The battle against desertification and the recovery of desertified areas is by definition a long-term process. However, the adoption of a long-term perspective in fighting desertification is hindered by the pressures of the immediate humanitarian aspects. Action is needed now to alleviate the plight of large populations affected by desertification.
On the other hand, if these people are not helped, they will exert more pressure over a weak natural system, thus accelerating desertification. Immediate action in favour of the large affected communities is not therefore a simple humanitarian action, but it also has a strategic role in the battle against desertification. Desertification gives rise to new forces that tend to reinforce the process: it creates poverty and poverty in turn pushes people to adopt measures that reinforce the desertification process.
Therefore, desertification requires strategies which explicitly include short-term and long-term actions, palliative measures as well as-actions against the structural causes of the phenomenon.
Desertification is the result of increasing interactions between different economic activities of dryland societies and the cyclical fluctuations of nature. Social causes of desertification have been intensified in the last decades because of the changing economic patterns of dryland societies and their increasing integration into the inter-inational system. This means that local solutions alone, distinct from international dynamics, will not be able to cope with the problem.
The different socio-economic causes of desertification are interrelated. The clear identification and assessment of all their interrelationships is therefore a prerequisite to any effective action. What is needed is simultaneous action to stop deforestation and to accelerate afforestation, to avoid overgrazing and to recover arid lands, to reduce monoculture activities and to provide alternatives to local harmful activities in pursuit of basic food, fuelwood, water, health and shelter needs.
Desertification is at the heart of the development problematic of many countries and, in fact, of large regions of the world. The process is jeopardizing the complete process of development but, at the same time, lack of development is preventing any action against desertification. And action can only be successful if it is an integral part of a comprehensive development plan and strategy.
In this context it is wrong to believe that rural development – or the lack of it – is the only key to the desertification process. Practices harmful to the natural resources of arid and semi-arid areas also stem from the lack of development of urban areas. It should not be forgotten that 20% to 30% of dryland populations live in urban areas which exert additional pressure on the immediate hinterlands, through their increasing demand for fuelwood, water, etc.
In addition, food pricing policies which tend to subsidize city dwellers at the expense of those living in the countryside, and favour the production of specific crops better suited to city tastes , also have a negative effect, though less directly so. Thus the urban-rural division within the country reproduces the international phenomenon of unfavourable terms of trade. Therefore, desertification should be viewed as an explicit dimension not just of rural development, but of development as a whole.
Desertification issues should be included not only in the normative part of development plans but also in the elaboration of strategies and at the operative level of planning. This requires the development of appropriate and sound management practices for arid and semi–arid areas. Land should be used in accordance with the potential and constraints of the soil, avoiding the transfer and use of inadequate technology introduced for the sake of short–term commercial returns.
To integrate desertification in national development planning, the main actors and their roles in the process must be clearly identified as well as the mechanisms needed for them to achieve maximum efficiency. These actors are in fact social groups.
The actors to be considered are the governments and policy-implementing institutions in arid and semi-arid zones, the private cash-crop or ranching landlords or companies, the peasants and the pastoral population of arid and semi-arid areas, international agencies active in these areas, the international community as a whole (because of the pressure they create on arid and semi–arid lands through their demands for specific commodities), and finally scientific and technological professionals dealing with the problem of desertification.
Among the actors women deserve special consideration because of their predominant role in the production of food crops (more than 90% in the case of Africa), in the collection of fuelwood and cowdung, which increases deforestation and decreases soil fertility, in fetching water and in taking care of goats and sheep. This role is also increasing in Africa, with the move of young men to urban areas because of desertification.
But it is not enough to identify the main actors dealing with desertification if adequate technical and economic resources are not provided. To the extent that soil erosion and desertification are among the major disasters of some developing countries, they must be explicitly considered in development planning. Disaster prevention must be part of development planning. Early warning systems based on physical and meteorological data should be combined with social indicators so as to respond not only to weather signals but also to market and social distress signals.
Institutional mechanisms also should be identified and created to allow the different actors to co-ordinate their efforts. This is especially relevant in the case of desertification, as it implies that global policies of a national and even international character must be co-ordinated and implemented through decentralized mechanisms at the local level. Indeed, while desertification is a global process, it varies from place to place according to national characteristics – types of soil and the habits and patterns of development of the local people.
By taking the local dimension into account it is possible to make use of the local potentialities and avoid the adoption and application of actions unsuited to local, natural and socio-economic conditions. Inevitably, therefore, an essential element will be participation, i.e. involvement of all the actors dealing with the problem or affected by it to define policies and strategies at all levels and design, implement and control programmes for the development of arid and semi arid regions.
But there again, mechanisms are useless without adequate financial and technical resources. In both cases international action has an extremely important role to play. Most of the drylands of the world and almost all the people affected by desertification are in developing countries. These countries are facing extremely difficult economic situations because of their debt burden and deteriorating terms of trade. They lack the financial resources necessary to alleviate the plight of those most immediately affected, while strategic reserves of food that can be used for aid are non-existent. Food aid therefore has to be an international concern.
But it is extremely important to provide the right kind of aid at the right time and in such a way as not to have negative socio-economic effects. A clear understanding of the socio cultural features of aid recipients is therefore indispensable. The fight against the causes of desertification and for the recovery of deteriorated areas is a long-term process which requires a regular flow of resources –to implement measures that will yield results only in the long term and to provide short-term assistance to preserve the effectiveness of long-term measures. Once a programme to combat desertification is initiated in one area, it must not be interrupted. International co-operation between affected countries, national governments and international institutions, together with technical assistance, is required for this long-term aspect of the anti-desertification action. However, it should be clear that this international, more centralized policy will be effective only if it is based on the local capabilities and understanding of the problem.
