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Creeping Deserts, Hidden Costs

Drought, poverty, creeping deserts and scarce drinking water headline a U.N.-sponsored conference on global development and the environment this week.

Delegates from 50 African, Caribbean and Latin American countries were evaluating the 1994 U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, which has been ratified by 180 countries but has spurred few to act.

Proposals to ensure the productivity of inhabited dryland will be submitted to an Aug. 24-Sept. 4 U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that expanding deserts affect more than 100 countries. An estimated 3.6 billion hectares (8.6 billion acres) of forest and jungle are turning into barren land, it said last year.

Drought episodes have increased over the last two decades. According to the private Worldwatch Institute, 1.1 billion people lack access to potable water.

Nature isn't wholly to blame, delegates said. Developing nation governments must help individual farmers — most of whom in Africa are women — to secure plots of land which they can nurture, help feed themselves, generate income and arrest desert creep.

"One of the biggest problems in the struggle against desertification ... is land ownership," said Venezuela's environment minister, Ana Elisa Osorio. "Desertification leads us to poverty. It's linked directly to nutritional security."

In Venezuela, an estimated 80 percent of 24 million people live in poverty. Sixty percent of the nation's arable land is owned by less than 1 percent of the population, the government says. Venezuela covers 912,000 square kilometers (352,145 square miles).

Osorio hailed Venezuela's controversial land reform program, which business leaders say threatens private property rights. President Hugo Chavez, who decreed a reform law in November, insists it will eliminate idle farmland and bolster prospects for the country's poor.
International agencies and developed nations must provide microcredits and technical advice to farmers in poor nations, Osorio said.

Venezuela has its own problems with drought, which has forced rationing in Caracas, the capital, and several states. The nation's electricity grid, heavily dependent on hydroelectric power, also faces rationing pressure.

The South American nation doesn't face desertification problems that threaten Cambodia, Chile, Cuba, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Morocco, Somalia, Turkey and Yemen, among other nations.

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