It’s the middle of October and the UN is in town. Okay, Ankara is a capital city, so the UN is always in town, but it has a somewhat larger presence than usual here at the moment. From October 12th to the 23rd, Ankara is hosting the twelfth Conference of Parties (COP 12) for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

In UN parlance, the COP is the decision-making body of the UNCCD, made up of representatives of those countries that are party to the Convention. The UNCCD is one of the three conventions that were opened for signature at the 1992 Rio Summit. While the UNCCD was first signed on June 17th, 1994, it didn’t come into force (meaning enough countries hadn’t ratified it) until December 26th, 1996. Not a bad waiting time where UN treaties, conventions, and the like are concerned. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been waiting in the wings for almost 20 years (since 1996) without the ratifications it needs to enter into force. As for the holdouts, I’m looking at you, United States.

But I digress…

I’m sure no one will be shocked to find that nuclear weapons testing is a tad more controversial than combatting desertification across the globe. In the case of the UNCCD, not only is it in force, but it also has 195 states parties, making it one of the most globally recognized (and enforceable) conventions to date.

Which brings us back to Ankara and the COP 12, where those parties are meeting to forge ahead with the difficult work of combatting desertification and land degradation.

It’s an issue at the heart of climate change, which means it’s at the heart of the difficulties surrounding affecting truly global and sustainable change before our ecosystems have reached a point of no return. In terms of understanding the importance of combatting, reversing, and preventing desertification, let me put it this way: you can have enough seeds to feed the world, but what does that matter if you don’t have anywhere to plant them?

And it’s not just about crops. The loss of forests and woodlands adversely affects plant and animal biodiversity and harms the health of humans and animals. In fact, deforestation actually “triggers” desertification:

[I]f shrubs and trees are felled, the noonday sun will fall directly on formerly shaded soil; the soil will become warmer and drier, and organisms living on or in it will move away to avoid the unaccustomed heat. The organic litter on the surface – dead leaves and branches, for example – will be oxidized rapidly and the carbon dioxide carried away. So too, will the small store of humus in the soil. [p. 36]

Because of the link between the two, reforestation is one of many ways to combat, reverse, and prevent desertification. According to the UNCCD, forests (through their roots and tree cover) combat land degradation (leading to desertification) by “stabilizing soils, reducing water and wind erosion and maintaining nutrient cycling in soils.” And that’s where Turkey comes in.

According to Turkey’s Forestry and Waterworks Minister, Veysel Eroğlu, 65 percent of Turkey’s land displays arid, semi-arid, and semi-humid characteristics, fitting the UN’s definition of “drylands,” which are at risk of desertification.


Source: Wikipedia (created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

While Turkey is not yet home to a desert (despite certain pop culture mainstays depicting otherwise), much of its land is at risk of ending up that way. To combat it, Turkey has turned to many methods, including reforestation projects.

One such project was the reforestation of the area around Abant Gölü (Lake Abant) in Turkey’s Bolu Province. The reforestation of the once treeless area has culminated in the Lake Abant Nature Park (Abant Tabiat Parkı), a 1,200 hectare area that now provides water to “13 villages and 4,000 hectares of farmland.” It also contributes to ecotourism in the region.

But beyond the impact of the “what” of the project (reforestation) is the impact of “how” it was completed. The trees were replanted with community labor, and the project has fostered a link between the local community and the government (in this case, the Ministry of Forestry and Waterworks). With the local community participating in the decision-making and planning processes surrounding Lake Abant Nature Park, there is a better chance that the newly planted trees will be better managed to ensure a sustainable bulwark against desertification.

Turkey has a long way to go before it can declare a more comprehensive victory over desertification. Turkey has 769,632 square miles of land (thank you, trusty CIA Factbook, informer of middle school geography projects and Fulbright research blogs alike). That’s approximately 1,993,333,772.9 hectares. If 65% of that land is dryland at risk of desertification, that’s approximately 129,566,952.4 hectares. Which means the Lake Abant Nature Park accounts for a very small fraction of that land, to the tune of approximately 0.0000009 percent.

So, the Lake Abant Nature Park is not going to singlehandedly change the future of Turkey’s arable land. But it is a proof-of-concept project with successes that can be replicated in other areas — not just inside Turkey, but outside as well.

Which is just what some experts are suggesting should happen between Turkey and Africa. UNCCD executive secretary Monique Barbut has said that Turkey’s experiences with reforestation can be a model for other arid regions, especially the Sahel region of Africa. Dr. Mohamed Elfadl of the University of Helsinki — originally from Sudan — also pointed to the viability of the Turkish model in his home country, where lack of arable land has not only limited Sudan’s development potential but also fueled violent, decades-long conflict.

Helping replicate its reforestation successes elsewhere is a challenge that Turkey is already taking on. The General Directorate of Combating Desertification and Erosion under the Ministry of Forestry and Waterworks is currently working with the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) to carry out a 10-year technical cooperation and training project with African countries to tackle desertification and improve arable land.

One part of this project was the creation of the “Turkey-Niger Friendship Forest” [p. 38], a 10-acre urban forest with a “solar-power-operated water well, 10-ton capacity water reservoir, 1 football pitch, and bower, fountain and seats.” At COP 12, Turkey has pledged a further $5 million to combat desertification in African countries.

Reforestation projects like those carried out by Turkey and Nigeria in cooperation are incredibly important the world over, but especially so in Africa. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), from 2010-2015, Africa had the highest annual loss of  forests at 2.8 million hectares. But Africa also “reported the highest annual increase in the area of forest for conservation,” showing that African countries are taking the challenge seriously.

But as much as the “what” of this story is central to improved global development, the “how” is another crucial factor. We are now living in an age of sustainable development. The Millennium Development Goals have come to their end, and 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been adopted by the global community. At the heart of these goals is the understanding that global development must evolve to include all stakeholders (from civil society to governments) to ensure that the changes affected on the ground do not simply fade away again over time.

And that’s where Turkey and its partners also need to focus. If cooperation between Turkish and African countries can lead not just to a physical change on the ground (e.g., trees where there previously were none) but also to a cultural change in the community  and local government that allows locals to engage deeply with the processes of conservation and development, then there will be true, long-term success towards combating desertification the world over.



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