Analysing the UNCCD COP-6

Lisa Schipper and Richard Sherman present a summary of the discussions and results of the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the Desertification Convention.

E Lisa Schipper is a doctoral candidate researching adaptation in the School of Development Studies and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom. Richard Sherman is a freelance consultant specializing in the multilateral sustainable development process. He is currently writing a book chronicling the process from a South African perspective. Both write for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

The Sixth Conference of the Parties (COP-6) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and Mitigate the Effects of Drought in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa, was held 25th August to 6th September 2003 in Havana, Cuba.

This Sixth Conference was the first major meeting since important decisions on UNCCD's implementation were taken at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in August 2002. It was also the UNCCD's first Conference of the Parties in two years, after parties decided to hold these meetings at two-year intervals rather than annually. COP-6 came after the Second Global Environment Facility Assembly in October 2002 and the first meeting of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention in November 2002.

In the final days, participants adopted the Havana Declaration of Heads of State; a peculiar statement that reflected the unique gathering of twelve heads of state from African, Latin American and Caribbean nations. Their message was more appropriately directed at the World Trade Organizations Fifth Ministerial conference which was to be held in nearby Cancún, Mexico, immediately following COP-6, rather than at the desertification process.

The presence of these leaders raised the political stakes at COP-6, but it is questionable how this meeting has impacted future efforts to combat desertification.

Beyond doubt, the most significant decision at COP-6 was the establishment of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) as a financial mechanism of the UNCCD. The GEF has already been adopted as a financial mechanism by the other Rio conventions, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The developing countries, in particular, welcomed this decision, for a moment forgetting the frustration they have expressed over the GEF in other places, for instance, within the UNFCCC context.

There are, however, details in the funding structures in the UNCCD that are not similar to that of the UNFCCC, and which do not allow for a level comparison. First, the relationship between the GEF and the UNCCD is not on the same status as that of “sister conventions” such as the UNFCCC or the Convention on Biological Diversity. Under these Conventions, the GEF serves as an operating entity and is, therefore, mandated to accept guidance from, and is accountable to, the COP, which then decides the policies, programmes, priorities and eligibility criteria for the purposes of the conventions.

The restructured GEF instrument, agreed to in Beijing in 2002, only affords “land degradation, primarily desertification and deforestation” recognition as a focal area for which the GEF can provide new and additional grants and concessional funding.

On the one hand, this limited relationship between the UNCCD Conference of the Parties and the Global Environment Facility might be advantageous from the point of view that UNCCD parties will not have to suffer lengthy negotiation processes seen under the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity in order to develop a memorandum of understanding between the COP and the GEF.

On the other hand, the memorandum of understanding process, which was strongly opposed by donor countries in Havana, is disadvantageous from the point of view that it will lead to the curtailing of non-donor parties influence and control over GEF operational programmes. This would very likely result in more frustration over the lack of implementation of the UNCCD's numerous financial commitments and the “real” delivery of resources.

The second detail which differs is that, under the UNCCD, the GEF is only one of several financial mechanisms, the other important one being the Global Mechanism. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that the majority of developed country delegations are headed by representatives from aid/development agencies, rather than political or technical experts, as in the UNFCCC. Bilateral donor agencies have a substantial presence and importance in UNCCD funding arrangements. What was evident at COP-6 was diminishing enthusiasm for multilateral support and a growing rift between multilateral and bilateral support.

In fact, donor countries, clearly frustrated by the onerous bureaucracy that multilateral processes bring, were keen to channel more funds into bilateral efforts. Additional evidence of this came in the conflict over the Regional Coordination Units, where developing countries were keen to maintain and bolster these units, thereby reinforcing the regional approach, whereas donor countries preferred to avoid supporting the Regional Coordination Units further, possibly preferring the bilateral model. This issue was left unresolved, and will be addressed again at COP-7. In Canada's closing statement, the delegation voiced intense frustration over the lack of evident transparency in the UNCCD process, saying Canada would not hesitate to redirect funds into bilateral programmes if the issue was not addressed.

