Chapter 6: Some Successes

An exceedingly gloomy picture has been painted of anti­-desertification work. Neither affected poor countries, nor wealthy aid-giving countries, nor international agencies seem willing to make the efforts required to keep threatened areas productive.

It is regrettable that large amounts of money failed to  have a significant effect. It may be argued that initiatives take time to develop and produce results, that money is not necessarily wasted even if the problem has not been solved in the short term. However, it is questionable how much of those re­ sources and efforts were specifically devoted to dealing with the causes of desertification. A substantial amount of aid is used simply on food aid, information, meetings and training. This picture might give the impression  that desertification is an insoluble problem. This is not true. Development  does offer mechanisms for coping with desertification.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the United States, Great Plains farmers tended to over cultivate, deforest and allow their stock to overgraze.  But these farmers gained political power as their territories became states. Federal and state crop insurance programmes, soil conservation services, land-use laws, forestry services, feed and grain reserves, rural credit and electrification schemes and rural education schemes were  instituted. Universities and other organizations and institutions offered drought and disease-resistant crop varieties and new techniques for conserving soil and water. Desertification remains a problem in the United States, and the West, Mid-West and South still suffer occasional droughts; but the coping mechanisms are in place and working. Australia has achieved similar progress.

During its own period of agricultural and industrial development, the United States had considerable advantages over most dryland Third World countries today (abundant valuable natural resources; investment capital; slow population growth and room for expansion, among others). Dryland Third World countries are hardly in a position to copy such coping mechanisms. But the success of many anti-desertification projects shows that the technical means are there.

There are many isolated cases of impressive anti­ desertification projects. In Bouza in Southern Niger, every street is lined with trees, and the town is being encircled by woods. Green belts are being planted  around  the  capital cities of Ouagadougou and Niamey in Burkina Faso and Niger. An irrigation project in Tunisia has increased agricultural production 27-fold. Algeria has planted 267,500 hectares of forests. Ethiopian peasant associations have terraced the heavily eroded land  on  some 35 watersheds of the central highland plateau, and planted trees for fuelwood and fruit on them. Some 1,500 km of  roadside shelter belts are being planted in the State ofRajasthan in India. Sudan is restocking its gum belt, which acts as a barrier to the desert. Peru has begun an $80 million programme to reforest its Andean Sierra. Some 10,000 hectares of sand dunes are being stabilized annually in Rajasthan.

China has largely proved that the creation of a large green belt is a feasible target. A shelterbelt 1,500 km long and 12 metres wide was established by some 700,000 farmers. China has built three green belts, one of 1,200 km in Mongolia. In the last 30 years, China has developed a programme of mass afforestation at a rate of 1.5 million hectares per year.

China has also reclaimed large desertified areas: for example, using casuarina trees for coastal windbreaks 57 km long and I to 5 km wide on Nanshan Island in Guangdong Province.The yields in recovered areas have since trebled.

In Chifeng, using ‘mass mobilization’, 20,000 hectares of sand dunes of about 0.1 to 0.5 hectares each were levelled, flooded with silty water and transformed. Later paddy fields were established together with protective shelterbelts against sand encroachment.

The reclamation of desertified areas in the Kara Ku m is an important example of a very large project. The Kara Kum Desert stretches for more than 500 miles across southern Soviet Central Asia, covering a large part of Turkmenistan. The desert has been crossed by a 870 mile long canal which drains  the Amu Darya River into the  Caspian Sea. The canal, which is navigable for half of its length, increased available irrigated land from 300,000 to 650,000 hectares and cotton production rose from 100,000 tonnes to over a million tonnes. In addition and with the main purpose of controlling water weeds, herbivorous fish have been introduced, providing an important source of animal protein for the local population.

It should be emphasized that many of the activities of the small, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also proved successful, largely because they  usually  depend critically on  the  involvement  of  local  people. For example, the US voluntary agency CARE has  helped establish 250 km of windbreaks in Niger’s Majia valley, whereas many larger afforestation schemes in the Sahel have come seriously unstuck. Project officers proved to the people the ability of those windbreaks to increase crop yields; and   developed with the people a process of sharing out the income from the sale of pruned wood. Antidesertification techniques intro­duced into Burkina Faso  by  the  British-based voluntary agency, Oxfam, are being spread from village  to village by the farmers themselves, because they work and make use of village resources.

Dozens of NGOs around the world have become involved, ‘above all, in field projects such as tree planting, soil and water conservation, but also in schemes to supplement food production in subsistence communities as well as in training and in increasing environmental awareness at the local level. Their success is related to the small scale and local direction of their projects and the requirements for local community participation, as well as their flexibility in operation and their ability to learn from earlier mistakes. The dominance of field activities gives these actions an impact out of proportion to the money invested.’ Yet, while the activity ofNGOs can demonstrate possibilities, the scale of both their financial and human resources and thus the scale of  their  activities will always be far too small to make a dent in the massive problem of desertification. It is doubtless right for governments and UN agencies to encourage them, but it would be a mistake to rely upon them.