Global policies and strategies of a centralized character must be consistent with their decentralized implementation , at the local level.
Scientific and technological resources have a strategic role to play in the development of arid and semi-arid regions, in arresting the desertification process and in recovering areas already desertified. There are many aspects of the science and technology issue relating to desertification. One is the penetration of technologies mainly to increase the productivity of cash crop areas, and their impact on natural systems. A second is the retreat of traditional technology developed by societies living in these areas and suited to their constraints and potentialities. A third is the relative backwardness generally of science and technology for the management of arid and semi-arid lands.
The first technological issue is the result of the modernization of croplands in order to achieve a level of productivity for integration into international markets. Historically, modernization is carried out by the simple transfer of technologies used in temperate zones where conditions and soils are different. When transferred, there is, indeed, a short-term increase in productivity, but in the long run the soil deteriorates because of heavy machinery, deep ploughing and reduction of biological diversity, thus increasing the vulnerability of the system to natural and social hazards.
However, the few years of increasing productivity allowed those farmers with access to modern technology to increase their economic power and gain control over larger cropping areas and water resources in order to compensate for declining productivity. In effect. therefore, technological penetration means less land available for grazing, fewer nomadic routes , more pressure on the land, overgrazing, and ultimately desertification.
From a purely technological point of view, imported technology goes against traditional indigenous technologies which are regarded as obsolescent. The logical approach concerning technology requires careful screening of foreign technology , an assessment of ecological feasibility in arid and semi-arid regions, and an effort to blend them with indigenous technology. Simultaneously, indigenous technology should be upgraded by the application of scientific and technological knowledge.
Unfortunately, because of desertification, traditional local technology is no longer adequate in many cases, for example, because of the reduction of pastures or because of the loss of some genetic varieties.
The third scientific and technological issue refers to the almost total lack of technology development for the management and recovery of arid and semi-arid lands. Research is urgently needed into the characteristics of these arid and semi-arid areas in order to develop suitable technologies. This includes studies of the most appropriate farming systems for each region including agroforestry, animal husbandry, etc; the study and development of appropriate irrigation schemes; research into genetic varieties of arid and semi-arid areas and their potentialities as generators of important economic activities and in general the development of biotechnologies for the use of available biological resources; and research into combining modern and indigenous technologies and upgrading indigenous technologies by applying modern scientific methods. The use of new, high-yield sorghum varieties already tested in India and Sudan should be promoted throughout arid and semi-arid areas.
The management of arid and semi-arid areas should also be studied to plan soil use adapted to biological productivity, the potential of their diversity and their seasonality. For example, the cash crop/food crop ratio should be assessed for each area as well as the type of husbandry most suitable for them.
This planning should consider a pricing policy rather more complex than the one usually applied. This pricing policy should be combined with financial assistance.
Clearly, low returns in arid and semi-arid lands are partly to blame for the lack of investment. But so is the dynamic of a cyclical drought-famine process which makes debtors unable to repay their loans or get new loans after the drought when they need them most urgently. Furthermore it is important to revise the traditional credit schemes which allocate resources to farmers as individual operators when the fight against desertification requires collective action.
The approach suggested considers that desertification can only be halted and avoided in the context of the overall process of development.
The humanitarian issues associated with desertification are inherent in the lack of development of the areas affected. Ultimately, the only real weapon against desertification is sustainable development.
The lack of development is indeed a humanitarian issue in itself. Desertification jeopardizes the process of development, creating at the same time an immediate human drama.
‘Desertification’ and not ‘desertization’ was the concept adopted by UNCOD because, while the latter put the emphasis on the material causes and dimension of the phenomenon, the former holds social activity as primarily responsible for it. Yet the review of activities since UNCOD shows a concentration of studies and projects on the physical aspects of the problem, neglecting the human dimension.
However, the physical disruption is associated with a dramatic deterioration of the social conditions of dryland people, leading to a process of disintegration of their traditional social fabric. Both physical and social deterioration broke down old mechanisms without replacing them by new ones.
Social disintegration reinforces the physical process of desertification, which , in turn, increases the vulnerability of dryland people and destroys their social and economic security.
Dryland people are quite aware of the phenomenon, yet, due to the combination of economic, social and natural forces, they are compelled, in their fight for survival, to continue to exploit ever more marginal land for ever smaller yields. The scale of deterioration means that the local population can no longer cope.
The social dimension behind desertification is a complex one; it combines particular conditions, behaviours, values and beliefs and institutional arrangements. The concrete manifestations of dryland conditions are an unequal distribution of resources, poverty, poor health and nutritional status, illite racy, low expectancy of life at birth, and infant mortality. These conditions interact with behaviours concerning size of family, roles of social members, size of livestock flocks and herds and with values and beliefs like those concerning fertility, the sanctity of cows or their slaughter and cast ration, or beliefs that may prevent the penetration of alternative solutions.
The combination of such factors, associated with prevailing economic structures and policies like land tenure and credit policies, tend to make things worse .
Finally, the incorporation of dryland societies into the world system means new difficulties because of the need to compete in world markets and because of new consumption patterns.
All these elements have often been ignored in the fight against desertification. As the African writer Aye Kwe Armah put it: ‘It is a wonder we have been flung so far from the way.’