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Jones, Maximus --- "How Land Degradation Neutrality Compromises The Interests Of Developing Countries How Land Degradation Neutrality Compromises The Interests Of Developing Countries" [2018] UNSWLawJlStuS 5; (2018) UNSWLJ Student Series No 18-05



Desertification is a serious environmental threat involving the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas. It disproportionately affects developing countries, particularly those in Africa, where land degradation exacerbates, and is exacerbated by, conditions of poverty and famine. At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 (‘Rio Summit’), the international community recognised the gravity of the desertification problem when it launched the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (‘UNCCD’)[1] as one of three key instruments for achieving environmental sustainability.[2] Despite this, the UNCCD has a well-documented history of ineffectiveness and underperformance.[3] In order to remedy this, the Convention has undergone significant changes in recent years that refocus its mechanisms, institutions and funds towards the goal of achieving Land Degradation Neutrality by 2030 (‘LDN’). By objective measures, the LDN initiative has proven very effective. I argue that, despite this success, the LDN framework compromises the interests of developing country Parties to the UNCCD. In particular, it shifts focus away from the socioeconomic causes of desertification; it represents a skewed power dynamic that favours the interests of developed countries, particularly regarding financial matters; and there is a real risk that its measures will disempower local and indigenous populations by creating barriers to their participation in the Convention and its implementation. In raising these concerns, I seek to invite a reassessment of LDN’s core ideological commitments amidst a body of commentary that has overwhelmingly taken the initiative’s measurable successes to be an indicator of its overall benefit.

In Part I, I outline developing Parties’ key interests and conceptual commitments under the UNCCD by stepping through the process of its negotiation and highlighting the points of dispute between developing and developed countries. These areas of dispute also serve to explain the Convention’s poor functioning in the past. Part II explores the rise of LDN and reasons for its success, before demonstrating how the UNCCD, in light of this new governing concept, has shifted away from developing Parties’ interests. Finally, Part III analyses this shift within the broader context of International Environmental Law in order to highlight problems with the law’s treatment of developing countries and their interests.


A Negotiation and Foundational Commitments

While desertification occurs across all regions, it is most concentrated in developing countries particularly those with a predisposition to drought.[4] Most prominently, it affects countries in Africa, two-thirds of which is occupied by drylands.[5] Areas such as the Sahelian region, the Horn of Africa and the Kalahari are crucial sites for agricultural production and food security for a large proportion of the African population, but are also susceptible to severe drought.[6] Desertification can thus lead to widespread famine in addition to wider environmental effects, including increases in global warming or loss of biodiversity that result from the degradation of fertile land. The UNCCD is premised on the notion that land degradation in areas such as these can be counteracted by sustainable land management practices and wider support networks that support agriculture and farming communities. To that end, it seeks to empower affected countries, regions and communities by establishing management structures at multiple levels and facilitating the provision of financial and technological support by developed countries.

In principle, the UNCCD serves first and foremost the interests of developing (especially African) countries. It is unsurprising then that African countries first proposed the Convention, drove its early development, and claim a degree of ownership over it.[7] Commentary on the negotiation dynamics involved in the creation of the UNCCD prominently depicts consistent disagreement between the interests of developing countries (unified in the ‘G77’ coalition) and developed countries.[8] At the Rio Summit, the G77 sought to put desertification problems on equal footing with other environmental issues.[9] This proposal was resisted by developed countries, which doubted that desertification was anything more than a cluster of local environmental issues arising due to national agricultural and macro-economic policies in the affected countries.[10] They did not consider it to be a global threat warranting international coordination on the scale called for by climate change or loss of biodiversity.[11] Because of this, they strongly resisted the possibility of financial commitment to the cause.

A key turning point came when the United States (‘US’) unexpectedly changed its tone and agreed to support the proposal. A number of explanations have been offered for this change, chief among them being that the US wanted to deflect the negative publicity it was receiving for its failure to support a proposed convention on biodiversity, and that it wanted to appease the African nations in order to keep them engaged in the Rio process.[12] In any case, it is suggested that US support was more an act of political calculation than of genuine concern for the issue of desertification, with this lack of ideological commitment foreshadowing the difficulties that the UNCCD has since faced in achieving engagement amongst developed country Parties.[13]

Even after a desertification convention was agreed to in principle, disputes continued throughout the negotiation of its terms. Importantly, developing and developed countries took opposing views on the type and nature of desertification’s causes. Developing countries argued that external economic factors, such as trade, debt and commodity pricing, were the primary causes of desertification in that changes within international economic structures had disastrous flow-on effects for the already fragile agriculture industries in affected areas.[14] Developed countries, on the other hand, argued that desertification was primarily caused by unsustainable land and resource management, such as overgrazing, over-cultivation, mismanaged irrigation, deforestation, and harmful agriculture policy. Economic matters should be left, they argued, to other fora, and their inclusion in the desertification treaty would create confusion and hinder the ability to implement effective sustainability measures.[15] Each position had clear implications for the scope of a possible agreement and the strength of any commitments it would impose. The position of developing countries implicated the international community as a whole in the problem of desertification, promoting broad responsibility for its causes. By focussing on external economic causes, it also more directly targeted socioeconomic issues such as poverty and food security that are related to, but distinct from, the ecological aspects of desertification. By contrast, the position of developed countries placed greater responsibility on national governments and individuals, and narrowed the function of a possible international law to implementation of environmental management measures. There is academic consensus that desertification is a complex problem, the solution to which requires the integration of social, economic and ecological dynamics;[16] these opposing positions can therefore be explained by the political motives of their proponents.

