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The Death Knell of Canada’s International Reputation?

by HARRISON SAMPHIR

According to UNICEF’s 2009 Human Development Index, the impoverished North African nation of Niger ranks lowest in nutritional and health indicators. In that country, one child in five dies before their fifth birthday.

Bordering Niger to the southwest is Burkina Faso; a similarly destitute, landlocked republic where there are as few as ten physicians per 100,000 people and a child malnutrition rate of 25%.

Such statistics are not unusual in this part of the world. North Africa has for centuries been an invariable hotspot of colonial domination, civil and international war and economic dependency, all of which contribute to poor living conditions exacerbated by a prominent, underpinning antecedent: geopolitical insignificance.

But on a continent in which two thirds of its area are desert or drylands, these figures and historical circumstances are framed within a different discussion–one concerning the rapacious patterns of the natural world and the worst drought to afflict Africa in half a century.

Since 2011, the Horn of Africa (comprising Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) has experienced its lowest levels of rainfall since the 1950s. Crop devastation and displacement have thrown upwards of 12 million people into a desperate hunt for food, while subsequent famines have resulted in deaths exceeding the hundreds of thousands.

Africa’s northeastern Horn is not the only region suffering, either. Catastrophic drought and declining crop production–the direct results of global anthropogenic climate change–have stricken most arid climates in the continent’s north.

In aforementioned Niger, where only about 11% of its mostly desert land is suitable for farming, low precipitation has laid waste to fields traditionally used by subsistence agriculturalists; the demographic representing a majority of the country’s population.

UN appeals for funds have since garnered a massive outpouring of support from national governments and private citizens alike, but repeated, dilatory strategies of waiting until the point of national emergency suggests the need for more principled and targeted initiatives.

Indeed, drought, desertification, and the loss of biodiversity due to climate change were identified at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit as the greatest challenges to sustainable development in the global South. In response, the “United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa,” or the UNCCD, was established as a legally binding international agreement to mitigate the effects of drought in the world’s most susceptible ecosystems.

Ratified in Ottawa in 1995, Canada became one of 194 nations (the entire UN) to join the initiative which facilitates cooperation between the socioeconomic divide of North and South while developing “knowledge and technology transfer[s] for sustainable land management,” according to the convention’s official webpage.

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Criticized as a ‘talk fest’ by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Canada will become the only nation to drop out of the UNCCD when its contract expires at the end of 2013.

In keeping with the Conservatives’ habitually autocratic approach to environmental policymaking, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was steadfast in his dismissal of the convention as an ineffective bureaucratic monster. He suggested that of the $350,000 Canada contributes to the UNCCD, less than one fifth supports programming; “… It’s not an effective way to spend taxpayers’ money,” he said.

The Harper government has vehemently attacked the UN over alleged ineptitude, most prominently in its scolding of the Security Council for inaction during the Syrian civil war. But this outright abandonment of a significant scientific initiative aimed at quelling the root causes of desertification harms both the African people and the previously ‘humanitarian’ image of Canada.

Including its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, Canada has repeatedly shunned international scientific cooperation while committing itself to the ideological dispersal of aid funds. The role-reversal of NGO’s, for example–from “idealism to imperialism” as one text calls it–is a key mechanism of this reinvented ‘humanitarianism’ (remember Canada’s desertion of KAIROS, the non-profit which assisted Palestinian refugees and children in other starving nations?).

With the UNCCD, African nations currently debilitated by low rainfall and droughts that threaten the very viability of life have a chance to cooperate with the international community in scientific research that may one day lead to real solutions. Simply throwing money at a problem cannot possibly solve it; what is needed is a focused, principled, and committed inquest that could explain why, for instance, Lake Chad has shrunk 95% since 1960? Surely, such questions require fast answers.

By abandoning the UNCCD, the Conservatives have acquired for Canada the status of a rogue state against the environment. In the words of former Canadian ambassador to the UN, Robert Fowler, the move is a “departure from global citizenship;” a proverbial nail in the coffin of federal climate change awareness that will devastate the nation’s international credibility and reputation.

Harrison Samphir is the online editor at The Uniter, the University of Winnipeg’s weekly urban journal. He holds a B.A. (Hons.) in history from the University of Manitoba. He can be reached at hsamphir@gmail.com.

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