Foreword and Editorial Note

Desertification is a particularly devastating form of environmental deterioration afflicting arid and semi-arid areas. Its causes have been analysed and various solutions have been advanced. This Report establishes that the struggle against desertification has failed to produce satisfactory results and attempts to identify the causes of this failure at both the national and international levels. It is not proposed here to summarize the arguments put forth, but to offer additional clarification concerning the concept, or rather the concepts, of time in nature and society.

A keen observation of nature reveals that each ecosystem develops according to its own particular rhythm determined by the dynamics of the living organisms existing within it as well as by climatic, soil, water and atmospheric changes. The development of human societies naturally has an impact on each of these factors, whether direct or in direct, immediate or long-term.

The complexity of these interactions requires an inter­disciplinary analysis based on continuous and regular observation. A constant monitoring of the development of major physicochemical and biological environmental factors, and their relationships with social, cultural and economic factors, can promote a better understanding of the development of nature and society in relation to each other, and a more accurate forecasting of the consequences of human intervention. As a result, wiser choices could be made from among the various possible economic and social policies for rural areas. This continuous monitoring would also permit the detection of abnormal developments and thereby lay the groundwork for an effective warning system. Farmers and herdsmen who depend upon these ecosystems for a living have their own particular view of these changes. Their period of observation is that of their adolescence and adulthood. Vague childhood memories are supplemented by the stories their parents tell. From generation to generation, links are thus established in a chain of observations concerning the evolution of herds and land, water and desert, rainfall and drought. It is because of uncertainty that farmers and herdsmen are forced to make decisions whose consequences become increasingly serious as their economic resources decrease and their natural environment gets more fragile. The very existence of the family is then at stake. The critical nature of this struggle for human survival can never be sufficiently emphasized.

Collective memory centres upon tragic events such as famines, droughts and locust devastations. It also has a tendency to reconstruct a very distant golden age mourned by the elders. Time references such as these, despite their subjective nature, allowed people to organize empirical knowledge, develop strategies to tackle recurring disasters and adapt technical, social and legal regulations to ecosystem changes. However, this was only possible at a time when changes were sufficiently slow to enable adjustments between nature and society gradually to take their own course.

The Bedouins have inherited a long tradition of observing desert conditions, climate and populations. This has enabled them to become skillful users of scarce resources in an environment where few experts, however laden with university degrees, could survive.

In the course of the last few decades, the ecosystems of arid and semi-arid countries have become subjected to swift changes. Desertification stands as a witness to the rapidly growing imbalances. The role of the State has thus become essential in re-establishing the balances between the ecosystems and the populations which depend upon them for a living. Farmers and nomads faced with the requirement s of daily survival may have no choice but to further destroy their vital environment.

Reconstruction is more time-consuming than destruction. It behoves the State to safeguard the nation’ s long-term interests by preserving natural resources for future generations and by reconstituting soil fertility before it is too late. At the same time, the State must provide short-term assistance for those whose livelihoods are threatened by desertification.

A wealth of modern practical and scientific knowledge is available for that purpose. However, the extraordinary development of that knowledge during this century has contributed to the concealment and neglect of the potential value of the empirical environmental knowledge stored by those who are in touch with daily reality.

There is an urgent need to submit this precious knowledge and ensuing practices to modern scientific analysis and to organize a continuous dialogue between scientists, administrators, farmers and herdsmen.

Such a dialogue must be accompanied by a deep commitment on the part of responsible authorities at all levels. They must devote all their energy to ensuring a more stable food supply for the least privileged groups of society while preserving the nation’s long-term biological and economic natural resources. Only through such efforts can solutions be found in the struggle against desertification; efforts which respect the vital interests of today’s farmers and herdsmen as well as those of their descendants.

Hassan bin TALAL
Crown Prince of Jordan
Co-Chairman of ICIHI


Editorial Note

When the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues decided to establish a Working Group on Disasters in 1984, famine was spreading across Africa. It was natural for the Commission to address the humanitarian aspects of this tragic situation. The discussions which followed led to the preparation of three reports:

Famine: A Man-Made Disaster? , Pan Books, London/ Sydney, 1985; The Vanishing Forest: The Human Consequences of Deforestation, Zed Books, London, 1986; and the present report on desertification.

We wish to thank L. Timberlake who, with the help of R. Clarke, prepared the draft. The comments made by the members of the Commission, in particular those participating in its Working Group on Disasters, are reflected in the Report. It was reviewed by members of the Secretariat of the Commission. Paolo Bifani and Pierre Spitz contributed significantly to its finalization: M. El Kouhene, B. Balmer and D. Topali, of the Secretariat, helped in the technical preparation of the Report. R. Molteno and Zed Books provided valuable assistance in the publication of the Report.

Any income from sales of this book will be devoted entirely to research on humanitarian issues.

H. Beer
Working Group on Disasters

Z. Rizvi

Geneva April 1986