Shrinking forests

Will US aid in the greening of world's 'dust bowls'?

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As a young pilot 40 years ago, flying over my country of Senegal and across Africa's Sahel region, I remember looking down on vast stretches of green fields and forests. Today, the view is of a yellowish brown landscape that's growing barren.

Like many African countries, Senegal is losing precious agricultural land to a process of soil erosion and degradation known as "desertification." It occurs when land that receives little or irregular rainfall is overcultivated, overgrazed, deforested, or otherwise stripped of its soil-fixing vegetative cover.

Worldwide, with more than 10 million acres of farm land becoming unproductive each year, "dust bowls" are multiplying and raising legitimate concern about our planet's capacity to feed its rapidly growing population.

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In Africa and elsewhere, desertification fuels a downward cycle of poverty and hunger, which leads to migration from rural areas to overcrowded urban centers including those in North America and Europe. Desertification can lead to conflict over scarce resources, threatening to undermine the progress Africa is making toward democracy and economic reform.

But desertification is not inevitable. The US can play a larger role in stemming the tide by ratifying the Convention to Combat Desertification, already ratified by 150 other countries.

The 1994 Convention focuses on food security and poverty reduction. It also promotes African self-reliance, a shift from aid to trade, the sustainable use of natural resources, and the benefits of democratic participation.

The US signed the treaty in 1994, and President Clinton, during his trip last year to Africa, reaffirmed US support for it. But US interests in an economically healthy and politically stable Africa would be well-served by ratification by the Senate.

The desertification convention provides a coordinated international framework to channel technical and financial resources to communities where the fight against the interrelated problems of desertification and poverty must be waged.

Under the treaty, developing countries must engage local communities and organizations of farmers, herders, women, and youth in a "bottom up" process to devise national action programs.

Senegal and other desertified countries around the world are now active in this joint public-private planning process. Senegal's capital, Dakar, recently hosted the Second Conference of Parties to the Convention, attended by more than 140 countries.

Much more progress could be made with the help of the US, which has successful community-based soil and water conservation programs and is recognized as one of the world's leaders on fighting desertification. The technical resources of American universities, research institutions, and businesses are urgently needed in the Convention-generated partnerships with communities around the world.

Unchecked, desertification will continue to foster food crises, poverty, conflict, migration, floods and other environmental disasters. No nation is immune from the consequences.

Africa's 750 million people look to the US for leadership on many issues, and desertification is one of the closest to our hearts. We look forward to welcoming the US as a full partner to the convention.

*Mamadou Mansour Seck is the Republic of Senegal's ambassador to the US.

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