One aspect on which there was unanimous support was the need for a bottom-up approach that would incorporate the views of local populations through community organisation, grassroots movements, local participation and local decision-making.[17]

Considering its historical development, we can draw out three features or goals that were of vital importance to developing countries negotiating a desertification treaty, particularly those worst affected by the issue in Africa:

  1. Recognition of desertification as a (primarily) socioeconomic problem.
  2. Provision of adequate funding from donor countries to facilitate the effective implementation of measures to combat desertification.
  3. The use of diversified or ‘bottom-up’ models of management, enabling the formulation of context-sensitive implementation strategies.

The analysis in Parts II and III will return to these features.

B The UNCCD in Practice

The UNCCD was adopted in June 1994 and entered into force in December 1996. It currently has 197 Parties.[18] The final text represents something of a compromise, but favours the interests of developed Parties. As a result, developing Parties have had limited success in achieving the three goals set out above. The UNCCD’s guiding principles appear to reflect a balanced position that recognises the needs of affected countries. The first objective of the UNCCD is to

combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought in in countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa, through effective action at all levels, supported by international cooperation and partnership arrangements, in the framework of an integrated approach which is consistent with Agenda 21, with a view to contributing to the achievement of sustainable development in affected areas.[19]

Its second objective is to implement long long-term strategies that focus on improving productivity of land through rehabilitation, conservation and sustainable management, while simultaneously improving living conditions, particularly at the community level.[20] In the achievement of those core objectives, the key principles emphasised are:

• Participation of populations and local communities affected by desertification in decision-making;[21]

• Solidarity, partnership and cooperation at all levels – subregional, regional and international;[22]

• Development of government, communities, non-governmental organisations and landholders to better understand land and water resources in affected areas and work towards their sustainable use;[23] and

• The ‘special needs and circumstances of affected developing country Parties, particularly the least developed among them’ should be taken into full consideration.[24]

The convention requires Parties to consider ‘the effects of international trade, marketing agreements and debt with a view to establishing an enabling international economic environment conducive to the promotion of sustainable development’.[25] It also creates an obligation to ‘integrate strategies for poverty eradication into efforts to combat desertification’,[26] an obligation made even more explicit for African nations.[27]

On the matter of local engagement, article 5 creates an obligation on affected Parties to ‘facilitate the participation of local populations, particularly women and youth, with the support of nongovernmental organizations, in efforts to combat desertification’. Annexure 1, which concerns the obligations of African nations, includes a special emphasis on progressing toward ‘greater decentralisation’,[28] ‘[a] consultative and participatory process ... to allow maximum participation from local populations and communities’.[29] Aspects of the UNCCD concerned with local participation have evoked enthusiastic analysis. Writing in 1995, Alastair Iles praised these measures from a feminist perspective on the basis that they took steps to correct traditional international law’s ‘inability to address private spheres of activity behind the public persona of the state’.[30] As to the UNCCD’s socioeconomic orientation, nations at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 were similarly optimistic, recognising the Convention as ‘one of the tools for poverty eradication’.[31] Its importance was reiterated by the international community in its Millennium Development Goals at the turn of the century,[32] and even more prominently in the Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’) of 2015.[33]

Although the principles endorsed by the UNCCD would appear to support developing Party interests, the mechanisms for its implementation do not.[34] Implementation is exclusively managed at the national level through National Action Programmes.[35] These have been poorly funded, since the Convention does not impose any concrete financial obligations, nor does it establish a dedicated fund.[36] Instead, there is a nebulous requirement for developed countries to provide ‘substantial’ financial resources,[37] and a brokering institute called the Global Mechanism was established, which promotes the mobilisation of funds, but does not raise them.[38]

In recent years, attention has been directed to improving implementation of the UNCCD. The eighth Conference of the Parties adopted a 10-year strategic plan (from 2008–18) with the objectives of: actively influencing processes and actors; creating enabling environments; being a global authority on knowledge related to desertification; addressing capacity-building needs; and mobilising resources.[39] These goals were reiterated in 2011 at the tenth Conference of the Parties, which established the Changwon Initiative with the aim of providing financial, technical and strategic support to distinct UNCCD activities.[40] Despite these efforts, the UNCCD has proved an ineffective instrument, and the issue of desertification has been in large part ignored. In particular, industrialised donor countries have been reluctant to financially support initiatives.[41] For example, an evaluation of the Changwon Initiative showed that only $5.2 million US dollars was pledged to the cause over a five-year period.[42] A lack of funding has seriously hindered affected countries’ ability to implement the UNCCD,[43] and is generally regarded as the primary reason for the Convention’s overall failure.[44]


In an attempt to revitalise the UNCCD, its implementation in recent years has been structured around the paradigm of LDN. LDN is defined in the UNCCD as ‘a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security remain stable or increase within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems’.[45] The goal of LDN can be otherwise expressed as achieving a state of ‘no net loss of arable land’ by 2030.[46] In many respects, LDN has given the UNCCD new life; it has vastly improved implementation, exponentially increased funding and garnered far greater enthusiasm, particularly from developed country Parties. This Part will explain LDN’s success and features that distinguish it from the previous approach to combatting desertification. Based on this analysis it will identify how LDN represents, conceptually and practically, a significant move away from the approach that developing countries have consistently advocated for.

