No 68 January 2006.1
2006 : International Year
of Deserts and Desertification
In December 2005 Montreal was the host of thousands of delegates from all over the world; they came to search for solutions to global warming. One noted the impact of climatic changes in the poorest countries. Generally third world countries are often rightly considered as the victims of those changes. In many regions of the world, as in the Sahelian countries, this warming seems to aggravate the phenomena of drought and desertification.
The launching of the 2006 International Year of Deserts and Desertification that took place concurrently with the 60th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations was the object of a debate conference. The theme is of the highest importance all the more so that grave dangers like drought and the advance of the desert are threatening a large part of the world population; this has consequences in terms of food insecurity, migration and an increase of the causes of desertification.
This why Kofi Annan has declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. This UNO resolution will play a preponderant role in the efforts that the international community deploys to eliminate poverty, reach a lasting development and reach the objectives of the millennium for development.
Desertification engenders obvious and serious risks. It undermines soil fertility which in certain regions loses 50% of its productivity. It contributes to food insecurity, hunger and poverty, creates social, economic and political tensions which in turn lead to conflicts and a worsening of poverty and of soil degradation. According to present projections means of subsistence of more than a billion persons are compromised by desertification and consequently 135 million people risk being forced to abandon their land. The poor of rural regions are particularly vulnerable especially in the developing world.
For most people the word “desert” calls to mind sand dunes undulating under hot winds or again some nomads roaming in the immensity. But there are many other types of deserts where dunes are not customary. Thus the Antarctica or the far North is a barren area because water has frozen. As for arid regions that are found under ever hot climates, as in Arabia, and also under climates with cold winter, as in the steppes of central Asia, their common particularity is that there is on average less rain than the amount of water that evaporates and life has to adapt to this deficit. Where rain is nearly lacking, in the Sahara or the desert of Gobi, there is practically no life, except if one can extract water from rivers coming from elsewhere like in Egypt, Iraq or the region of Indus that long ago saw the great “hydraulic civilizations”, except also where one can draw from underground fossil waters that can be exploited only for a limited amount of time like to-day in Libya. Where there is enough rain to allow for grazing or even for a few dry cultures, one speaks of semi-arid regions: there are many in Africa, India, Argentina and Australia.
Algerian Chérif Rahmani, minister for Environment and National Development and president of the foundation Deserts of the World announced a high level world summit in Algeria in October 2006: the chosen theme in correlation with the international year will bear on “the desertification and the fight against poverty and migration”. There will also be next year the inauguration of the Institute of the deserts of the world, at Ghardaïa. The General Assembly of the United Nations is profoundly preoccupied by the worsening of desertification particularly in Africa and by its repercussions of a considerable weight on the realization of the objectives of development set out in the Declaration of the Millennium, in particular as regards the elimination of poverty; it has therefore decided to declare 2006 the International Year of deserts and desertification. The aim is also to heighten public awareness and to protect the biological diversity of deserts. It is also hoped to preserve the traditional knowledge of populations affected by this phenomenon. More than 110 countries have arid soils that are potentially threatened by desertification, not least in Africa, Asia and Latin America; a third of emerged countries of our globe (4 billion hectares) are thus threatened with more than 250 million people directly affected. 24 billion tons of fertile soils disappear each year. Desertification has effects on all aspects of life: the environment and means of subsistence are interdependent.
The fight against desertification in Africa
It is in Africa that desertification is most acutely felt. Barren and arid zones cover two thirds of the continent. Africa has vast areas of arid agricultural lands three quarters of which already suffer from degradation at diverse stages. The region experiences frequent and severe droughts. Many African countries have no coasts, are going through widely spread poverty: they need important external help and are dependant on natural resources in order to survive. Their socio-economic situation is difficult, their institutional and juridical structures are lacking, their infrastructures are weak and their scientific, technical and educational means are insufficient. This difficult situation explains why African countries devoted so many efforts in order to persuade the international community of the necessity of a “Convention on the fight against desertification in countries gravely affected by droughts and desertification, particularly in Africa”.
The desertification of Africa is closely linked to poverty, migration and food insecurity. In many African countries the fight against desertification and the promotion of development represent the same struggle due to the economic and social importance of natural resources and of agriculture. When populations live in poverty, they have no other choice than overexploitation of their lands. When the soil, in the long run, cannot give enough profit, people are often obliged to migrate either within their own country or even outside. These migrations risk in turn to aggravate the pressures on environment and to provoke tensions and social and political conflicts. It is important to have already established a link with migration in order to have the international community admit that desertification is a real problem of global dimension as are climate changes and the reduction of biological diversity. Finally food security can be threatened when populations that already live in precarious conditions have to face grave droughts and other catastrophes.
