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Remarks at “World Day to Combat Desertification & Drought” and Signing Ceremony of Carbon Sequestration Phase III Addendum (2017 - 2022)

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Part 1: Introduction to the global situation regarding desertification and land degradation

There is possibly no greater issue than land in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals agenda.  It touches everyone.

From the food we eat, to the clothes we wear and the houses we live-in.  All this is based upon land resources.  And our management of these.

We all know about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals – or SDGs.  SDG Goal 15 – which is all about “Life on Land” – calls upon all countries of the world to combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation.

Today, around the world, about 1 billion people on the planet – in over 110 countries – are currently at risk of the consequences of desertification.  Over 250 million people are directly affected by desertification.  These people are often among the poorest and most-marginalized of citizens.

Here in Iran, over 20 per cent of the country’s land is exposed to desertification.  Deserts threaten 18 of our provinces.  And 97 of our cities.  And in these arid and semi-arid areas, desertification is increasing. 

The challenge of desertification is literally creeping up on us.  Some have called it “The Silent Earthquake of the Century”.

According to Iran’s own official estimates through the “Desert Potential Assessment,” when compared with other arid and semi-arid countries, Iran’s level of desertification is “high”.

There are two main drivers.  First the overall impact of climate change.  Second, desertification is driven directly by human activities such as:


Over-grazing – in many parts of Iran this has been caused when sheep herders let their flocks of goats and sheep overgraze the land.  Sometimes it is caused by villagers breaking off rangeland shrubs for firewood.

Excessive exploitation of underground water.

Contamination of aquifers.

Land conversion and mining operations.

and – finally – the uncontrolled exploitation of rangelands and arable lands.

Part 2: World Day to Combat Desertification

But we humans have, at last, recognized the halt and reverse combat desertification.

Today – 17 June – we commemorate the World Day to Combat Desertification (WDCD).

This day has been marked every year since 1995.  We use it to promote public awareness of international efforts to combat desertification. 

We use it to draw attention to the need to implement the UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification).

This is a convention which Iran ratified in April 1997.

The WDCD sends a strong message about how land contributes to the sustainability, stability and human security on our planet.

The theme for 2017 is “Our land. Our home. Our future.”

This year we examine the important link between land degradation and migration.

We give our attention to the power which the land holds in providing people with the opportunity and resilience to have a future on their home ground.  For, if there is over-competition for scarce resources, people will move in search of food – water – and energy.  In other countries, in recent years, this has caused institutional breakdown and conflict.

That is why halting and reversing desertification is a human security concern.

This theme of “Our land. Our home. Our future.” – underlines the central role which productive land can play in turning the growing tide of migrants who are abandoning their unproductive land.  We must help these communities to become sustainable, resilient and thus secure, into the future.

So, on this World Day to Combat Desertification we are gathered here to extend a highly successful initiative funded by the Government of Iran and the UN Development Programme.

It is called our “Carbon Sequestration Project”.  The Carbon Project gets its name from the fact that one of its side effects is the ability of the newly-re-greened areas capture and sequester carbon dioxide.  It is essentially a community-development-plus-environmental initiative.

Part 3: Linkages to the Sustainable Development Goals

Back in September 2015, the world adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  Iran was among these countries.  Indeed, President Rouhani attended the event along with many other world leaders, at the UN HQ in New York.

This momentous decision by 193 countries was a recognition of the fact that all people share one planet and individual countries cannot be assured of their own development, peace and security while ignoring how others are living. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that the world has a common destiny, which requires a common goal.  And this is what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) embody. 

As I mentioned, our subject today really relates to SDG 15.  And indeed, Iran also has good practices to share on SDG 15, as I will share with you shortly.  But there are other SDGs which we can contribute to through our efforts to combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation.  These include:

 Goal 6 – sustainable water – by combatting desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation we can improve water efficiency and quality.

 Goal 1 – end poverty – our future economic growth, prosperity and human well-being depend upon whether we are able to protect and restore our working landscapes.

 Goal 2 – end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.  The sustainable management and the restoration of our land resources are vital to enhance agriculture productivity, especially for small scale food producers.  