The LDN initiative can be situated within the broader context of environmental sustainability’s reassertion at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012[47] and, ultimately, through the adoption of the SDGs in September 2015.[48] Goal 15 of the SDGs calls for nations to ‘[p]rotect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss’.[49] More specifically, Target 15.3 is to ‘[b]y 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world’.[50] Just one month after their adoption, the SDGs and Target 15.3 were taken up as guiding principles to the UNCCD by the Twelfth Conference of the Parties (‘COP 12’).[51] COP 12 resolved to redirect the resources and attention of Convention towards the goal of LDN,[52] which was and is seen as a ‘promising new strategy that might have the potential to revitalize the international agenda to fight desertification/land degradation and drought’.[53] The Executive Secretary of UNCCD described it as a panacea of sorts, being a ‘tool for action and a powerful principle for advocacy, for amending relevant public policies and fixing the market failures’ of the Convention.[54]

In September 2017, the thirteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (‘COP 13’) was held, resulting in 37 decisions relating to the implementation of the LDN framework.[55] Key among these were the adoption of the UNCCD 2018–2030 Strategic Framework (‘Strategic Framework’), which will guide future actions under the Convention,[56] and the launch of the LDN Fund, which combines public and private sector funding dedicated to implementing the SDGs.[57] Currently, 116 countries have committed to setting LDN targets. The majority of critical commentary on LDN responded positively to it, and has largely targeted finer points of its implementation, including how to establish practical and scientifically sound baselines and targets.[58]

A LDN’s Notable Changes

Under the LDN policy and the Strategic Framework, a series of notable changes can be seen to the principles and approach of the UNCCD. First, LDN broadens the Convention’s scope of possible application to desertification, land degradation and drought (‘DLDD’). Desertification, to which the UNCCD applies, is land degradation in a particular geographical context. COP 12 recognised that a significant proportion of land degradation also occurs outside the scope of the UNCCD.[59] Nonetheless, it suggested that ‘[p]arties may use the UNCCD to guide their policies relating to DLDD when striving to achieve LDN at national and subnational levels’.[60] In effect, this greatly extends the scope of the UNCCD, leading commentators to argue that the decisions made by COP 12 ‘can be seen as re-orienting the Convention’s implementation process towards LDN’ in the broadest sense.[61] The consequence, discussed below, is that the UNCCD now operates within expanded geographical and ideological contexts, compromising its ability to respond to the ecological and socioeconomic needs particular to desertification-afflicted communities.

The 2018–2030 Strategy frames land degradation as a global problem, in contrast to the more directed approach taken by the UNCCD. In doing so, it aims to achieve a greater degree of ‘synergy’ between the UNCCD and the other Rio Conventions (the UNFCCC and CBD). In order to demonstrate the far-reaching impacts of land degradation and benefits of land-based solutions, the UNCCD Secretariat released a publication dedicated to outlining the importance of LDN for 10 out of the 17 SDGs.[62] Elsewhere, UNCCD publications have sought to express ‘a greater understanding of the Convention’s relevance beyond arid lands and the relationship between LDN and climate change’,[63] and have asserted that ‘Land Degradation Neutrality actions and activities play an essential role for a land-based approach to climate change adaptation’.[64] Alexandra Conliffe explains that the goal of synergy, in particular what she describes as the ‘climate change bandwagoning’ of UNCCD officials, has proved an effective strategy for extending interest in the Convention to Parties outside of affected areas.[65] Part III will discuss ways in which these strategies of globalising the environmental issue and pursuing cooperation with other international environmental conventions run the risk of compromising the UNCCD’s ability to engage with local populations and implement a contextual approach.

Another change brought by LDN has been a significant boost to the financing of UNCCD initiatives. The LDN Fund launched with an initial capitalisation target of US$300 million. Within three months of its launch, the Fund had raised approximately 30% of that amount,[66] an incredible improvement from the US$5.2 million that was previously pledged to the Changwon Initiative over the course of five years.[67] Another significant aspect of the LDN Fund, which will be discussed further in Part III, is its introduction of private funding, and therefore private stakeholders, in the UNCCD scheme.

Finally, and most significantly from a conceptual standpoint, LDN shifts the focus of the UNCCD even further away from the socioeconomic (and especially international) causes of DLDD and towards environmental causes that are manageable at the national level. In doing so, it does little to recognise historical debate on this issue, or the principles that developing Parties have fought to see reflected in the UNCCD. The justification for this change is that the Convention’s dual focus on environmental and socioeconomic factors led to a lack of clear direction on how to implement strategies and caused challenges when attempting to measure progress through scientific indicators.[68] These difficulties stem from the lack of equivalence between socioeconomic and ecological phenomena, which is particularly problematic for a system such as LDN, which must quantify benefits and losses to measure progress against the goal of no-net-loss.

An analysis of the Strategic Framework demonstrates a focus on restoring the environment as a primary goal, with the expectation that social and economic benefits will follow; while the Strategic Framework contains an objective to ‘improve the living conditions of affected populations’, the bulk of its provisions concern strategies for environmental management. Although the mechanisms of the UNCCD do not exactly give effect to its goals, the Convention does create obligations to address simultaneously the environmental and socioeconomic factors related to desertification: ‘Parties shall: adopt an integrated approach addressing the physical, biological and socio-economic aspects of the processes of desertification and drought’ and ‘integrate strategies for poverty eradication into efforts to combat desertification’.[69] The UNCCD’s preamble notes that ‘desertification is caused by complex interactions among physical, biological, political, social, cultural and economic factors’ and includes specific mention of the effects of trade and international economic relations.[70] By contrast, the new Strategic Framework does not contain even a cursory recognition that land degradation may be caused by such factors. Instead, its introduction explains how DLDD ‘contribute to and aggravate economic, social and environmental problems such as poverty, poor health, lack of food security, biodiversity loss’ and others.[71] The important distinction is the causal relationship between socioeconomic factors and desertification envisaged by each instrument. The Strategic Framework mentions only the social effects of LDN, not its social causes. Adopting this understanding, strategies to combat DLDD are unlikely to incorporate a proper consideration of socioeconomic factors. Contrary to what some commentators have suggested, the Strategic Framework does not impart an ‘anthropocentric focus’.[72] Although this shift in emphasis may appear subtle, it becomes significant when considered in light of the longstanding dispute as to the causes of desertification and the consequences of this dispute in terms of funding and global responsibility.

