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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 757

Senator CHAPMAN (9.58 a.m.) —I move:

  That the following matter be referred to the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs for inquiry and report:

The intention of the Federal Government, in October 1994, following the final negotiating session in Paris, to sign the `International Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa', with particular reference to:

  (a)the effect in Australia of the use of international conventions and the external affairs power to control land management and the impact of exposure to potential liability at international law;

  (b)the impact of the convention on rural, pastoral and mining communities in relation to land management;

  (c)the impact of the convention on productivity, income, exports and trade competitiveness with respect to rangelands, farmlands, mining and tourism industries and its effects for rangelands, farmlands, mining and tourism industries; and

  (d)the implications for Australia of the Government submitting a national action plan under the convention.

Earlier this year a comprehensive analysis of desertification was undertaken, entitled `Desertification—Exploding the Myth'. United Nations propaganda has been exposed by authors David Thomas, a dryland geomorphologist from the University of Sheffield, UK, and Nick Middleton, desert researcher and science writer from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, as being part of an institutional myth created by the United Nations for the United Nations. They claim that repetition and publicity have developed the institutional myth into institutional fact.

  Thomas and Middleton examine and expose the myth of the `global process of desertification' as eco-bureaucratic politics which has misused science to create a global environment issue which in reality exists only on a much smaller scale. This is just a sample of what they had to say:

The lack of scientific foundation of early quantification attempts, doubts surrounding the conceptualisation of desertification as the advancing desert front, and the lack of clarity of the processes involved have not prevented politicians from using information based on these approaches to indicate the severity of the problem.

Scientists have questioned the developing myths but it is not until now that their voices have begun to be widely heard and increasingly accepted above the clamour created by the United Nations Environment Program publicity machine.

Following the fifth negotiating session in Paris for the Elaboration of an International Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on 17 June 1994 adopted the final text and advanced text of two resolutions on interim arrangements and urgent action for Africa.

  Annexes to the convention will apply to affected regions, initially Africa, but will also include Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean and North Mediterranean regions. Australia, as an affected developed country, along with other developed countries similarly affected, will not receive assistance but will be expected to provide assistance as set out in the terms of the convention.

  The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Gareth Evans, indicated in a press release dated 22 June 1994 the Australian government's intention to sign this convention in October of this year. Fifty countries are required to ratify the convention before it can enter into force. This is not anticipated to occur until 1996. However, one of the resolutions passed for Africa calls for a sixth session of the committee to be held in January 1995 and appeals to governments and organisations to make voluntary contributions to extrabudgetary funds to support interim arrangements—including continuation of existing programs—pending entry into force of the convention, that is, prior to the convention becoming legally binding.

  In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro—mandated by UN General Assembly resolution 44/228 in December 1989—identified desertification as a global environmental issue in chapter 12 of agenda 21. Following cabinet approval, agenda 21 was signed on behalf of Australia by the former environment minister, Ros Kelly.

  This action itself in 1992 was criticised strongly in a report by the Centre for International Economics commissioned by key industry groups, including the Business Council of Australia and the Confederation of Australian Industry. The report warned the government against signing agenda 21 because of hidden dangers in the 800-page text containing hundreds of policy initiatives and activities, many of which were likely to have important implications for domestic policy. The report recommended:

. . . at the very least Australia would need to assert that it reserves the right to evaluate each of the hundreds of suggested initiatives and actions through the proper domestic policy process before agreeing to their introduction. . .

not to do so would amount to an abrogation of the principles of democratic process in favour of rule by international bureaucrats.

Agenda 21 is a framework plan with political commitment to pursue a set of goals. It is soft law, that is, not a legally binding document; and, as such, Australia is under no obligation to sign this convention. Chapter 12, which is included in section 2, `Conservation and Management of Resources for Development', is directed to `combating desertification and drought'.

  In 1991 Alan Boyle, in the Journal of Environmental Law, wrote that some scepticism regarding the actual performance of the institutional model was appropriate. He said:

In practice, many of the institutions created to fulfil this fiduciary role have proved disappointingly inadequate.

He went on to say:

Their basic weakness has tended to be an inability to reach agreement on difficult issues or to ensure the full participation of all the states most closely concerned.

