The federal government recently pulled out of an important global treaty: the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. It’s aimed at fighting drought, a problem that affects almost 30 per cent of Earth’s land surface and threatens the well-being of more than a billion people worldwide, including in our Prairie provinces.
Every year, the cumulative effects of overgrazing, over-cultivation, deforestation, poor irrigation and increasing extreme weather events — including those that cause drought — permanently degrade close to 10 million hectares of land. This has led to a creeping loss of places where food can easily be grown.
The deterioration of dry-land ecosystems has already created desert-like “dead zones” that can no longer support human life in places such as sub-Saharan Africa. No region is immune. Close to three-quarters of North America’s dry lands, including parts of the Prairies, are vulnerable to drought. And sudden loss of agricultural productivity can be devastating to farm communities across Canada.
Under the UN convention, close to 195 countries are working to improve living conditions for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, to maintain and restore land and soil productivity and to reduce the effects of drought, including food and water shortages, malnutrition, mass migrations, increased political instability and war.
Many aid and development experts believe this international agreement is critical to advancing global economic, political and food security. Canada is the only country to walk away.
The convention is a rare example of people from around the world coming together to address the root causes of environmental and social crises. It was passed shortly after drought-related crop failures and resulting malnutrition, starvation and mass migrations ravaged the Horn of Africa in the 1980s in places like Somalia and Ethiopia.
Canadians opened their hearts and wallets to these horrific droughts. Our government matched public efforts with leadership in helping to negotiate the Desertification Convention, signed in 1994. Canadians even led its decision-making body for many years. Through our partnership in the convention, previous federal governments also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research, education and direct aid to drought-stricken nations.
Canada’s past leadership is no surprise. Drought is a serious problem for our farmers. We are, in fact, officially designated as an “affected nation” under the convention, given that 60 per cent of our croplands and 80 per cent of our rangelands are in dry-land areas. Earlier droughts, such as the dust bowls of the Dirty ’30s, triggered severe erosion and dust storms, and resulted in tragic consequences, including massive unemployment and abandonment of farms across the Prairies.
The current government even recognizes our social and economic vulnerability to droughts. A 2008 study by Environment Canada and the Saskatchewan Research Council found that a severe dry period in 2001-02 resulted in $3.6 billion in losses to farmers from reduced agricultural production in Canada. The study warned that climate change is likely to cause more droughts and associated economic risks. As one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters in the world, we’re contributing to worldwide drought.
Canada was once renowned internationally for progressive ideals and values that help improve the world — from the creation and deployment of peacekeepers by the government of Lester B. Pearson to our support for a global ban on anti-personnel land mines with the passing of the Ottawa Treaty (also known as the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention). The world community recognized many of our leaders for these efforts with Nobel Peace Prizes and nominations.
By abandoning the UN Desertification Convention, as well as other important international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, we’re sending the wrong message to the world community. We’re saying that exporting resources like oil and timber matter more to us than contributing to dialogue and partnership on global issues. That Canada snuck out of the agreement without even notifying the UN secretariat, just to save about $300,000 a year, makes matters worse.
Nature doesn’t heed human borders, and global problems like drought and desertification require global solutions. Canada was wrong to pull out of the UN Desertification Convention. Doing so further isolates us on the world stage as a partner in addressing environmental issues and tarnishes our hard-earned reputation when it comes to making the world a better place to live.
Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki wrote this column with Faisal Moola. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.