This is even more evident in policy documentation since the LDN’s beginnings in 2012, which repeats certain rhetoric when describing DLDD that is consistent with a domestic and environmental approach to solving the problem. Degradation is depicted as being caused by its own victims – a result of ‘poor land management’ by communities who ‘squander’ resources. One report states:

The principal cause of land degradation and desertification is the unsustainable exploitation of land productivity by pastoral, farming, and agro-pastoral land uses ... Overpopulation and livestock are often seen as the culprits of land degradation and desertification. But they are ultimately the consequence of poor decisions and mismanagement.[73]

Another report states that ‘achieving land degradation neutrality will require a paradigm shift in land stewardship: from “degrade-abandon-migrate” to “protect-sustain-restore”’ – serving to emphasise only the land management aspects of combatting DLDD.[74] The same terminology can be found in reports elsewhere.[75]


Despite its success, the analysis above suggests that LDN subverts many of the key interests of developing countries.

A Desertification as a Socioeconomic Issue

During negotiations and throughout the life of the UNCCD, a major point of debate has been whether the Convention’s primary function is developmental, and thereby aimed at addressing social and economic factors (including global structures) that lead to desertification, or environmental and thereby aimed at addressing land management practices.[76] As outlined above, LDN effectively commits to the latter interpretation. Conceptually and through its practical implementation, LDN simply irons over the ‘delicate consensus that led to the UNCCD’.[77] Accepting that desertification involves a complex web of causes, there is a real risk that the approach of LDN will result in socioeconomic factors being lost in the calculation of benefits and detriments, and therefore in the formulation of strategies by high-level governing bodies. This is particularly problematic now that private actors are involved in funding the UNCCD. It is likely that any environmental project to address DLDD can be justified as producing some social benefit, thereby fulfilling the outcomes of the Strategic Framework. This leaves private actors free to pursue projects which are profitable and environmentally beneficial, but which have only marginal social benefits or, in practice, none whatsoever.

Moreover, the Strategic Framework does not envisage any means of measuring and recording social benefits or detriments.[78] This could have counterintuitive outcomes. For example, sustainable land management on an export farm could greatly restore degraded land, but a market crash could result in the farmer being pushed into greater poverty – this would record as a positive outcome for LDN. LDN’s narrowed focus on environmental factors is not the only available paradigm for implementing and assessing the UNCCD. Marcos Easdale advocates an alternative approach that he calls ‘zero net livelihood degradation’, which ‘encompasses the multidimensional perspective of desertification as a complex social–ecological problem’.[79] He argues that

[t]he aim of reducing the rate of land degradation and increasing the rate of restoration of already degraded land should not be promoted with a side effect such as increasing degradation of other human and social livelihoods. There is an assumption that the reduction of the rate of land degradation and restoration of already degraded lands are the main options at hand to enhance the wellbeing of local poor people, as well as the global community in the long term.[80]

Easdale instead advocates the consideration of ‘sustainable livelihood’ – being a measurement of how well a livelihood can ‘cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future while not undermining the natural resource base’.[81] Adopting a sustainable livelihood strategy incorporates both ecological and social factors to more robustly alleviate the causes of DLDD within a particular context. To take the example from before, a policy enabling the farmer to diversify his or her income portfolio will have better outcomes in the event of market downturn than a purely environmental policy: the farmer could rely upon off-farm income, which in turn may avoid a situation where the farmer is forced to over-cultivate to sustain his or her livelihood.[82] Farming technology and land management practices might improve efficiency, but without a more holistic social approach, they fail to account for the unpredictable externalities that often cause DLDD. Thus Easdale argues that ‘[i]nterventions should be oriented towards the enhancement of social–ecological resilience and adaptive capacity of local communities in drylands’.[83]

B Donor Funding and Differential Treatment

The most important positive change that LDN has brought to the UNCCD is an increase in funding from donor countries and private actors. For reasons discussed below, however, the underlying motives behind this increase reveal serious normative problems in international environmental law. As a starting point, the donation of funds by developed countries to support efforts by developing countries to combat desertification can be characterised as ‘differential treatment’ in that it subverts the ordinary principle of reciprocity of obligations by placing a greater financial burden on developed countries. Philippe Cullet comprehensively explores the concept of differential treatment.[84] As he explains, differential treatment in international environmental law is ethically grounded in the notion that states have ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’;[85] all states bear some responsibility for addressing global environmental problems, but they ‘should be held accountable in different measure according to their respective historical and present contributions’ to these problems and their respective capacities to address them.[86] This incorporates a recognition that developing states should be in some way ‘compensated’ for past and present inequalities, as well as a broader desire to express values of international solidarity and fairness, and to progress substantive equality.[87] Differential treatment is also motived by common interests, such as the universal benefit of addressing catastrophic climate change by ensuring all countries have the financial capacity to do so.[88] International Environmental Law has consistently facilitated differential treatment since the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

