Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 41, Spring/Summer 1997
The CCD, Part II: Asia & Americas

The Convention to Combat Desertification: An NGO perspective from Central Asia

by Eric Sievers and Oleg Tsaruk

As of publication of this issue of ALN, only two CIS countries (both in Central Asia) have ratified or acceded to the CCD. What are some reasons for this cool reception, and how are local NGOs getting involved? This article proposes some answers.


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The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), comprising the former territories of the USSR, contains many regions which already suffer from or are highly prone to desertification. Yet, as of publication of this issue of the Arid Lands Newsletter (May 1997) the Convention to Combat Desertification has been ratified by only two Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, both of them in Central Asia. Uzbekistan was the 13th state to ratify the CCD, and Turkmenistan the 47th. Kazakstan, another Central Asian country, and Armenia and Georgia, in the Caucasus region, have also signed the convention, but have not yet ratified it. In addition, the Russian Federation, although it has neither signed nor ratified the CCD, was the most active CIS state during the drafting of the convention and continues to be an active participant in events surrounding the CCD. As for the rest of the CIS, desertification affects large territories of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, but the governments of these countries have not, as yet, taken any actions with regard to negotiating or ratifying the Convention. (Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan will, however, hold National Awareness Days for the CCD in 1997.)

Factors working against the CCD in Central Asian and Other CIS countries

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Given the severity of the problems of desertification in these CIS countries, what are some of the reasons for their cool reception of the CCD?

First, the difficult economic straits of these states virtually preclude their governments from assuming activist or even stable roles in international efforts. The majority of these states, since the disassembly of the Soviet Union, have faced tremendous economic difficulties in overcoming the consequences of sudden disintegration, even to the point of wavering near complete economic collapse. Clearly, they cannot consider funding activities related to international conventions when they cannot even fully fund their internal budgets. It is no accident that national anti-desertification action plans have as yet only been developed in Turkmenistan and Kazakstan: only those states have received external financial support for the development of such plans.

Political explanations should also not be ignored. For example, Tajikistan's severe civil war has been an obvious barrier to signing international conventions. In Russia, somewhat more subtly, politics have created a special dilemma. A country wanting to maintain its "Big Power" status cannot appear to be angling for some financial advantage. On the other hand, given the extent of its desertified territories, Russia, were it not to receive some such advantage, might feel little incentive to ratify the CCD. From the standpoint of the Russian government, this delicate balance of interests could be accommodated by an amendment to the convention covering countries in a "transitional economic period." In such a situation, Russia could be officially recognized as needing assistance without harming its image as a world power. Nevertheless, such an approach would be contrary to the interests of the majority of other participants in the convention, and it seems unlikely to us that many states would be willing to ratify or accede to the CCD under such conditions.

Still one more serious barrier preventing CIS countries from full participation in the CCD is a bureaucratic outlook that is a holdover from the days of the USSR. Information that comes into the possession of one agency does not often get shared with other potentially interested agencies, let alone with NGOs and the general public. Furthermore, while the text of the convention explicitly provides that NGOs must be encouraged to participate in the development of national anti-desertification action plans, this policy has not been followed to date. As a rule, these plans are developed by a small group of individuals; this group does not always contain specialists. Moreover, we have observed examples of some bureaucrats who are even prepared to deny that NGOs exist in their countries in order to avoid inviting them to participate in plan development.

How local NGOs got involved

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Not accidentally, the first information that NGOs in the CIS obtained about the CCD was not through government channels but through foreign NGOs. Primary thanks need to be given to Edit Tuboly from the Netherlands NGO Both Ends. In 1994, she sent a short summary of the convention and information on RIOD to all the NGO e-mail addresses she could find for the CIS. While we can't say how many NGOs responded or how active their interest was, a seed was clearly sown. Of course, anti-desertification was an issue for CIS NGOs before then. Environmental movements within the CIS, primarily founded by biology students, began during Soviet times, and several NGOs had already initiated anti-desertification programs. Yet the CCD brought new opportunities and a new impetus for action against desertification. However, to be honest, even now that articles on the subject have been published in many print and electronic NGO publications, the level of awareness in the NGO community in our countries about desertification issues is not very high. This situation is also understandable; after all, RIOD has a less than two year history in the CIS; RIOD's presence in the CIS began with preparations for the Asian RIOD Conference (Islamabad, Pakistan, January 1997).

One of the NGOs that responded to Edit Tuboly's letter was Uzbekistan's Ecolog, an organization that has played a key role in introducing Central Asian NGOs to RIOD. Ecolog, in cooperation with Asian RIOD conference coordinator SCOPE (Karachi, Pakistan), helped ensure the participation of Central Asian NGOs in the conference. Kazakstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were represented, although colleagues from Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan could not participate due to problems obtaining travel documents and/or funding. As a result of that event, several Central Asian NGOs became full participants in RIOD.

The limited resources of Ecolog prevented it from assuming the role of regional coordinating structure. Therefore, this responsibility was given to the recently formed International Central Asian Biodiversity Institute (Biostan). Biostan is an NGO that draws together environmental and sustainable development activists and specialists from the entire Central Asia region and beyond. Biostan has pushed RIOD not only in Central Asia, but throughout the CIS. Biostan representatives were active participants in a number of international working meetings, such as INCD-9, INCD-10, and the IFAD-CCD International Forum.

