participating in many meetings throughout 2008 and 2009 in order to include in the negotiations at least sustainable development or rural development, agriculture, water and land etc. Of course the UNCCD cannot claim the whole success, because other relevant actors, such as many country negotiators, the FAO, lots of NGOs, and institutions like IFAD are joining forces to achieve this. But we are a part of this and have been raising awareness among the focal points. Now, there are two more things I would like to mention on sustainable land management: on the conceptual side, for the functioning of an ecosystem, sustainable land management is a prerequisite. For instance, there is land degradation, a solution to land degradation is sustainable land management and these will address climate change. And in this way it should be advocated by the UNCCD. The second aspect is the population, the livelihoods, the human well-being. Whatever we do has to take into consideration the nature and the livelihoods of the people. That is what has been called human well-being. It is included in the rights that all humans have, today, and for future generations. These two long-term objectives can be achieved by concrete action on sustainable land management. Now, what is the prerequisite of sustainable land management? It is governance, empowerment, awareness, information at the local level. So we have to tackle those issues.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: How do you think the UNCCD can strengthen the role of local governance?

SERGIO ZELAYA: As an example, what we have been doing on this issue is choosing a rights-based approach, for instance regarding food security for the populations. In addition, we have the security approach. There is a natural expectation on what the land provides for you. And the government, the communities and the political as well as institutional environment have to enable people to produce on their land, give them the security, assurances and guarantees that they can use the land. Taking decisions from the bottom to the top is also important, as the text of this convention mentions. This is governance, the bottom-to-top approach. And I think this kind of governance is the obvious solution to DLDD.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: So while the UNCCD is naturally an instrument of global governance, one could say that through this approach and by its own definition it is also an instrument of local governance?

SERGIO ZELAYA: Yes, exactly. If we have global solutions on the one side and local solutions on the other, the convention has to advocate globally while being based on a solid local base and actions. Local solutions can help to achieve global solutions. It is an interaction. You used the word dynamics before. This is a dynamic system, and the nature of research in the social sciences is dynamics. I see different dimensions: first, create global awareness. This means training, retraining and all the derivatives like information, technology transfer, manuals, documents, materials etc. The second: act on the legal framework. How can this convention help to develop certain legal frameworks, for instance regarding anti-desertification and pro-sustainable land management? Not only at the national level. Large countries like Brazil and China must also act locally. Even an island needs action at the local level. The third one is the improvement of technology. This is different from education and training. It is learning by doing. How can we help people to achieve their goals on their own and with new technologies? Science is only the input. Science per se has no value. You can produce the best scientific result and put it in a closet. That helps no one. So we need scientific research as an input through which people can improve their own technologies. This is something that can be done and it would mean that research has not only to be done in the developed world, but also at the local level, with the local communities in developing countries. We need to provide the tools and improve the capabilities. Physical tools and also enabling tools, for instance infrastructure like roads and information services like radio or computers.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: So as a whole, this approach is about policy, capacity building and physical tools?

SERGIO ZELAYA: Yes, capacity building, instruments like policy, governance, infrastructure like roads to gain market access, and financial resources. This has to be considered initially. Just take the Marshall Plan for example. There was a lot of money initially. For the earthquake in Haiti, there are a lot of financial pledges initially. You cannot expect affected countries to come all the way from the distant position in which they are now in comparison with other countries regarding human-well being, and come up with all of this by themselves. There are many constraints that they have. So financial resources are important, mostly at the beginning. And this convention has to ensure that some of these resources are allocated for desertification and sustainable land management.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: And how do you think this could be achieved?

SERGIO ZELAYA: Well, my belief is that if what is said about money follows a good idea is true, then this has to be put in practice. But you have to have credibility and you have to have a vision. If you have good idea and you don’t have a long-term vision and your vision is not deducted from the demands of the local populations, it is just another idea put in a closet. So the idea has to be effective and it has to be borne by the people. You need empowerment. You cannot say: “I have an idea and I am going to implant this idea for you!” The idea has to be their idea. This is ownership and for sure it has high transaction costs. The UNCCD has to be aware of these costs. For two decades the UNFCCC has been raising awareness and been investing money in climate change awareness. And I think that is what we need to do. Passing from knowledge to action.

KARSTEN SCHULZ: Mr. Zelaya, I thank you very much for this interview.

SERGIO ZELAYA: You are very welcome.

This interview has been originally published in:

Schulz, Karsten: Linking Land and Soil to Climate Change. The UNCCD in the Context of Global Environmental Governance. Tectum: Marburg 2011, p. 162-171.

The paper is available for sale at Amazon UK as well as Amazon Germany.

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