A lack of transparency was evident on numerous levels in Havana, beginning with the election of the officers and the chair of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC). Before arriving in Havana, the CRIC-2 chair had been elected a minister in his own country, Benin, and in discussion with the UNCCD secretariat, but not with the CRIC Bureau, he had handed over the role to a fellow African from Mauritania. This resulted in the European Union requesting a discussion on the rules of procedure of the CRIC at COP-7 and a complex series of votes and debates before the selection of CRIC chairs and vice-chairs was resolved. An agreement on a regional rotation for chairs of the body was finally agreed to but it left the Western Europe and Others Group somewhat frustrated.

In the corridors, rumours about the lack of transparency of the operations of the UNCCD secretariat were also flying. The bitter battle surrounding the secretariats budget for 2004-5 demonstrated how some considered there to be an outrageous inflation in the budget, helped by mathematical adjustments giving an appearance of considerable financial requirements for the requests by parties to be fulfilled.

Donor parties said the budget documents were unclear and repeatedly asked for calculations to be redone. Parties views also differed: the African Group asking for a 35 per cent increase in the budget while the United States proposed no increase at all. The final agreement was a below-inflation rate increase of just five per cent for the next biennium.

Other areas where lack of transparency was raised included the participation of non- governmental organizations. Some participants wondered whether only organizations who are not overly critical of the secretariat were granted approval for attendance.

Although location is usually unimportant for such large meetings, where participants often find themselves negotiating in small, dark rooms until the early hours of morning, at COP-6 the host country was an important “political element” of the conference.

At COP-6, the Small Island Developing States had the opportunity to emphasize their problems of desertification more successfully than at previous meetings. The UNCCD is dominated by African countries, and while this is not entirely inappropriate, it has previously meant that other regions also experiencing problems addressed by the UNCCD have not received as much attention.

The profiling of the Small Island Developing States was not well received by the UNCCD's West African “mafia”, who perceived this as an attempt to divert vital financial resources away from their hallowed territory. With CRIC-3 in 2004 to focus specifically on Africa, the work done in Havana to address the problems of the Small Island Developing States and other regional concerns, might well come undone.

Another aspect of the location was the involvement of Fidel Castro, Cuba's “love-him-or-hate-him” unique leader, in the high-level segment. Castro was surrounded by what could be considered a collection of anti-World Trade Organization figures, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadine's Ralph Gonsalves. These heads of state gathered in round-table discussions that ultimately resulted in the Havana Declaration, which stresses peace, sustainable development, multilateralism and compliance with international law and has little seeming focus on desertification.

The roundtable discussions centred on general statements on land degradation, desertification, financial resources and sustainable development. Yet some of the leaders at COP-6 felt the World Trade Organization negotiations on the phase-out of northern trade and agriculture subsidies was somehow relevant to the specific issues of COP-6. Their constant references to “black gold” (oil), “yellow gold” (bananas) and “white gold” (cotton) meant that opportunity for a “spectacular” high-level dialogue on desertification was hijacked in favour of profiling developing country trade and economic issues in advance of the World Trade Organization conference in Cancún (Tiempo, Issue 49, September 2003, comments on the Cancun talks).

The high-level segment did not include any representatives from developed countries. Before anyone had arrived in Havana, rumour had it that the European ministers were intent on boycotting COP-6 because of what Europe had recently condemned as “human rights offences” by the Cuban Government. The European Union denied the gossip, noting that high-level participation on its part in the UNCCD process is not customary.

In summary, the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD was much more than had been expected of it. The rivetting high-level segment, where Chávez and Castro indulged in a lengthy dialogue was met with fascination, not protest. The conference raised the bar on the political importance of the desertification convention process. It does, though, remain to be seen whether desertification really has climbed in importance on the global sustainable development agenda. Can it can move beyond a small circle of vociferous developing country leaders to include higher levels of global representation?

The next Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD is scheduled to be held in Bonn, Germany, in October 2005. The next Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention meeting will be held in late 2004.

Further information
E Lisa Schipper, School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK. Email:
David Weber, Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1087, Amsterdam 1081 HV, The Netherlands. Email:

On the Web
Further information regarding COP-6 and the UNCCD can be obtained from: Earth Negotiations Bulletin at; Objectif Terre at; and the Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary Newswatch facility at