Boyle described the move to allow the majorities of states to impose regulations on dissenting minorities as `radical'. This is at odds with Senator Evans's thinking when he said, during an address to the Queensland branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in 1990, that the approach to international environmental issues is `an integral part of the broader foreign policy interests we have in being—and being seen to be—a good international citizen.' He went on to say:

Global cooperation is not some idealistic indulgence but a pressing necessity. . . environmental problems, if unchecked, could threaten our security.

He said that this was to justify `the imperative to help resolve global and regional environmental problems.' This is all well and good but, as Boyle pointed out, only the European Economic Community has moved in this direction and the results, to say the least, have been questionable.

  On 6 July this year Radio National broadcast an interview with an Irish farmer, Allan Wallis, who claimed that a breach of an EEC directive to leave paddocks lie fallow for 10 years could be detected by satellite imaging, exposing farmers to criminal charges. Could this happen here? Do Australian farmers want a UN committee based in New York telling them when to plant, what to plant and which paddocks to leave lying fallow? I suspect not, and let me suggest that the answer of those farmers would most certainly be a resounding no. In the same speech Senator Evans stated:

. . . within the Environment Assistance Program I have approved a supplementary contribution of $300,000 to the United Nations Environment Programme above and beyond our current core contribution to UNEP of $340,000.

Seventy thousand dollars of these funds were identified for desertification control to deploy Australian expertise in the prevention of land degradation in South-East Asian countries. These were 1990 figures, but the question remains: if we are already providing this aid, why do we need this convention? In 1987 the World Convention on Environment and Development noted:

There is a growing need for effective international cooperation to manage ecological and economic interdependence. Yet at the same time, confidence in international organisations is diminishing and support for them is dwindling.

This push to have international bureaucracies deal with environmental problems may only result in more costs, divisive debate and increased tensions over national sovereignty, and serve to unnecessarily politicise technical issues and allow individual governments to avoid responsibilities for their actions.

  The Keating government has not yet completed its environmental agenda at the national level—for example, the national rangeland strategy. The Rio Earth Summit and its outcomes have been considered by many as a salve to the global environmental conscience. This Labor government has used international fora to comprehensively extend and radically transform domestic politics.

  It has been suggested by legal academic Colin Howard that the biodiversity convention already ratified by Australia creates the power for the government to legislate for rural land management control, given the broad definition of biodiversity under that treaty.

  In a paper entitled UNCED and the External Affairs Power, Howard claimed that implementation of the biodiversity convention would `comfortably cover the nationalisation of farming, or at least total government control of land use for pastoral and agricultural purposes'.

  Not only has the credibility of desertification as a matter of global environmental concern been questioned but the credibility of UNEP itself has been questioned. Its agenda appears to have more to do with African aid than global environmental concern.

  While many Australians, including me, have compassion for Africa, most recently for the horrific tragedy taking place in Rwanda, we should not confuse what is fundamentally an aid issue, quite possibly appropriate for Africa but inextricably linked to the global ecobureaucracy, with rural land management and environmental issues which may be inappropriate for Australia. The signing of this convention creates the link for this to occur.

  Instead of using Australia's strength in contributing via an exchange of technology for the global good by means which would allow for some attempt at democracy, the government, with one flourish of a pen, exposes Australia to a regime which not only undermines its sovereignty and converts land management from a state issue to a federal issue but also subjects its citizens to unknown potential dangers.

  This is done without conferring with other than eight so-called experts who comprised the Australian delegation. The Australian delegation's role in the negotiations was to protect Australian interests within ministerially approved guidelines. Did the Australian delegation consider the efficacy of Australia's participation at all in this convention?

  Treaties are not necessarily bad. Australia has derived benefits from many bilateral and multilateral treaties. Executive privilege used wisely is a useful tool for government. What is offensive, however, is the Labor government's persistent abuse of the external affairs power under section 51(xxix) of the constitution. In relation to this issue, when former senator and then environment minister Graham Richardson was asked in the Senate whether he would use the external affairs power to control land use, he refused to give a guarantee that the government would not.

