Since before the formal approval of the Convention on Drought and Desertification, which was discussed and defined in Geneva in 1994 and ratified by the first 50 Countries in 1996, and to a much larger extent following the outcomes of the 2002 Rio Conference, a considerable effort was made by the scientific community in order to gain a better understanding of desertification.
In 1993, the EU launched the MEDALUS project (Mediterranean desertification and land use), one of the largest environmental science research projects at the time, which lasted until the end of the last century (1999). More than 200 European researches were involved, providing a diverse pool of expertise and knowledge and collaborating to investigate the effects of desertification on land use in Mediterranean Europe, as well as to propose possible solutions.
In 1994, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was established as a legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management.
After the establishment of the UNCCD, many European and non-European countries started to establish their National Committees on “Drought and Desertification” to support the UNCCD efforts to combat desertification. While most of these newly created committees were technical-political institutional bodies, others clearly scientific institutional bodies. In France, the Comité Scientifique Francais sur la Desertification (CSFD) was created. In Germany, the German Competence Network for Research to Combat Desertification, subsequently named German Desertnet, was established with the support of the GTZ-CCD Programme. At a larger scale, under the lead of the Desertification Research Center (NRD) of Sassari University and with the support of the EU, in 2002 the Mediterranean Desertnet was created, which involved different European institutions in the Mediterranean area.
After several meetings, in particular the ones realized during the COP or CRIC of UNCCD, these 3 organizations (CSFD, German Desertnet and Mediterranean Desertnet), decided to join their networks and to give rise to a European scientific network on desertification.
European DesertNet (EDN) was formally established in 2005 by Richar Escadafal (Chair of CSFD), Mariam Acktar Schuster (Responsible of German Desertnet), and with the support of NRD-UNISS (Leader of Mediterranean Desertnet). More than 80 scientists subscribed to EDN, and in 2006 the first general meeting of European DesertNet was held, with the aim to promote networking and interaction among its members and their institutions.
The activities promoted by European Desertnet were internationally recognized for their significant scientific importance, and soon several scientists from non-EU countries (Turkey, Albania, Israel, Pakistan, Australia and much more) started to ask to be part of European Desertnet.
At this point, 2 strategic changes were made by EDN: firstly, the network would no longer have a “European” profile, but evidently an “international” one; and secondly, European DesertNet would no longer be a mere network, but it would become an Association, which was fundamental to be recognized and accredited as a Civil Society Organization (CSO) within the UNCCD.
On 30th November 2009, the scientific network European DesertNet (EDN) officially became the association DesertNet International (DNI), after its registration at the Strasbourg/Illkirch Court as a legal non‐governmental and non‐profit organization (CSO). As a result, DNI increased and improved its capacity to interact with supranational institutions (e.g. European Commission) and international organizations (e.g. UNCCD and other UN agencies). Furthermore, the change of name from European DesertNet to DesertNet International better reflects the international status of our association, which includes more than 350 members from more than 50 countries.
To conclude my speech on the genesis of DNI, and to allow the readers to better understand its nature, let me use the words of Dr Mary Seely (Director of Desert Research Foundation of Namibia), for their strength and their alignment to DNI’s vision.
On 25th September 2009, in occasion of the launching of DesertNet International in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dr Mary Seely was requested to present a brief “response from the South”:
“…What is the response from the South to the launching of an extensive non‐governmental, non‐profit scientific network and think tank of such august proportions? The first response is seeing DesertNet International as a potential threat in the sheer mass of this assemblage of dynamic scientists. But, with reflection, and the possibility of being members of this network, this reaction is set aside. One aspect of the expectations of DesertNet International is the statement that ‘developing countries can serve as a study object’. This is something that we trust does not happen and that we are, instead, partners in envisaged scientific endeavours. Meanwhile, we look forward to having access to and participate in large scientific projects….
….. We also look forward to our Northern colleagues finding a mechanism for helping us identify key emerging, current and new publications and pointing out new paradigms which rapidly evolve amongst their large scientific institutions – components we might only slowly identify well after they are established. In short, we in the South hope that our fellow members of the network will contribute to our capacity building, perhaps through their proposed newsletter, to make meaningful and timely contributions to combating desertification. In terms of research activities, we expect that as members of DesertNet International we will also have the opportunity to become full partners in development of research proposals and implementation of projects – and not only be contacted five days before a proposal is due when the need for a Southern partner is belatedly recognised. We expect too that we, and our participating students, will be included in authorship of papers to which we contribute. We are fully aware that we have the capacity to make the connections and preparations for Northern scientists with local communities, with research sites and with long‐term data and observations that can be integrated into the joint research programmes that we undertake. I am sure that there are many other potential interactions that will be of benefit for member scientists from North and South as DesertNet International goes from strength to strength as it fulfils its role to generate and enhance knowledge and understanding of the biophysical and socio‐economic processes of desertification”.
Read DNI’s newsletters (https://www.desertnet-international.org/) for more recent updates about DNI’s activities.