Goal 7 – clean and efficient energy. Climate change requires a rethink and bold moves towards renewable energy sources. Nearly 3 billion people in the world will need to rely on biomass for cooking and heating in 2030.  The sustainable management of land and water is pivotal to ensure a reliable, affordable and sustainable energy supply for all.  I have seen the excellent work Iran and the UN has done through our Carbon Sequestration project on this in Saveh.

Goal 13 – combatting climate change. If we improve how we manage land, we can reduce our emissions.  Low-emissions agriculture, agro-forestry and ecosystem conservation and restoration all have a role to play in reducing our emissions gap.  Currently Iran is the 9th largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Part 4: The FRWO-UNDP partnership

Now, for many years, the United Nations (specifically UNDP) has been working closely with the Government of Iran to support the sustainable management of its natural resources.  In this collaboration, the Forest, Rangelands and Watershed Management Organization has been our key partner.  Especially in efforts to promote sustainable development and combat desertification.  

For the past 20 years, FRWO and UNDP have worked hand-in-hand to implement several very successful development projects.  One of these is the Carbon Sequestration Project.

The success of this project stems from one thing mainly – the participatory approaches it has used.

Its achievements are too many to name them all, but have included:

  • local capacity building,
  • men and women’s economic empowerment,
  • small enterprise-job generation,
  • strengthening of alternative livelihoods, and
  • the participation of local villagers in the rehabilitation and management of their own degraded rangelands.

One of the project’s key achievements has been its ability to engage local community participation in all stages of the decision-making process.

If the shrubs and trees are planted with community engagement, it has been demonstrated that the cost of tree-planting drops to one-fifth of what it would cost the government if they hired private contractors. 

More than this, it comes with the all-important element of community buy-in and ownership.  It thus immediately becomes ‘Our’ project, not ‘Their’ project.

When hundreds of thousands of these shrubs grow in areas covering thousands of hectares, this creates a small biosphere which then allows other vegetation and wildlife to return.  Such newly-greened biospheres sustain people’s livelihoods in a number of ways.

The first is that vegetation in the microclimate helps to retain more moisture on the ground.  This in turn produces more vegetation. 

When the small trees disperse their seeds, the vegetation thickens. 

Farmers can then bring in livestock to eat leaves from the shrubs without damaging the plants themselves.  The overall ecological carrying capacity of the land increases.  This generates income for farmers and rangers.  People can sell produce from the trees and shrubs – be it resin or fruit.

The Carbon Project has addressed the fuel-wood problem by supplying residents with simple stoves fuelled by paraffin supported by the project.

But the real benefit in terms of sustainability is that the communities – once the source of the problem, through their overgrazing and fuel-wood “predation” – develop a strong sense of ownership and become the guardians of the land.

The results of this project – and I have evidence which I shall share shortly – have been so successfully demonstrated that were acknowledged and recognized at different levels (local, provincial and national) by a number of entities and authorities.

And now, after two phases and a few addendums, I’m really delighted to see that the “saplings” we planted together in our original pilot in Khorasan-e Jonubi have now “taken root” and “branched-out” to a grand total of 20 provinces.

And yet, there are even more requests of further expansion and up-scaling.

All this has been done – it has to be said – by the government with only modest support from UNDP.  This reflects the fact that Iran – as an Upper Middle Income Country – does not really need UNDP finance.  What it needs is our technical capacity and our demonstrated ability to implement successful projects.  We have a true partnership.

Here are some of the pictures from years of project implementation which I would like to share with you.  And here are some numbers.

The project which was first started in one village is now:

active in about 300 villages,

with 117,000 inhabitants,

more than 3 million hectares of Iran’s vulnerable land have been covered with rehabilitation activities.

During these years of implementation:

1,744 Village Development Groups (VDGs) were established.

113 of them are groups managed by women.

Women are taking part in more than 1,500 groups jointly with men.

The VDGs have more than 23,500 people as members.

These VDGs are directly involved in the sustainable development practices while a larger number of local people are participating in the implementation of action plans.

During the years of implementation, the initiative has not only been scaled-up but it has also evolved in a technical sense.

Now, I’m learning from our government partners that the activities are now extended to social initiatives such as building schools, libraries, and medical clinics in some of the pilot villages.