  Let there be no mistake here: the signing of this convention creates a legislative capacity for the government. Historically, this Labor government has used that legislative capacity under the auspices of treaties as a backdoor method of introducing legislation, often overriding state laws in the process. Land management has traditionally been the preserve of the states. The government is abetted in its quest by the courts, which have expansively interpreted the government's intentions in signing treaties and, by such interpretation, have incorporated into Australian common law bodies of international law without the need for legislation.

  This is a deceptive attempt by the federal government to take rural land management control from the states. It is done under the altruistic disguise of providing other countries with the `benefit of our experience and expertise in the development of resource management policies and technology'. That is a quote from Minister for Resources Beddall. Such language is attractive to the public conscience but detracts attention from the real issue.

  Experience and expertise in relation to land resources, programs to address land degradation and provision of technology to assist ecologically sustainable development can be provided without the need to expose Australia to international law. If aid is required, then why not be honest and call it aid? Australia has a strong record of providing aid in many forms to many countries, without being prompted by an international obligation. Technology exchange can be achieved without being signatory to a convention which has such clouded origins and agendas. A seemingly innocuous treaty, signed under the auspices of the UN, has enormous ramifications for rural, pastoral, tourism and mining communities in this country; and some of those potentially affected communities are not too happy about it.

  There is an increasing groundswell of interest in and concern about this convention. My call for a Senate inquiry into this matter has been supported at many levels. Both the South Australian Farmers Federation and the New South Wales Farmers Association passed unanimous resolutions at their recent annual conferences to have this matter examined by parliament, notwithstanding that the government is able to sign this treaty currently without examination or public or parliamentary scrutiny.

  Individuals have written supporting the inquiry on the basis of protecting Australia's sovereignty and hard won freedoms from international laws and vague foreign committees. Ten national associations—the National Farmers Federation, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Australian Mining Industry Council, to name just a few of them—jointly signed a paper calling for parliamentary scrutiny of treaties, including this desertification convention.

  The Australian people have been denied any avenue for expressing their concerns. A Senate inquiry is necessary to provide an opportunity and a forum for the expression of those concerns, and for the committee to examine the text of this convention in the light of public submissions and Australia's resultant obligations in the context of existing Australian programs for arid-land management. At the very least, interested parties should be given some indication as to how the convention obligations might be implemented. Will the government introduce a national action plan? If so, the National Farmers Federation will oppose ratification of this treaty. The National Farmers Federation has stated that Australia's programs for sustainable agriculture and the use of rangelands:

. . . must not be put at risk of being re-opened in order to prepare a National Action Program. Not only the Australian delegation, but several delegations were uncomfortable with the concept of a National Action Program to be imposed by central authorities.

The NFF has also stated that Australia's progress in becoming a world leader in combating desertification has been achieved without the existence or intervention of multilateral processes.

  One of the most pressing reasons for this inquiry is that desertification itself suffers from misconceptions of definition, causes and treatment. Scientific evidence to support theories of desertification is scant and, where it exists, is hotly disputed. Strong arguments have been put forward which indicate that the UN has manipulated dubious scientific evidence and orchestrated a massive publicity campaign to place desertification on the global environmental agenda. The term `bottom up approach', bandied so widely by protagonists of this convention to describe the importance of participation of local groups in land care management, itself commends a local rather than an international approach. Causes of desertification are varied. Origins may be political, social, demographic and climatic. Causes of desertification in one region may be quite different from causes in another.

  In the July-August 1994 issue of United Nations Review, the UN perpetuates its own falsely based propaganda, claiming that `the livelihoods of over 900 million people in some 100 countries are threatened by the degradation of fragile lands' and that this `seems to be occurring at an accelerated rate globally'. Following a major review in 1984 by the UN of the action against deserts, Mostafa Tolba, then executive director of UNEP, made claims based on statistics which have since been vehemently disputed by scientists.

  Figures used by the UN were obtained from a questionnaire sent out by the UNEP in 1982, at the height of drought. Those countries completing the questionnaire also were aware that an exaggeration of the problem would attract more aid dollars to the cause. Hugh Lamprey, commissioned by the UNEP, provided figures on the southward march of the Sahara which were later found to be misleading by the environment arm of the World Bank, because Lamprey `failed to distinguish between temporary effects of drought on the boundaries of the desert and any permanent "desertification"'. Subsequently, the UNEP's terms of reference were expanded to contain the words `mitigate against the effects of drought'.

