Desertification describes a global problem that affects and threatens the soil.  It is degradation of land and vegetation, erosion and loss of fertile land.  The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines it as land degradation in  arid,  semi-arid and  sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities” (UNCCD Art.1.a).

Prof. Uwe Holtz of Bonn University points out that it is wrong to associate desertification with deserts that already exist.  Rather, it is a process in which overexploitation, overgrazing, illegal and excessive logging, mechanized framing, bad irrigation practices, forest fires and deforestation influence the process of land degradation. Desertification is a worldwide phenomenon and affects about 40 per cent of the Earth’s land mass.  The issue first came to prominence in the 1930’s when parts of the Great Plains in the United States turned into what was known as a “Dust Bowl” caused by drought and poor farming practices.  Today, more than one billion people in over 100 countries are directly affected by desertification or are at risk.  Every year an area greater than Belgium or Rwanda is lost to desertification.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) uses the criteria established at the 1977 Nairobi Conference as the basis for the concept of “desertification risk”, assessed by measuring land vulnerability in combination with current and future demographic and agricultural pressures. Climate has a major influence through three factors – rainfall, solar radiation and wind – which all affect physical and mechanical erosion phenomena and chemical and biological degradation.

Trees, because of their longevity and powerful root systems, are a primary source of protection from soil degradation.  Their absence, too often caused by human action, is a serious handicap.

Human activities are the main factors triggering desertification processes on vulnerable land. The effects of desertification are extremely serious and often dramatic for the poor populations of developing countries.  Desertification exacerbates the effects of climatic (drought) and political (war) disasters, regularly leading to the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world.

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written by Br. Fabio L’amour ofm

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