While recognising that the concept of differential treatment has a strong moral and ethical grounding, Cullet concludes that in practice ‘differentiation has been effective mainly in cases where developed countries have found it to be in their interests’.[89] Developed countries, he shows, have been more willing to engage in differential treatment where it serves a long-term financial interest – such as where it provides secure access to primary resources situated in developing countries, or where it creates opportunities for the growth of export markets to the countries being assisted.[90] Similarly, Cullet observes that ‘among the numerous issues of international significance those of greater concern to developed countries, such as ozone depletion, have been addressed more thoroughly and rapidly than issues of lesser importance to them, such as desertification’.[91] Cullet’s analysis explains why the UNCCD has been historically unable to impose financial obligations on developed countries. It also suggests two explanations for why the shift towards LDN has, by contrast, successfully facilitated differential treatment. First, the LDN framework provides financial incentives to developed countries. The newly-established LDN Fund promises a financial return, reframing states’ ‘donations’ as ‘investments’. Even in the donation space, UNCCD documentation since the adoption of LDN has repeatedly emphasised the relationship between donors and affected countries as a ‘mutually beneficial’ one, focussing on the long-term economic benefits of building ties with funded groups who prosper. The second explanation for LDN’s success is that it reframes the environmental issue that the UNCCD is tackling as a global threat, rather than a specific threat to developing countries in Africa.[92]

What is concerning is that these norms skew power dynamics in international environmental law heavily in favour of developed countries. The failure of the UNCCD before LDN demonstrates that international environmental law does not function effectively unless the interests of rich states are served. If that is the case, then the UNCCD is now likely to perpetuate inequality that it originally sought to address.

C Local Implementation of International Agreements

The Strategic Framework purports to engage local populations in the implementation of LDN and advocates a contextual approach that is sensitive to the needs of these populations.[93] In particular, the preamble highlights ‘the importance of civil society in all matters relating to UNCCD implementation at local, national, subregional and regional levels and ... in the implementation of the Convention and the strategic framework’.[94]

Annette Reenberg observes a tendency in international environmental law to emphasise bottom-up and interdisciplinary considerations without actually implementing them.[95] Analysing policy documents under the UNCCD and UNFCCC amongst others, she concludes that such documents simply ‘replicate many of the basic narratives and implicit understandings that were already presented decades ago’.[96] This appears to be the case for the LDN program, which in practice offers very little to facilitate local engagement. Rather, changes introduced by LDN can be construed as disempowering local and indigenous populations in a number of ways.

First, the shift mentioned above away from socioeconomic causes of DLDD disregards local lived experiences in order to enable a rationalist approach that quantifies benefit and detriment in equivalent terms. Marybeth Long Martello explains why this kind of approach is fundamentally at odds with the commitment to local engagement:

there seems to be a dichotomy ... between conventional forms of Environment development policy making in a rationalist vein and new principles and practices accompanying the growing recognition of traditional knowledge and it's holders. On one hand, participants in environment development policy making have heralded traditional knowledge as a vehicle of change and a compliment, or even alternative, to modern science. ... On the other hand, environment development institutions tend to construct traditional knowledge in the same way that they construct science. In emphasizing standardisation, sectorisation, and instrumentality they seem bound to undercut the variety of goals that they espouse in developing traditional knowledge initiatives.[97]

There is also the potential for a rationalising approach to land management to erode existing traditional knowledge and weaken local institutions and practices.[98] Easdale gives the example of productive traditional logics involving mobile pastoralism and the collective management of common property. These kinds of practices are not compatible with the logic of LDN and its mechanisms for measuring and reporting, and are likely to be discarded in favour of Western sedentary farming styles.

The second relevant change is the introduction of private capital under the LDN Fund. Investments made under the LDN Fund are directed towards large-scale projects that are likely to generate a profit.[99] Under this model, it is highly unlikely that local populations will be granted opportunities to participate in the development and ownership of LDN initiatives, as private investors will be more likely to support known management styles that will maximise profits. Since the LDN Fund includes both private and public sources of funding, there is a potential for profit-motives to influence investments across the board. This is consistent with broader critiques of the SDGs, which argue that the goals serve the economic interests of businesses over and above the interests of the poor.[100]

As discussed in Part II(B), the popularity of LDN within the international community is, at least in part, attributable to its global nature and its pursuit of ‘synergy’ with other environmental issues and agreements. While these are certainly strengths of the initiative, neither feature supports the UNCCD’s original emphasis on decentralisation, local engagement and region-specific application. The move towards treating land degradation as a global problem has its merits and accords with academic opinions in the field, which have advocated for the consideration of land and soil as a ‘global commons’,[101] and the conceptualisation of land degradation as a ‘common concern of humankind’.[102] Ben Boer argues that the UNCCD, being limited to arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, was ‘too narrowly conceived, given that land degradation not associated with desertification processes is also a very significant global issue’.[103] He advocates for the treatment of desertification and land degradation together as a common concern of humankind, and the subject of a broader convention to replace the UNCCD.[104] Framing an environmental issue as a ‘common concern of humankind’ serves the useful function of limiting sovereignty over relevant natural resources, because it vests in the international community an interest in, and responsibility for, those resources.[105] In the context of climate change, for example, this allows the international community to impose restrictions on how resources that negatively affect the climate may be used within a country’s jurisdiction, often tempering unsustainable industrialisation efforts. Boer gives a number of examples of environmental sustainability practices that would be similarly strengthened if land degradation were a common concern of humankind. However, the same logic does not translate well to the specific context of desertification. This is because it is typically in affected countries’ long term and immediate economic and social interests to address the environmental problem. Boer’s suggestion disregards the unique socioeconomic context in which desertification, particularly in African countries, occurs. At best, the framing of desertification as a common concern of humankind would symbolically increase the perception of its importance.[106]

