**By Jutta Wolf**

Explaining the significance of the gathering, Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), said: “Land degradation often begins with deforestation, but leads to many other ills that we then try to address independent of each other. The spirit and mindset of the first African Drylands Week shows a paradigm shift that is emblematic of what the international community, as a whole, must do to surmount the grave environmental challenges facing us.”

“Shedding our individual environmental blinders, will lead us to a holistic view of our environment, and a better identification of the sources, not symptoms, of such global environmental diseases,” he added.

The First Africa Drylands Week and this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification are part of 2011 International Year of Forests celebrating forests for people. The arid zone forests support the livelihoods of a large proportion of its two billion people inhabitants of the drylands.

Overall deforestation has declined globally, but persists in Africa and South America, according to the FAO’s 2010 Global Forests Resource Assessment. The pressure on arid zone forests and the rangelands that protect them may increase, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, from two opposing forces, according to the Assessment.

There is therefore a global campaign to conserve the moist tropical forests for carbon sequestration, on the one hand, and the need to open up new land for agriculture to meet a growing global demand for biofuels, food and poverty eradication on the other. Increasingly, this pressure is being eased by reverting to the drylands.

“Known variously as arid lands forests, tropical dry forests and the low forest cover countries, the trees in drylands sustain the land and have come to mean the difference between living in abject poverty and a sustainable livelihood,” Gnacadja said. “We are particularly inspired by the testimony of the farmers in Africa’s Sahel region on the importance they have come to attach to dryland forests and their own existence,” he added.

The peasant farmers in southern Niger recall that in the 1980s, they had to plant their crops three or four times each planting season because the plants were buried by wind-blown sand. Today, they typically plant only once because the forests now protect the seed, according to a 2009 paper by researchers working with the International Food and Policy Research Institute.

Moreover, the trees they plant produce, at least, a six-month supply of fodder for on-farm livestock, as well as firewood, fruit and medicinal products for home consumption or cash sales. These results have inspired the farmers in this region to forest over 5 million hectares — an area about the size of Costa Rica or Slovakia — on their own initiative.

Gnacadja noted that the rest of the world is also enjoying the spill-over benefits from the achievement of these barefoot foresters. “Their forests absorb the excess carbon in the air and are important biodiversity sanctuaries; and the peasants are strengthening their own capacity to adapt to climate change. This is truly remarkable,” he said.

The First Africa Drylands Week will provide an opportunity for field visits, high-level panel discussions and workshops thus offering a platform for dialoguing and sharing knowledge around these issues, and the implementation of the biodiversity, climate change and desertification conventions.

A way forward and a joint plan to enhancing collaboration among different organisations and partners will be defined and next steps to upscale good practices will be discussed. An information kit on the drylands will be launched during the Week in addition to other activities.

Ahead of the Africa Drylands Week, the UNCCD secretariat in Bonn is organising ‘Land Day’ — a one-day event for policy makers and other stakeholders to engage informally, yet candidly, on new and emerging environmental issues s they relate to the land resource.

Focused on the issues to be considered at the next climate conference to be held in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011, Land Day — fourth in a series — will be held on June 11 The event builds on the gains made at the climate change conference held in Cancun, Mexico, in December 2010

The agreements reached on the Long-Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) in Cancun underscore the importance of action and international cooperation on adaptation that involves a broad range of stakeholders at the global, regional, national and local levels.

Land Day 4 participants will examine the policy implications of the latest climate change and sustainable development debates with regard to the land resource. Renowned experts, high-level government officials and business representatives will introduce the issues.

The gathering in Dakar will be joined by over 100 scientists, and representatives of government, international and civil society organisations from around the world. The speakers at the events will include: the UNCCD Executive Secretary; representatives of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); Professor Jeffery Sachs, Earth Institute of Columbia University; Dennis Garrity, ICRAF Director-General; and Godwin Kowero, Executive Secretary of the African Forest Forum and other dignitaries. Djibo Leity Ka, Senegal’s Minister of State, Ministry of Environment and Nature Protection, will preside over the World Day to Combat Desertification.

The First Africa Drylands Week and World Day to Combat Desertification are organized by the Government of Senegal, in collaboration with the African Union Commission, the National Great Green Wall Agency of Senegal, the Earth Institute of Columbia University, African Forest Forum, FAO, the UNCCD secretariat, the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD, the World Agroforestry Organization (ICRAF), the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), the Sahara and Sahel Observatory (OSS) and Wallonie-Bruxelles International (WBI), and co-funded by the European Commission.