  Thomas and Middleton note that the general assessments carried out in 1984 `can be noted for their lack of scientific foundation, lack of rigour, lack of consistency and lack of a clear definition or methodological foundation'. They went on to say:

UNEP was not afraid of using the poorly defined statistics to show just how severe desertification was and to keep the political pot boiling.

The Institute of Development Studies claimed that definitions of the problem of desertification led to `big public policies being based on very little bits of science'. The International Institute for Environment and Development, a UN-funded agency based in London, claimed that the term `desertification' was `deeply flawed'. Thomas and Middleton also stated:

In the field of overseas development aid, many a project has been established and financed in the name of desertification which in fact has relatively little to do with the problem.

They went on:

irrespective of whether claims for desertification's rampant progress can be substantiated, they continue to be made, for without the claims and the awareness that they engender, the work of the institutions and individuals making the claims becomes suspect.

The director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University and president of the Arab Society for Desert Research, Farouk El-Baz, described the UNEP announcement that `the desert is eating up 62,000 square kilometres of fertile land each year because of human activity', which `means that the Sahara, encompassing about nine million square kilometres of the driest land on Earth, would double in size in 145 years', as `an impossible inference'.

  He went on to say that the UNEP, the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development, following the Sahel drought of 1968 to 1973, drilled deep wells near towns, resulting in the quadrupling of the population because nomadic people settled near the wells. The nomads and their herds lived in an area that could not support their large numbers and real degradation of the environment began.

  Pierre Crosson and Norman Rosenberg in an article in the Scientific American stated:

UNEP data . . . suggests desertification is a major problem in the world today. Yet all such global estimates must be taken with more than a few grains of salt . . . They depend on the definition of desertification, which may vary . . . accurate estimates of degradative processes are not available . . . Even areas which have been subject to desertification are not necessarily lost to agriculture forever. The overwhelming share of the land reported to the UNEP is rangeland . . . Events in the Sahelian zone of Africa provide a striking example.

Comparative data in 1980 and 1984 showed:

the `Green Wave' appears each year as vegetation is revived by seasonal rains . . . extended drought and overgrazing have made the Sahel a heavily `desertified' region, but even there, the process is reversible.

Further findings concluded:

no major shifts in the northern limit to cultivation were identified, no major changes in position of sand dune fields and no trend in the creation or growth of denuded patches


no major changes in vegetation or crop productivity were identified which could not be explained by the variability of rainfall.

  In central Africa, satellite photographs taken in 1975 of the shores of Lake Chad which signalled degradation of land revealed that the degradation was the result of the tracks of countless vehicles at a favourite showplace for representatives of international aid agencies—not, as was originally interpreted, the result of denuded vegetation exposing sand that could drift away.

  The Sahel drought from 1968 to 1973 was followed by six years of rain and then drought again in 1980. As recently as a fortnight ago, floods occurred in previously drought stricken Ethiopia. Scientific evidence indicating the Sudanese desert encroachment to be advancing at a rate of 90 to 100 kilometres annually, as claimed by UNEP, was found to be misleading and, according to Thomas and Middleton, amounted to `little more than hollow political statements used to drum up concern; these are guesstimates or, at best, estimates'. Thomas and Middleton accuse UNEP of `blurring the distinction between desertification and other forms of land degradation outside the dryland realm' in its `enthusiasm to publicise the issue'.

  The UNEP's presentation of data illuminating the magnitude of the problem primarily for political purposes and treating the issue as a global problem is inappropriate given the localised nature of desertification. The UN has been criticised for using desertification to attract funds and actions to `wider political issues affecting relevant developing nations'.