The other way in which LDN strives for universal appeal is its pursuit of synergy with other environmental law instruments, in particular with the UNFCCC and the CBD.[107] There are benefits in unifying the currently fragmented body of international environmental law: it can lead to greater efficiency; it can lend the cause of environmental sustainability greater symbolic weight, which has the potential to affect the actions of individual (particularly democratic) nations by moving the populations within them; and, in the case of the Rio Conventions, their synergy reflects an increasing recognition of the close and inherent ecological links between land, air and water.[108] Cooperation between the Rio Conventions could take form in development of common reporting tools, integrated monitoring and assessment frameworks, common, open access platforms for data, information and knowledge sharing, and on-the-ground actions that advance the goals of all three conventions simultaneously.[109] On the other hand, Susan Biniaz argues that ‘it is highly debatable whether a “unified” body of international environmental law is actually desirable’.[110] In support of that position, she relevantly points out that environmental problems are highly diverse, and a key strength of international environmental law ‘has been that each agreement/approach is designed in a nuanced manner and tailored to the particular problem at hand’.[111] The approach of diverse instruments serving particular purposes can be construed as ‘enabling creative and innovative case-appropriate solutions’, which would not be possible with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.[112]


In order to revitalise an ineffective convention, LDN seeks to resolve the problem of desertification by reverting to the norms of international law that the UNCCD initially sought to subvert. In doing so, it undermines the interests of developing countries and overlooks important aspects of desertification and the specific contexts in which it occurs. LDN is a successful initiative, but there is cause to question the norms of International Environmental Law that underpin both its success and the comparative failure of the UNCCD. These norms clearly reflect the problematic dominance of developed countries in international environmental politics, and the ease with which developing country interests have been overlooked in contemporary initiatives.

* University of New South Wales. I thank Zsofia Korosy for her comments on an earlier draft of this essay and guidance in forming its topic. All mistakes remain my own.

[1] Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa, opened for signature 14 October 1994, 1954 UNTS 3 (entered into force 26 December 1996) art 1.

[2] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, opened for signature 4 June 1992, 1771 UNTS 107 (entered into force 21 March 1994) (‘UNFCCC’); Convention on Biological Diversity, opened for signature 5 June 1992, 1760 UNTS 79 (entered into force 29 December 1993) (‘CBD’).

[3] For a discussion of some of the conceptual and structural problems that have led to difficulties in implementation, see Pierre Marc Johnson, Karel Mayrand and Marc Paquin (eds), Governing Global Desertification: Linking Environmental Degradation, Poverty and Participation (Routledge, first published 2006, 2016 ed).

[4] Kannan Ambalam, ‘Challenges of Compliance with Multilateral Environmental Agreements: The Case of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Africa’ (2014) 5 Journal of Sustainable Development Studies 145, 159; Kannan Ambalam, ‘United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification: Issues and Challenges’, E-International Relations, 30 April 2014 <>.

[5] Above n 4.

[6] Ambalam, ‘Challenges of Compliance’, above n 4, 159.

[7] Pamela S Chasek, ‘The Convention to Combat Desertification: Lessons Learned for Sustainable Development’ (1997) 6 Journal of Environment and Development 147, 147; German Advisory Council on Global Change, New Structures for Global Environmental Policy (Earthscan, 2001).

[8] Adil Najam, ‘Dynamics of the Southern Collective: Developing Countries in Desertification Negotiations’ (2004) 4 Global Environmental Politics 128. Najam also details disputes that arose between developing countries, but these were satisfactorily resolved in the final Convention.

[9] Ambalam, ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4.

[10] Ibid; Anil Agarwal, Sunity Narain and Anju Sharma (eds), Green Politics: Global Environmental Negotiations (Centre for Science and Environment, 1999) 169.

[11] Ambalam, ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4.

[12] Najam, above n 8, 134; Ambalam, ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4.

[13] For a discussion of the gaming that occurs in International Environmental Law negotiation, see Jennifer Telesca, ‘Consensus for Whom? Gaming the Market for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna through the Empire of Bureaucracy’ (2015) 33 Cambridge Anthropology 49.

[14] Chasek, above n 7, 155.

[15] Ibid 155, 158.

[16] Marcos H Easdale, ‘Zero Net Livelihood Degradation: The Quest for a Multidimensional Protocol to Combat Desertification’ (2016) 2 Soil 129, 130, citing J F Reynolds and D M Stafford Smith, Global Desertification: Do Humans Cause Deserts? (Dahlem University Press, 2002); Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, ‘Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis’ (Report, World Resources Institute, 2005). See also James F Reynolds, D Mark Stafford-Smith and Eric Lambin, ‘Do Humans Cause Deserts? An Old Problem through the Lens of a New Framework: The Dahlem Desertification Paradigm’ (Paper presented at Rangelands in the New Millenium: Proceedings of the VIIth International Rangelands Congress, 2003); Lapas Alibekov and Davlat Alibekov, ‘Causes and Socio-Economic Consequences of Desertification in Central Asia’ in Roy Behnke, The Socio-Economic Causes and Consequences of Desertification in Central Asia (Springer, 2006) 33; Johnson, Mayrand and Paquin, above n 3, chs 1–3.

[17] Chasek, above n 7.

[18] United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Status of Ratification, United Nations <>.

[19] UNCCD art 2(1) (emphasis added).

[20] Ibid art 2(2).

[21] Ibid art 3(a).

[22] Ibid art 3(b).

[23] Ibid art 3(c).

[24] Ibid art 3(d).

