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Hsuan Tsang: Symbol of New UN Decade
by Rene Wadlow
2010-09-06 07:32:33
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God created lands filled with water as a place for man to live; and the desert so that he can discover his soul.

Hsuan Tsang (623-664) is the symbol of the new UN Decade of Deserts which has just started.  Hsuan Tsang crossed the harshest deserts, in particular the Takla Mahan, and the tallest mountains on his quest for the innermost heart of Reality.  He travelled from China to India to spend two years at the Nalanda Monestary-University in what is now the Bihar  State in northern India to study and translate into Chinese certain important Buddhist sutras. He also studied the inner lives of the people he met, showing an openness to the cultures of others, especially those living on the edge of the desert regions he crossed.  In this way, he serves as the symbol of the new UN Decade which will highlight the ways of life of those living in deserts and on their edge.

The decade 2010 to 2020 has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as The International Decade of Deserts and Desertification.  The Decade marks the efforts begun in 1977 with the United Nations Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi. The desertification conference was convened by the UN General Assembly in the midst of a series of catastrophic droughts in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa.  The conference was designed to be the centrepiece of a massive worldwide attack to arrest the spread of deserts or desert-like conditions not only in Africa south of the Sahara but wherever such conditions encroached on the livelihood of those who lived in the desert or in their destructive path. The history of the conference is vividly recalled by James Walls in his book Land, Men and Sand

(New York: Macmillan, 1980).

At the conference, there was a call for the mobilization of human and financial resources to hold and then push back the advancing desert. “Attack” may have been the wrong word and “mobilization” too military a metaphor for the very inadequate measures taken later in the Sudano-Sahelian area.  In 2010 at the start of the Decade, there are real possibilities of famine in West and East Africa on the edges of the desert.  Niger and Mali and parts of Senegal and Chad in the Sahel belt are facing the consequences of serious drought as are parts of northern Kenya and Somalia.

The most dramatic case is that of Darfur, Sudan which partakes of the Sahel drought but which also faces a war in which the conflicts between pastoralists and settled agriculturalists have become politicized.  It is estimated that 300,000 have been killed since the start of the war late in 2003.  Some two and a half million people have been uprooted.  The agricultural infrastructure of homes, barns and wells have been deliberately destroyed.  It will be difficult and costly to repair this destruction.  The Darfur conflict highlights the need for a broader approach to the analysis and interpretation of active and potential armed conflicts in the Sahel region.  This analysis needs to take into consideration the impact of environmental scarcity and climate variation in complex situations.

Earth is our common home, and therefore all, as world citizens, must organize to protect it. It is up to all of us concerned with ecologically-sound development to use the Decade to draw awareness to both the dangers and the promises of deserts.  What is the core of the desertification process?  The destruction of land that was once productive does not stem from mysterious and remorseless forces of nature but from the actions of humans.  Desertification is a social phenomenon.  Humans are both the despoiler and the victim of the process.  Increasingly, populations are eking out a livelihood on a dwindling resource, hemmed in by encroaching plantations and sedentary agriculturalists, by towns and roads.  Pressure of population upon resources leads to tensions which can burst into violence as we see in Darfur and which spilled over into eastern Chad.

Desertification needs to be seen in a holistic way.  If we see desertification only as aridity, we may miss areas of impact such as the humid tropics.  We need to consider the special problems of water-logging, salinity or alkalinity of irrigation systems that destroy land each year.  The value of UN-designated decades is that the process of identifying major clusters of problems, bringing the best minds to bear on them so as to have a scientific and social substratum on which common political will can be found and from which action will follow.

Desertification is a plague that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat, and the socio-economic systems by which they live.  Because desertification disturbs a region’s natural resource base, it promotes insecurity.  Insecurity leads to strife.  If allowed to degenerate, strife results in inter-clan feuding, civil war, cross-border raiding and military confrontation.

Only with a lessening of insecurity can cultivators and pastoralists living in or near deserts turn their attention to adapting traditional systems.  There can be no reversion to purely traditional systems. But for insecurity to abate, a lengthy process of conciliation must begin and forms of conflict resolution strengthened.  People must be encouraged to understand that diversity is a crucial element of ecologically-sound development.  Judicious resource management breeds security and an improved quality of life for everyone. We can see what efforts can be made to encourage reforestation and to slow the unwanted advances of deserts.

Deserts can also have a positive image.  There is a significant role in the literature and mythology of spirituality — the 40 years in the desert before entering the “Promised Land”, the 40 days in the desert before starting his mission for Jesus, the life in the desert of the early Christian church fathers.  Today, there are an increasing number of spiritual retreats in the desert chosen for its silence and for the essential nature of the landscape. Thus the Decade of Deserts can be a decade during which we can learn more of the lives of people in and on the edge of the deserts.  It is a Decade in which we can all usefully participate.


Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens

The UN website for the Decade is http://unddd.unccd.int

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