Many other projects could be added to this list, showing what can technically be achieved. All of these worthy efforts, however, may be overwhelmed by the present drought in the Sahel, just as many of the five million seedlings planted over the past seven years by Ethiopian peasant associations have been killed by the present drought. Nevertheless, it is worth concentrating on a few major projects in rangeland management, food production and security, and reforestation. In each area, the project or projects described are major efforts which hold considerable promise for the future.


Rangeland Management

Although attempts at rangeland management, and improv­ing conditions for nomadic pastoralists, have been perhaps  the least successful of all anti-desertification efforts, a programme in Syria has demonstrated that the problem  can be tackled. It has broad and important implications for rangeland management exercises elsewhere, particularly in the Sahel.

In  Syria, sheep production is the major livestock activitybased on the steppe grazing area which covers 121 million hectares, 58% of the country. A three-year drought during 1958-60 reduced the sheep population from 5.9 to 2.9 million. The government then began a steppe improvement programme. A special Steppe Department was  set up and efforts made to improve conditions for the bedouins and their flocks. By 1980, the sheep population had climbed to 8.8 million.

Grazing co-operatives were established to limit over­ grazing and destruction of the ranges. Each co-operative was given the sole right to graze certain demarcated areas and each family in the co-operative granted a licence to graze a specified number of sheep (100-125). Efforts were made to keep the sheep off the ranges during critical times of the year. In effect, the new system was a revival of the ancient hema system of range management formerly practised by the bedouins. By 1981, there were 105 co-operatives grazing 2.5 million sheep on 6 million hectares of rangeland. 

Initially, the bedouins were afraid of losing their in dependence, and their co-operation was difficult to obtain. But the programme started slowly, only expanding as the pastoralists gained confidence in it. Fattening units were set up on a co-operative basis in cereal-producing areas to limit the dependence of the bedouins on traders and to reduce pressure on grazing land. By 1981, there were 55 of these co-operatives, with 4,400 members, fattening 1.5 million sheep. Research provided them with efficient fattening rations.

As in the Sahel, the spread of cultivation to low rainfall areas of the rangelands had caused large areas to degenerate. Laws were passed which prohibited ploughing and cultiva­tion of rangelands within the steppe. Some 7,000 hectares were planted with drought resistant shrubs. In the wetter areas, production of forage crops during fallow periods provided additional dry season feed for the sheep. Between 1974 and 1979, the area under forage crops and pulses increased nearly ten fold, from 8,600 hectares to 83,700 hectares. To improve water availability, a number of surface dams and deep wells were constructed. Some 2,800 ruined Roman water cisterns were restored in the last four years of the programme.

The Syrian experience shows that it is possible to improve rangelands, to get fiercely independent pastoralists to co­ operate, and to integrate them into a modern economic system without destroying their lifestyles.


Food Crops and Food Security

Of the Sahel countries, only Niger could claim food self­ sufficiency in early 1984 and only Niger was not on the FAO list of African countries threatened with starvation. The reasons are not geographical. With 5.7 million people, an average GNP per capita of $330 a year and life expectancy of only 45 years, Niger is one of the least developed countries in the world. Yet the country is self-sufficient in its two staple foods, sorghum and millet, if the harvest is good. In a wet year production can reach 1.25 million tonnes. Unlike Mali and Senegal, Niger does not benefit from long stretches of rivers. Furthermore, Niger did not inherit irrigation systems from colonial times, and no major dam has been built since independence in 1960.

However, it must be considered that Niger has been able to capitalize on the exports of one important natural resource – uranium. During the 1970s this was the main reason for an astonishing growth in the country’s merchan­dise exports, which grew by an average of 23.4% per annum over an 11-year period, compared to 7.1% for Mali and-1.4% for Senegal. Niger has used much of its additional income in a direct assault on rural poverty.

Since 1974, President Seyni Kountche has insisted on giving agriculture priority in development goals. Peasant taxes have been reduced and much of the state budget has been spent on building up rural infrastructure. providing a health system for the rural population and extension services for farmers. Even more important, by buying stocks of cereals at reasonable prices, the government has controlled and stabilized the price of grain and provided incentives for farmers to produce more. Reserve grain stocks have also been built up for use in times of emergency.

Further more, international aid has been used to good effect to support these policies. After the Sahel drought. Niger decided to establish a grain reserve of 40,000 tonnes enough to feed the most vulnerable half of the population for a month and a half in the event of further drought. West Germany provided $3.3 million to buy 18,000 tonnes of grain, but another drought struck and the food was sold or distributed to the needy almost immediately.