African countries have had a good start, but the essential remains to be done. To succeed in their endeavor, those countries affected must give absolute priority to the fight against desertification. They must create a favorable environment by adopting appropriate juridical, political, economic, financial and social measures. It is possible for example that they have to modify their regulations on the occupancy and ownership of lands, to decentralize public administration and reinforce political rights at local level. At the same time external partners must prove unfailingly their commitment by forming productive relations with the countries concerned. Finally efforts must be redoubled, especially in terms of strengthening financial capacity and help, so that NGO and civil society may remain active partners all along the implementation of those programs.
Women and desertification
“It is estimated that each year desertification and drought cause agricultural losses of $42 million. In many arid agricultural regions, for instance in the major part of Africa, it is the women who, traditionally, give their time and energy to farm work”, says the General Secretary of the United Nations. In developing countries women represent 70% of the agricultural workforce and produce between 60 and 80% of the food. It is mainly women who manage, run and commercialize the foodstuff for their family. Confronted to the degradation of their milieu, among other problems, they have learned to face them and have acquired a precious experience. “But despite their efforts and accumulated knowledge, those women from arid regions are often among the poorest of the planet and have scarcely any means to change their condition in depth”, affirms again Kofi Annan.
The implementation of the Convention of the United Nations on the fight against desertification in countries gravely affected by drought or desertification, particularly in Africa, rests for a great part on the action of women. However as it is the men who possess the land and the livestock and who make decisions, women are often excluded from conservation projects, land development, activities of agricultural vulgarization and the working-out of general policies. But some progress is perceived. In many countries women begin to have access to land ownership and to take part in decision making. Member states of UNO recognize more and more that the fight against desertification is up against the lack of financial means. This evolution opens for women new possibilities of changing their lives, their society and their environment.
Care of the environment
Deserts have not been created by man, one sometimes hears, but man contributes to desertification. Particularly nowadays an increased demographic pressure and too intensive an agriculture and animal breeding provoke an accelerated degradation of the soil and more severe drought in the semiarid regions of the Sahel for example. Human activity could modify the evolution of arid regions by some other means. It is estimated that the accumulation in the atmosphere of carbonic gas from cars, heating and other gas of industrial and agricultural origin can lead to a warming of the globe through the greenhouse effect. Consequences on the regional scale of such a warming cannot yet be predicted, but it is possible that in some odd dozens of years, some arid regions will be more so, whereas others will be less so. Man could thus trigger off an important climatic change, comparable to those that were produced in the course of geological history.
On 4 October 2004, feast of saint Francis of Assisi, Patron of Ecology, the bishops of Canada published a pastoral letter on ecology. “We human beings are presently destroying creation”. They were thus calling Catholics to take care of the environment and to respect the marvels of the globe. The text enumerates certain excesses and aberrations that the human hand inflicts on nature: disfigurement, shameful pollutions, excessive exploitation, waste of resources, unauthorized appropriation. Problems linked to water preoccupied the bishops particularly. “The Bible speaks of living waters, of the call to become a source of living water, of justice that flows like a powerful river. But how can one speak of living waters if those waters cannot nourish life any more? Without water, there is no life. Water is the blood of life on our planet.”
Bringing out the close links between solidarity and ecology, the pastoral letter invited Catholics to adopt ways of eco-justice. “To fast from actions that pollute, accept drawbacks that come from a ‘greener’ life style, reduce our consumption of fossil energy, deduct a “tithe” from time, money and talent to the service of environmental causes, all of which can constitute elements to this solution. We can contest the market hold over our lives by conscious efforts to avoid over consumption and by making use of our purchasing power to the benefit of earth-friendly enterprises.” In this message the bishops wanted not only to incite reflection among the faithful, but also to lead them to pose concrete gestures to safeguard and protect the environment. “The whole creation is the work of the Lord and it is not yet completed. We are called upon as co-creators to join God’s action and to heal those wounds that our ecological sins have inflicted on creation. We are also called to engage in creative actions of solidarity with those who have less easy access to the advantages of God’s superabundant creation. This ‘master who loves life’, who has come so that all may have life abundantly, continues to offer us occasions to renew the face of the earth. How could we refuse to take up this challenge?”
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.
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