Millions at risk in expanding dust bowls

THE WORLD is running short of fertile soil. The UN estimates that 900 million people dependent on agriculture in the drylands of the Americas, Africa and Asia are at risk - one sixth of the world's population - and says loss of soil fertility represents a greater threat to the poor than global warming or holes in the ozone layer.

This week in Paris, delegates from more than 100 nations hope to conclude negotiations aimed at halting the degradation of croplands and pasture. But as the talks on an International Convention to Combat Desertification broke up for the weekend, they were bogged down for the usual reason - money. Developing countries were holding out for an increase in foreign aid, which rich countries had no intention of conceding.

Bo Kjellen, the Swedish diplomat chairing the talks for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), believes it will all be sorted out by Thursday, in time for the closing ceremony. Recent negotiations of UN environmental and development treaties have seen the Third World forced to accept the harsh reality that they cannot make the wealthy promise money. On the contrary, aid budgets have been in decline due to global recession and new demands from Eastern Europe.

But the desertification treaty does not depend on increases in aid to be effective. Its premise is that much of the billions of pounds put into attacking the problem so far have been misdirected and achieved nothing. It calls for changes in the attitudes and conduct of the ruling elites in developing countries.

Anything can be grown in abundance in the drylands and deserts, given enough money, fertiliser, water and technology. Saudi Arabia grows thousands of tonnes of wheat a year. But peasant farmers in arid areas lack those resources. A dearth of fertile soil drives them on to marginal lands, such as steep hillsides, where poor crop yields soon get worse.

The chopping down of trees for fuel and overgrazing are to blame for thinning out roots and leaves which protect soil from wind and water erosion. Irrigation has also damaged soils, leaving the top encrusted with salt, and useless.

UNEP estimates just under a tenth of the world's land surface is significantly degraded. An area the size of Italy is said to be no longer usable for agriculture and difficult or impossible to restore. In sub-Saharan Africa, per capita food production fell by nearly 10 per cent between 1986 and 1992.

In the 1970s and 80s the idea that deserts were on the march became fashionable. It was widely reported that the Sahara was moving south at 30 miles a year, with farming and grazing at its margins mainly to blame.

Those alarmist notions are now largely discredited. Satellite images and research have shown that far from there being a one-way expansion caused by Mankind, deserts expand and shrink as rainfall changes over the years.

This debate over how much dryland crop failures and shortages are due to natural drought and how much to man-made degradation is a sterile one. From the north-east of Brazil to the north- west of China and all through Africa's Sahel, the twin causes are inextricably linked.

Rainfall and soils need to be conserved from one year to the next, yet population growth and poverty compel peasant farmers to do otherwise. They have to grow as much as they can wherever they can to feed their families, even if they degrade the soil and leave it more vulnerable to erosion.

Camilla Toulmin, an expert on drylands at the London-based International Institute of Environment and Development, has a diagram of the causes of desertification. She lists 24, including no access to credit, insecure land tenure and high levels of government debt to industrialised nations.

Can a new treaty do anything to tackle this complex problem? Sceptics point to the last similar UN effort, the 1977 Action Plan to Combat Desertification, now regarded as a failure.

Mr Kjellen says this time the emphasis is on the dryland herders and farmers. Only with the support of villagers can soils be conserved, droughts resisted and degraded lands brought back into production.

Another belief reflected in the convention is that the solutions are often low-technology, labour- intensive ones which tap into local folk wisdom and long experience of the environment.

Mrs Toulmin, who has advised the treaty's secretariat, says the convention sets out a code of conduct for both developing countries and aid-giving nations. Rights for local people are an important element; if they are in danger of being evicted from their land to make room for civil servants and government supporters, they can never take a long-term view on conserving it.

If the forestry department refuses to let them chop down trees they themselves have planted, why should they bother in the first place? Mrs Toulmin says: 'Soil and rainfall conservation won't happen unless people feel secure about their rights over their land'.

(Map omitted)

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