[25] Ibid art 4(2)(b). Similar provisions relating to each affected region are included in the annexes.

[26] Ibid art 4(2)(c).

[27] Ibid annex 1, arts 3–4, 8.

[28] Ibid annex 1, art 4(2)(b).

[29] Ibid annex 1, art 6(2).

[30] Alastair Iles, ‘Recent Developments: The Desertification Convention – A Deeper Focus on Social Aspects of Environmental Degradation?’ (1995) 36 Harvard International Law Journal 207, 209–10.

[31] World Summit on Sustainable Development: Draft Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, UN Doc A/CONF.199/L.1 (26 June 2002) 7(1).

[32] Report of the Secretary-General: Road Map towards the Implementation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration, 56th sess, Agenda Item 40, UN Doc A/56/326 (6 September 2001) 56-58; United Nations Millennium Declaration, GA Res 55/2, UN GAOR, 55th sess, 8th plen mtg, Agenda Item 60(b), UN Doc A/Res/55/2 (18 September 2000). For a discussion of how the MDGs support the importance of the UNCCD, see Pierre Marc Johnson, Karel Mayrand and Marc Paquin, ‘The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Global Sustainable Development Governance’ in Pierre Marc Johnson, Karel Mayrand and Marc Paquin (eds), Governing Global Desertification: Linking Environmental Degradation, Poverty and Participation (Routledge, first published 2006, 2016 ed) 1, 3–5

[33] Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, GA Res 70/1, UN GAOR, 70th sess, 4th plen mtg, Agenda Items 15 and 116, UN Doc A/Res/70/1 (25 September 2015) [59], 24–5 (Goal 15) (‘2030 Sustainable Development Goals’).

[34] See Chasek, above n 7, 155 ff.

[35] UNCCD art 5.

[36] Najam, above n 8, 139–42.

[37] UNCCD art 6(b).

[38] Ibid art 24(1). Elisabeth Corell, ‘Drylands Degradation: Africa’s Main Environmental Challenge’ in Beatrice Chaytor and Kevin R Gray (eds), International Environmental Law and Policy in Africa (Kluwer, 2003) 1.

[39] Conference of the Parties, The 10-Year Strategic Plan and Framework to Enhance the Implementation of the Convention (2008–2018), 8th sess, UN Doc ICCD/COP(8)/16/Add.1 (14 September 2007); Ambalam, ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4.

[40] Conference of the Parties, The Changwon Initiative, 10th sess, Agenda Item 13, UN Doc ICCD/COP(10)/MISC.5/Rev.4 (2 November 2011); Ambalam, ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4.

[41] ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4; Even Fontaine Ortiz and Guangting Tang, Review of the Management, Administration and Activities of the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Joint Inspection Unit, JIU/REP/2005/5 (2005).

[42] United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, ‘Evaluation of the Changwon Initiative’ (Report, January 2017) <> (‘Evaluation of the Changwon Initiative’).

[43] Ambalam, ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Conference of the Parties, The Future Strategic Framework of the Convention to Combat Desertification, 13th sess, Agenda Item 2(b), UN Doc ICCD/COP(13)/L.18 (14 September 2017)

[46] For more on LDN, see Akhtar-Schuster et al, ‘Unpacking the Concept of Land Degradation Neutrality and Addressing its Operation through the Rio Conventions’ (2017) 195 Journal of Environmental Management 4, 7.

[47] Resulting in the outcome document ‘The Future We Want’: United Nations General Assembly, The Future We Want, GA Res 66/288, UN GAOR, 66th sess, 123rd plen meeting, Agenda Item 19, UN Doc A/RES/66/288 (11 September 2012).

[48] 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, above n 33.

[49] Ibid 14 (Goal 15).

[50] Ibid 24 (Target 15.3).

[51] Conference of the Parties, Report of the Conference of the Parties on its Twelfth Session, held in Ankara from 12 to 23 October 2015: Part Two: Action Taken by the Conference of the Parties at its Twelfth Session. Addendum, UN Doc ICCD/COP(12)/20/Add.1 (21 January 2016) (‘COP 12 Report’) Decision 3; Sara Minelli, Alexander Erlewein and Victor Castillo, ‘Land Degradation Neutrality and the UNCCD: From Political Vision to Measurable Targets’ in Harald Ginzky et al (eds), International Yearbook of Soil Law and Policy 2016 (Springer, 2017) 85, 101; Akhtar-Schuster et al, ‘Unpacking the Concept of Land Degradation Neutrality and Addressing its Operation through the Rio Conventions’ (2017) 195 Journal of Environmental Management 4.

[52] COP 12 Report, above n 51.

[53] Minelli, Erlewein and Castillo, above n 51, 85.

[54] Lynn Wagner, ‘UNCCD Executive Secretary Stresses Need for Goal on Land Degradation Neutral World’, IISD: SDG Knoweldge Hub (online), 30 April 2013.

[55] Lauren Anderson, ‘UNCCD COP 13 Adopts 123 Decisions, Links LDN to Emerging Issues’, IISD: SDG Knowledge Hub (online), 19 September 2017.

[56] Conference of the Parties, The Future Strategic Framework of the Convention to Combat Desertification, 13th sess, Agenda Item 2(b), UN Doc ICCD/COP(13)/L.18 (14 September 2017) (‘2018–2030 Strategic Framework’).

[57] ‘Countries Agree on a Landmark 2030 Strategy to Save Fertile Lands’, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (19 September 2017) <>.

