Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

International Workshop on Rangeland Desertification

International Workshop on Rangeland Desertification - Opening Statement
H.E. Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland
September 16, 1997


Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here today and to open this International Workshop on Rangeland Desertification.
For many people, Iceland may not be the first country to come to mind, when addressing the issue of rangeland desertification. But this is a global problem that we in Iceland are very familiar with. One of our great scholars of the Middle Ages, Ari the Learned, wrote in his Book of Settlements that when this country was first settled in the Ninth Century, it was covered by woodlands from the seashore up to the mountains. It is estimated that at the time 25% of the country was covered by woods. Today that figure is below 1%. Green hills and pastures have been replaced by Arctic desert. Some of you may have seen examples of this already and if not, you will have an opportunity during your field trip tomorrow. In fact these changes have been so dramatic that I would venture to say that few, if any, countries have experienced desertification of the same magnitude, on a proportional scale.

The reasons for these changes are many and no doubt familiar to you. There have been climatic changes over the centuries. Volcanic activity has done extensive damage. Grazing of livestock has been severe in some areas. And there has of course been deforestation by man for firewood. Allow me to cite an old Viking poem, professing foresight, mentioning this habit:

A man should know
how many logs
stubs and strips of bark
to collect in summer
to keep in stock
wood for his winter fires.

In this context we must bear in mind that the population of Iceland lived in poverty for many centuries. There was limited scope for adjusting land utilization towards sustainable patterns. Today, fortunately, Iceland benefits from a high standard of living and we have the knowledge and the means to re-establish the vegetation in this country. And this is a continuing endeavor on our part, although I must admit that we should do much better.

A nation-wide survey has recently been completed on the extent of soil erosion in Iceland. The results are being distributed both in print and on the Internet. It is hoped that this scientific data will provide a basis for a better and more sustainable use of rangelands by farmers. Lamb production is an important part of the economy in Iceland, especially in less populated areas. The National Agenda 21 for Iceland, adopted by the Government earlier this year, sets the goal that land use for grazing be limited, so that the soil and plant resource base will not be reduced.

Iceland recently acceeded to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and I am very pleased to welcome here today Ambassador Kjellén, Chairman of the International Negotiating Committee for the Convention.

I mentioned earlier that desertification is a global issue. Its dimensions are both political and environmental. First of all, we are familiar with the impact of desertification on migration and political stability in a number of countries. Second, we recognize the impact of desertification on biological diversity, for which we all share a common responsibility to preserve. Thirdly, desertification has an impact on climatic change through the greenhouse effect, which affects us all. It is important to keep this global perspective in mind.

We in Iceland are somewhat in a unique position, being probably the only European country facing the same problems of soil erosion as in many developing countries. It has sometimes been suggested that the experience and scientific knowledge gathered in this area could play a useful role in our development assistance. For many years, the UN University has operated a department for Geothermal Energy and now the UN University is opening a Fisheries Department in Iceland. Perhaps in the future, something in a similar vein could be established in Iceland to study and disseminate information on reforestation.

Finally, I take this opportunity to thank the organizing committee for its work. I would also like to thank the European Commission for the financial support given to this conference. I wish you all a fruitful discussion and hope that this week will stimulate you in your important endeavors. I must leave you now to attend a meeting of the cabinet. Later today I will leave for Hong Kong to attend a meeting of the World Bank Development Committee, where I will represent the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Thank you.


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