In this way, the project which was originally only supposed to mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon has now turned to a social mobilization mechanism for sustainable rural development.

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that the project has not only served environmental/natural resources purposes, but it has also successfully targeted economic targets at the village level.

Typically, combatting desertification and environmental initiatives are not expected to generate so much economic interest.

These types of initiatives are not usually economically self-sufficient.  They always tend to require injections of money.

But the Carbon Sequestration Project has quite amazingly been able to generate money and jobs while saving our invaluable Iranian environment.

And this is what world environmental conservation needs more of.

Initiative which:

  • combats desertification,
  • saves energy,
  • reduces emissions,
  • avoids soil erosion
  • …while also generating job opportunity and economic development.

Isn’t this a win-win solution?

I’ve also learnt from our government partners that in one of the new upscaling pilot areas – Ghaenan in Golestan province – there has been a net benefit of about US$3 million made during the very first year of project implementation to the benefit of local communities.

So, no wonder our Carbon Project is so successful in Iran.

That is why it is being upscaled in several provinces.

As you all know, the project was initially targeted at drylands but now has even been extended to deforested areas in the humid climate of Golestan Province (which is part of today’s expansion).

We combat desertification.  We re-afforest.  We grow the economy.

Now a few words on the Village Development Groups.  These are where people have the opportunity to sit together and discuss their priorities and design their future while also observing sustainability elements.  

Khorasan-e Shomali’s Provincial Governor-General has instructed all authorities to apply the Carbon sequestration model in all villages in the province and he’s secured required resources.

The project has even inspired the Lake Urmia restoration national committee.  And I’ve learned that with direct instructions from Mr. Kalantari, the model is replicated to save water in the Lake Urmia basin restoration programme.

The approach has even been adopted at the highest level in Iran’s 6th National Development Plan, showcasing the strength and versatility of this project model.  

So, today, we seek to continue along this successful path through the signing of an agreement for implementation of a 3rd phase.  

As demonstrated by the agreements we shall be signing today, the UN in Iran – and UNDP in particular – stands ready to continue to support the Government of Iran in obtaining technical support and sharing the necessary knowledge and technology to solve the problem of desertification.

As an indication, I am delighted to announce that the story of our Carbon Project – here in Iran – has been published in the UNDP partnership series as one of the top “10 Solutions to help meet the SDGs” in Asia and the Pacific.  We are launching this report here in Iran today as well.

What our Carbon Project is doing is exactly what UNCCD is looking for. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, today we are co-signing with our government partner a 5-year Addendum to the Carbon Project.  It is will expand the project into 5 new sites in 4 provinces (all of which we have been working in before.  He is a picture:

  • South Khorasan,
  • North Khorasan,
  • Yazd and
  • Golestan

It may even be further extended to additional provinces, if there is interest.

And the uniqueness of this agreement is that government is providing most of the funding.

UNDP’s contribution is less than 5 per cent.

But, as I noted, this reflects Iran’s status as an Upper Middle-Income Country which has sufficient funds to invest in development but only needs UNDP’s technical support.

I would like to congratulate the strong sense of ownership that the government is showing in this partnership.  I trust that this extension will not only deliver numerous results but it’ll turn into a new form of partnership in Iran between Iran and the UN.  I believe that Iran is strong enough to draw upon its own resources in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

I also believe that Iran – through these sorts of partnerships – will soon turn into a regional pioneer and a leader in combating desertification and sustainable development.  With models to share with the regional countries.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the role of Mr. Jalali’s leadership in this process.  I would also like to single out Dr. Garshashbi for his committed support to the project.  Mr. Kargar as National Project Director himself and his colleagues including Mr. Pouyafar as National Project Manager.  These men are so determined – so professional – so hardworking – and so passionate about our joint project.  We would certainly not have come this far and have achieved these fantastic results without their steadfast support. 

And of course, I recognize the role of the provincial managers and the respective FRWO Directors-General of pilot provinces who are at the front line of implementation – and most of whom are here today. 

Your daily involvement and actions are what is moving this initiative forward.

With all this support – and that of the thousands upon thousands of people at the community and village level, I really do believe that we are beginning to reverse the “Silent Earthquake”.

Last modified onSunday, 18 June 2017 20:29
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