World Mayors urge debt cancellation

by Ramesh Jaura

Bonn, Jun 13 -- Some 300 mayors and technical experts from 69 countries around the world have called for writing off the debts of the poorest among developing nations.

The appeal emerged from the two-day World Forum of Mayors on Cities and Desertification, which concluded here Saturday, just one week ahead of the summit meeting of the seven major industrial nations - the US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy - as well as Russia, at Cologne (Jun 18- 20).

Summing up the discussions, Baerbel Dieckmann, mayor of the city of Bonn and host to the forum said, "Nations and cities should invest their capital for sustainable development instead of paying for bad decisions made in the past by all partners - from the North and the South."

The world forum of mayors in Bonn was the second since the one held in Rome in October 1997 and was attended by representatives of cities as remote and different as Timbuktu and Havana, Samarkhand and Abidjan, Cape Town and Marrakesh, Dakar and Minsk, Bhopal and Jericho, La Paz and Hebron, Bonn and Bukhara, Ulan Bator and Bucaramanga.

The forum was organised by the city of Bonn in cooperation with the secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (CCD), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the city of Rome.

An important issue discussed by the participants was the need for funds to tackle desertification around the globe, which is costing $4,200 million every year and, if left unchecked, might force countries worldwide to spend more and more of their scarce resources on humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

Addressing the forum, Fawzi H Al-Sultan, president of the Rome- based IFAD, said the knowledge, experience and tools to halt and even reverse land degradation and desertification were now at hand.

The U.N. Convention on Combating Desertification offered a solid basis to generate complementary actions on the scale required. But the major task was to mobilise the necessary resources.

"Unfortunately, even as our ability to address poverty and environmental degradation has grown, the resources available are falling," lamented Al-Sultan. "ODA flows in particular have shown a major decline over the last few years" - and make up only about $5,000 million last year, compared to more than $6,000 million less than a decade ago.

Tackling land degradation is essential to achieving the internationally agreed target of reducing the numbers of people in absolute poverty by half by the year 2015. However this target would not be achieved "unless the hundreds of millions of poor farmers and herders living in zones prone to desertification can be helped to attain more sustainable livelihoods," said the IFAD president.

Around three million people are estimated to be leaving their homes every year because their land can no longer support them. Most are finding their way to the cities.

Expanding on the issue, Hama Arba Diallo, executive secretary of the Bonn-based CCD, said: "Only through enhanced international cooperation and the full participation of all levels of society and government can dryland degradation be successfully reversed."

Diallo urged the municipalities to become "key players in the promotion of sustainable development and in managing a more harmonious and productive relationship between cities and countryside".

"Cities in countries affected by desertification and drought, and cities in developed countries that are parties (to the CCD) may both be confronted with the direct and indirect consequences of desertification," he said.

The deputy minister at the BMZ, Uschi Eid, added: "Combating desertification must become part of a comprehensive policy for environmentally and socially compatible urban development which includes the surrounding areas."

Such a policy, she added, called for approaches which are interactive and based on partnership, with citizens involved in decision-making processes.

The CCD, negotiated as part of the Rio process, which came into force at the end of 1996, had created an internationally binding framework under which countries affected by desertification, in particular countries in Africa and the industrialised states, could work together, Eid added.

Participants in the forum agreed that desertification was not just a rural issue. It could reach well beyond areas affected by land degradation - 30% of the earth's land surface is affected by the degradation of fragile drylands.

The lifestyle and consumption pattern of the cities in the North generates a demand for resources which, unless they are managed sustainably, can contribute to land degradation.

There was all the reason, therefore, said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to "curb the urban footprint and reduce the pressure of the North on the South". (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).