Another West German grant, plus contributions arranged through FAO, enabled Niger to buy more cereals, build warehouses to store it, and purchase some of the equipment needed to set up a reserve cereal stock. Even so, not all the country’s needs could be met. The Dutch government then funded a project for storing another 6,500 tonnes of grain, treating the grain against pests  and providing a laboratory for quality control and research on storage losses. Thirteen more warehouses were built, each holding 500 tonnes of grain in sacks, and sited at strategic places throughout the country. The project was complemented by World Food Programme funds for the purchase of 18,000 tonnes of grain, and an Arab Bank for Economic  Development in  Africa grant to provide storage for another 5,000 tonnes of grain.

Niger decided later to increase  its grain  reserves, first  to 115,000 tonnes and later to 140,000 tonnes. Some of the additional storage is to increase the size of the emergency reserve to 65,000 tonnes. but the function of most is to help stabilize agricultural prices. A further ten warehouses were built. The strategic reserve is operated by the  Organisation de la Production Vivriere du Niger (OPVN), which buys up the millet surplus immediately after harvest, thus guaranteeing that prices cannot be manipulated by traders.

Niger’s system of advice and extension for farmers is probably the best in the Sahel. There is less emphasis on cash crops – undoubtedly because of the alternative export potential of uranium ore and the government sets a good example to the rest of the country. In 1983, for example, 5,000 cattle were sold from  government farms as a warning to pastoralists that grazing would be insufficient for several months to come. The government advised herders  to  move to better pastures and began to lay on animal fodder to help get the herds  through the  1983-84 dry season. Niger’s efforts show both the way forward and the willingness of the government to embark on this path.



Reforestation is one of the keys to desertification control. In the Sahel, it has met with limited success. Even where trees have been successfully introduced in Sahel countries as in several village woodlot schemes in Senegal,  for  example the projects have often been designed primarily to alleviate fuelwood and building pole shortages rather than control desertification. However, one of the attractions of village tree-planting schemes is that they can provide simultaneous solutions to many different problems. Trees provide fuelwood, poles, fruit, nuts, and animal fodder,  increase rural incomes, improve soil fertility, help control erosion and take the pressure off natural trees and forests. An important aspect in reforestation is the rights of ownership (collective or individual) over both the land and the trees.

South Korea has been the major success story of village forestry. In the early 1960s, fuelwood supplies there became critically short, and tree felling on steep slopes led to severe soil erosion and flooding. Each village was therefore encouraged by the government to set up a Village Forestry Association (VFA), which received a subsidy and was awarded land on which trees could be planted or on which degraded forest could be restored. Within five years, 20,000 VFAs were in existence, more than one million hectares had been planted (about onequarter for fuelwood, the rest for fruit and timber), 4.4 million hectares of degraded forest had been brought under management and more than 3 billion seedlings planted. What had originally been conceived as a ten-year programme was effectively achieved in six years.

The success of this project was due to a number of factors, which have since been carefully analysed for their relevance to community forestry as a whole. One of the keys was that the government was able and prepared to pass legislation which granted the VFAs title to the land they managed. Another was that the villagers involved were already committed to the idea of rural development, and had had some experience of co-operative forestry schemes before.

But the way the project was implemented was also important. Mechanisms were introduced which enabled the VFAs and government to cooperate effectively, in a manner which combined ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ planning. The VFAs were also provided with the materials, finance and information they needed quickly and efficiently, and they were no tasked to do too much too quickly; a step bystep approach was  adopted. Careful research also established exactly which species were likely to be most effective,  and some  ‘quick  return’ tree crops were  included in all schemes to give villagers early remuneration for their efforts. Every hectare planted with fuel wood trees was matched by half a hectare planted with chestnuts, and the production of mushrooms, fibre, bark, resins and other non-wood products  encouraged. By  I978,  these products were generating an income of $ 100 million a year for the more than two million families involved in the programme.

Currently, the most successful community forestry project is taking place in Nepal, where much hill land has been severely deforested. Here again, government action has enabled small local administrative groups, called panchayats, to take over replanted land. To help the panchayats plan and execute their work, the government also set  up a Community and Afforestation  Division  within  its Forestry Department. The 340 panchayats involved in the project are establishing nurseries to provide 900,000 seedlings, replanting 11 ,750 hectares with seedlings and protecting 39,100 hectares of damaged forest. In addition, 15,000  improved wood stoves are being introduced , enough to save 25,000 tons of fuelwood a year.

The five- year project is being supported by FAO, UNDP and the World Bank at a total cost of  $24.8  million. Eventually, the project should provide about one-third of the fuel wood requirements of 570,000 people and enough leaf fodder for 132,000 cattle. It is estimated that, because less dung and crop waste will be used as fuel, as much as 156,000 tons of grain a year will be saved, nearly one-third of the total production of the hill region.