[58] See, eg, Annette L Cowie et al, ‘Land in Balance: The Scientific Conceptual Framework for Land Degradation Neutrality’ (2018) 79 Environmental Science and Policy 25; German Kust, Olga Andreeva and Annette Cowie, ‘Land Degradation Neutrality: Concept Development, Practical Applications and Assessment’ (2017) 195 Journal of Environmental Management 16; Alisher Mirzabaev, Ephraim Nkonya and Joachim von Braun, ‘Economics of Sustainable Land Management’ (2015) 15 Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 9.

[59] UNCCD art 1(h).

[60] COP 12 Report, above n 51, decision 8(1).

[61] Minelli, Erlewein and Castillo, above n 51, 87.

[62] UNCCD, ‘A Natural Fix: A Joined-Up Approach to Delivering the Global Goals for Sustainable Development’ (Report, 2016).

[63] The Global Mechanism of the UNCCD, ‘Land Degradation Neutrality: The Target Setting Programme’ (Report, 2016).

[64] The Global Mechanism of the UNCCD, Scaling up Land Degradation Neutrality Target Setting: From Lessons to Actions: 14 Pilot Countries’ Experiences (2016) 1.

[65] Alexandra Conliffe, ‘Combating Ineffectiveness: Climate Change Bandwagoning and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification’ (2011) 11 Global Environmental Politics 44.

[66] Wangu Mwangi, ‘Investors Announce LDN Fund Commitments’, IISD SDG Knowledge Hub (online), 11 January 2018 <> .

[67] Evaluation of the Changwon Initiative, above n 42.

[68] Ambalam, ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges‘, above n 4.

[69] UNCCD arts 2(a), (c).

[70] UNCCD art 2.

[71] 2018–2030 Strategic Framework, Annex, art 1.

[72] Cf Akhtar-Schuster et al, above n 46, 7.

[73] UNCCD, ‘Zero Net Land Degradation: UNCCD policy brief’ (2012) <> , quoted in Emily Jane Berry, Who Cares about Land Degradation Neutrality? Exploring the Rift Between Global Discourses and Local Perspectives in Far West New South Wales (PhD Thesis, University of New South Wales, 2017). Chapter 3 of Berry’s thesis contains a useful analysis of the rhetoric used in UNCCD documentation.

[74] UNCCD, ‘Land Degradation Neutrality: Resilience at Local, National and Regional Levels (Report, 2013) 14.

[75] UNCCD, ‘Land Degradation Neutrality: The Target Setting Programme’ (Report, 2016); UNCCD, ‘A Natural Fix: A Joined-up Approach to Delivering the Global Goals for Sustainable Development’ (Report, 2016).

[76] These commitments are set out in E F Ortiz and G Tang, ‘Review of the Management, Administration and Activities of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)’ (Joint Inspection Unit, United Nations, Geneva, 2005); ‘UNCCD Issues and Challenges’, above n 4.

[77] Alan Grainger, ‘Is Land Degradation Neutrality Feasible in Dry Areas?’ (2015) 112 Journal of Arid Environments 14, 16.

[78] Minelli, Erlewein and Castillo, above n 51, 90.

[79] Easdale, above n 16.

[80] Ibid 131.

[81] Ibid.

[82] See ibid 132.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Philippe Cullet, Differential Treatment in International Environmental Law (Routledge, first published 2003, 2016 ed).

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid 87; Duncan French, ‘Developing States and International Environmental Law: The Importance of Differentiated Responsibilities’ (2000) 49 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 35.

[87] Cullet, above n 84, 36–8.

[88] This is supported by the general principle of cooperation under Article 55 of the UN Charter.

[89] Cullet, above n 84, 173, 182.

[90] Ibid 48.

[91] Ibid.

[92] See discussion in Part II above.

[93] 2018–2030 Strategic Framework, Annex, arts 8, 9(a), 11.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Anette Reenberg, ‘Insistent Dryland Narratives: Portraits of Knowledge about Human–Environmental Interactions in Sahelian Environmental Policy Documents’ (2012) 20 West African Journal of Applied Ecology 97.

[96] Ibid 109.

[97] Marybeth Long Martello, ‘A Paradox of Virtue? “Other” Knowledges and Environment-Development Politics’ (2006) 1 Global Environmental Politics 114, 136.

[98] Easdale, above n 16, 131. See also A Linstädter et al, ‘The Importance of Being Reliable: Local Ecological Knowledge and Management of Forage Plants in a Dryland Pastoral System (Morocco)’ (2013) 95 Journal of Arid Environments 30.

[99] The Global Mechanism and Mirova, ‘Land Degradation Neutrality Fund: An Innovative Fund Project Dedicated to Sustainable Land Use’ <>.

[100] L Pingeot, ‘In Whose Interest? The UN's Strategic Rapprochement with Business in the Sustainable Development Agenda’ (2015) 13 Globalizations 188.

[101] Felix Creutzig, ‘Govern Land as a Global Commons’ (2017) 546 Nature 28.

[102] Ben Boer, ‘Land Degradation as a Common Concern of Humankind’ in Federico Lenzerini and Ana Filipa Vrdoljak (eds), International Law for Common Goods: Normative Perspectives on Human Rights, Culture and Nature (Bloomsbury, 2014) 289; Dinah Shelton, ‘The Common Concern of Humanity’ (2009) Iustum Aequum Salutare 33.

[103] Boer, above n 102, 303

[104] Ibid 303.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Ibid 293.

[107] Above n 2.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Akhtar-Schuster et al, above n 46, 11–12.

[110] Susan Biniaz, ’10 Questions to Ask About the Proposed “Global Pact for the Environment”’ (Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School, August 2017) 2.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Ibid.

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