  The term `desertification' through the 1980s became associated with vague concepts for dryland development aid. Many development schemes were established in the name of desertification. Project spending on desertification from 1978 to 1983 by four multilateral agencies—the World Bank, FAO, UNESCO and UNEP—and the United States Agency for International Development totalled $10,000 million, or an average of $1,667 million a year. However, only 10 per cent of this money was spent on direct field control of desertification. The remainder was channelled into projects described under the wider heading of rural development—water supplies, feeder roads, establishment of seed multiplication facilities, and control of animal diseases. Some projects, aimed at reducing animal losses and digging more wells, may make desertification, as it is currently understood, actually worse.

  The assessment of how much land turns into desert each year hinges largely on definitions. One definition is that desertification is a `complex process of pulsing deteriorations emanating not from the desert margins but radiating out from centres of excessive population pressure'. The main pressure is not the spread of sand dunes, but the spread of people.

  El-Baz claims that misuse of land, use of trees for firewood and overgrazing attributed to local inhabitants as a major cause of desertification has created one of the most prevalent misconceptions of modern times. Desert dwellers, sensitive to their environment long before colonialism, developed strict rules for grazing. He claims that numerous aid projects initiated by genuine concern and subsidised for the purpose of economic development fell into the trap of assuming that outside experts know the desert better than local inhabitants. Ecological colonialism is equated to foreign meddling. Alan Durning and Holly Brough, in an article appearing in State of the World 1992 stated:

Pastoralists have been accused wrongly of overstocking and destroying range. The Zaghawa of Niger have systems to control rangeland use, they move their animals north to wet season Saharan pastures in separate parallel paths, leaving ungrazed strips for their return treks. Pastoralists are victims, not culprits of environmental degradation. Human population growth is a chief cause.

In referring to the Sahel, the authors stated:

Perhaps the most damaging misconception guiding livestock development in Africa was the belief that common ownership of rangeland was inhibiting production and causing degradation.

Aid agencies recommended dividing the land. This led to accelerated land degradation and exacerbated social inequities. The authors commented:

Flawed policies and failing institutions channel livestock production in environmentally damaging and inequitable ways.

Many damning articles have appeared in the scientific press over the past few years. Controversy over the issue has raged since the mid-1970s. Causes of desertification attributable to population expansion in Africa are hardly relevant to Australia. Australians need to be assured that basic research is accurate if we are to participate. This may be difficult given the potential for differences of opinion over funding arrangements.

  During the fifth negotiating session of the convention, the negotiating delegates opposed the request for new and additional resources to be committed. The United States, Japan and the European Union defeated a proposal to commit further funds to finance the implementation of the convention. However, the text does require developed countries to mobilise substantial financial resources and urges developed countries to pursue the possibility of funding anti-desertification action through the global environment facility.

  The interim action for Africa, which is the subject of a separate resolution adopted at the final session, requires urgent action for Africa and encourages African and donor countries to strengthen their partnership on anti-desertification action. This new wording provides scope for developed countries like Australia to determine the way in which they choose to respond and whether to submit a national action plan or not. This means that, with the exception of the African and north Mediterranean countries, for which the term `as appropriate' has been omitted from their annex, there is no firm obligation, even on affected developing countries, to prepare national action plans. One is left to wonder how implementation will occur and how the allocated funding will be spent. The National Farmers Federation representative accompanying the Australian delegation stated:

The Convention negotiations placed more emphasis on North/South aid issues, especially to Africa, than environmental protection. Scientific issues, including theories about a "desertification" phenomenon and the relative importance of natural and human factors behind dryland degradation, generally took a back seat.

Thomas and Middleton state that the lion's share of the money raised—and I quote:

. . . goes to the employment of consultants and experts, their fees and field work expenses. Too little reaches local communities, and all too often development programme failures have been put down to a lack of community participation.

One begins to see the desertification umbrella under which a range of other social and political issues are sheltered. One also discovers that there is credence to the criticisms levelled by Thomas, Middleton and others.

  Australia does have a long way to go in terms of solving our own problems with drought and arid land management before we become a benefactor to the rest of the world. International preoccupation with long-term global problems comes at the expense of more mundane but urgent ecological crises. Certainly, the Australian government should reconsider its involvement in this convention. Historically, Australian parliaments have not scrutinised international treaties prior to signing. In this instance, where the criteria put forward as the basis for the treaty are in doubt, the situation should be changed. I urge the Senate to support my motion.(Time expired)