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Canada Was Wrong To Withdraw From Desertification

04/09/2013 05:17 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Nora Busienei closed her eyes and smiled as she remembered years past when her small farmhouse burst at the seams with sacks of maize, beans, millet and pumpkins.

"I would stare at our harvest. I was so happy, so confident in my children's future," she said, before her smile faded. "That feels like another world now."

Today her mud hut in Pimbiniet, Kenya, is full of nothing but choking smoke from the cook fire. On the day our team visited, Busienei's three-year-old daughter, Chelangat, sat on her lap, playfully swinging her legs. Each kick sent up a cloud of dry dirt. Busienei's once lush farm fields have been dry and dead for five years. The pot bubbling on the fire contains only tea -- it's all Busienei has left to feed her children.

This is what the consequences of desertification looks like, up close.

On Monday, March 25, Canada quietly served notice to the United Nations that it is quitting the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Our country walked away from the 190-nation group working to identify the causes of desertification and develop solutions.

Many voices have since weighed in citing facts and figures, and the potential impact on Canada's international reputation. However the voices absent from the debate are those of the estimated two billion people like Busienei watching their livelihoods dry up with the land.

Last month, a massive dust storm wailed out of the Gobi Desert leaving people gasping in Beijing and even across the ocean in Los Angeles. The Sahara Desert is swelling southwards by as much as 48 kilometres every year.

The UN estimates that a quarter of all the Earth's land is threatened with desertification -- when arid regions degrade into desert. Desertification is the result of droughts caused by climate change, and human activities like deforestation and overgrazing of livestock that expose the soil to erosion. Half the world's poor live in arid regions at risk of desertification, according to a 2005 UN report.

Busienei and her husband were the proud owners of an acre of fertile land, bringing in a yearly harvest sufficient to feed the couple and their nine children, and generating enough income to send their older children to school.

In 2008 drought struck and the family experienced their first crop failure. Busienei's husband left to find work and they haven't heard from him since. Last year, Busienei sold the family goat for seeds in a desperate, last ditch gamble that the rains would return and give her a harvest. The bet did not pay off. Buseinei can only afford to send her daughter Chebet to school. But Chebet has spent so much time simply helping the family search for food that she has fallen a year behind her classmates.

Already two of Busienei's nine children have died from illnesses. Her 18-year-old son, Wesley, suffers seizures. He fell into the fire during a seizure two years ago and was badly burned. Busienei sold most of her land to pay for his treatment but is still in debt to the hospital.

On most days the only food Busienei gives her children is a cup of tea with a dollop of goat's milk that she buys from others. To afford this, she illegally cuts down trees to make and sell charcoal. This gradual deforestation increases the speed of desertification in the area, but there is little else she can do.

"Without good soil and reliable rainfall, what good is the land? I have always trusted my farm to provide for me. Now without my farm, who do I look to?" she said, looking out over a dustbowl that was once rich farmland.

While there is little that can be done to restore land that has degraded completely into desert, it is possible to prevent the spread of desert conditions and help communities adapt. The Government of Turkmenistan launched a massive nation-wide initiative to plant 755,000 trees to stop the spread of its deserts. Farmers like Busienei can learn improved agricultural techniques and plant hardier crop varieties.

The Government of Canada justified its departure from the Convention to Combat Desertification by saying the UN body is a "talkfest" -- and arguing only 18 per cent of Canada's $300,000 annual contribution is used for actual programs to fight desertification and assist affected communities. There may well be some validity to that concern. The UN's second scientific conference on desertification -- being held this week in Bonn, Germany -- looks like it will produce little more than discussion documents.

But walking away accomplishes nothing either. The UN Convention was created because desertification is a global problem exacting a dire toll on billions of people like Busienei. As one of the world's wealthiest nations, Canada needs to be part of the solution.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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