Due to activities such as these, RIOD now has a foundation in Central Asian and other CIS countries which continues to develop. In the first week of May 1997, a CIS RIOD conference took place in Kyrgyzstan, thanks to funds contributed by the Interim Secretariat for the CCD. We hope that this conference will expand the RIOD network in the CIS, especially in states and regions which do not currently boast active RIOD members. We also hope to share our experiences with new NGOs. While our organizations are young, we have some successful local projects and some success in cooperation with governments (especially in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan), as described below.

Some hands-on NGO successes in Central Asia

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Since the disassembly of the Soviet Union and the consequent disappearance of most restrictions on the size and maintenance of private herds, flocks of domestic animals have become the only source of support for rural residents in many areas of Central Asia. Population growth and expanding herds have depleted vegetation over large territories; the intensity of grazing is itself causing grazing lands to quickly lose their productive value. The claiming of new lands for animal husbandry expands this problem, which is especially severe in arid and semi-arid montane and foothill regions.

One Central Asian NGO which is directly confronting this problem is the Catena Ecological Club. With assistance from Biostan and Law and Environment Eurasia Partnership (USA), Catena has implemented a pilot project in Turkmenistan to introduce a range of non-traditional bean crops, such as soy, into the region. Both directly and indirectly, increased cultivation of these fast-growing crops creates new jobs and more food for humans and domestic animals: necessary preconditions for voluntary reduction of herd sizes and changes in the composition of herds from sheep and goats to cows. All of these changes are aimed at reducing human pressure on fragile natural ecosystems that appear especially prone to desertification processes.

NGOs in other areas of Central Asia are also pursuing innovative solutions to desertification problems. The Association of Aral Sea Basin NGOs (ANPOBAM) unites NGOs from perhaps the most environmentally devastated areas of Central Asia -- those directly affected by the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Formed in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan), and pursuing a range of initiatives, this coalition is presently implementing activities as diverse as revegetation on the one hand and preparation of a complex water pricing and privatization legal economic proposal on the other hand.

The diverse range of NGO strategies in Central Asia is further shown by the Chirchik Darya Children's Foundation (Uzbekistan). This organization has made agreements with a local government forestry agency to allow its volunteers, all children, to take responsibility for reforesting certain steep hillsides, using methods not employed in the former USSR or by the present forest agencies in Uzbekistan.

These examples show the ability of local NGOs in Central Asia to tackle desertification problems in practical and creative ways, despite limited resources. Of course, significant problems remain, among the most serious being the lack of financial and technical resources in the NGO community of Central Asia. From the Central Asian perspective, it seems clear that the first steps have been taken, but there is great need for more information-sharing, for more partnership-building with governmental support, and for more local governmental and private sector financial support for these activities to truly succeed in the long term and for the region as a whole.

Contact information for Central Asian NGOs

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Catena Ecological Club
(Ashgabad, Turkmenistan):

Dashkhovuz Ecological Guardians
(Dashkhovuz, Turkmenistan):

BiostanTajikistan representative:

(admin offices; Tashkent, Uzbekistan):

Union in Defense of the Aral Sea and Amudarya
(Nukus, Karakalpakstan):

Chirchik-Darya Children's Association:

Aleyne Environmental Movement
(Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan):
(or, try: or, with "Subject: For Aleyne"

Karaganda Regional EcoCenter
(Karaganda, Kazakstan):

Naurzum Environmental Group
(Kustanay Region, Kazakstan):

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Author Information

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Eric Sievers, of LEEP, edits the English language version of Ecostan News. You can contact him at:

Oleg Tsaruk is director of the Central Asian International Biodiversity Institute, the RIOD focal point for Central Asia. You can contact him at:

Additional Web Resources

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General Information

Brief descriptions of and contact information for environmental organizations in Central Asian countries ( (as well as in other CIS countries) are available courtesy of the Center for Civil Society International web site.

Ecostan News ( provides English language reports about the environment and environmental movements of Central Asia, covering Karakalpakstan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is a publication of LEEP (Law and Environment Eurasia Partnership), edited by Eric Sievers. [February 2000, publication of newsletter has resumed after a hiatus of 18 months; URL above leads to archived back issues]

The Harriman Institute, Columbia University, web site provides extensive links to information on Central Asian countries ( as well as to other CIS countries. A good starting point to search for more information on Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.[URL updated 8 Feb 2000]

Aral Sea Information

A research project on Aral Sea area desertification ( is being carried out by the Central Asia Research and Remediation Exchange (CARRE) at San Diego State University.

These photographs of the Aral Sea ( from the USGS - National Mapping Center - EROS Data Center web site, clearly show the effects of severe desertification.

More Aral Sea images and information (, aimed at a middle-school audience but useful for others as well, are available from the Visualizing Earth web site at the University of California, San Diego.

A 1995 case study for the Aral Sea, ( from the Trade and Environment Database (TED), School of International Service (SIS) at the American University, gives a more technical and extensive historical, economic and environmental analysis of the current problems the region faces.

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