Developing to sustain

A recent conference at Ben-Gurion University addressed desertification and its effects.

negev spring 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
negev spring 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Imagine a farmer with three sons. One son has an accident and is badly injured. The farmer has to hire a laborer to replace his son. Maybe there are high medical costs as well. To make more money, he switches from farming and raising goats to just raising goats. Perhaps he allows the goats to overgraze the area so they will be in better shape to sell earlier," Duke University professor James Reynolds presented as a hypothetical to explain land degradation leading to desertification in a specific area. Reynolds spoke to The Jerusalem Post last week at the second desertification conference held at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research on the Sde Boker campus, where he was the keynote speaker. "They say they can diagnose desertification from satellite images, but you can never talk about the subject without talking about the people," he insisted. Reynolds was among a group of scientists who recently created a new paradigm for categorizing and understanding desertification. It is a cross between sociology and hard science - where people's choices and conditions are as important as the changes taking place in the land they farm. Desertification is one of the environmental problems which affects the most people - roughly two billion of the earth's population live in dryland areas, most of them poor. It is a global phenomenon which the UN says has affected 10 percent to 20% of all drylands and is increasing. Desertification has been defined by the UN as "land degradation in arid, semiarid and dry subhumid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities." Land degradation has been defined as "as the reduction or loss of the biological or economic productivity of drylands." Both definitions are open to interpretation and strict classification standards do not yet exist. The most heavily hit areas are sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, but the phenomenon exists on all continents except Antarctica. Conflicting opinions as to the effect of desertification on climate change and vice versa abound. On the one hand, trees, grass and other plant life represent some of the biggest carbon storage systems on the planet, according to the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report (MA). One-quarter of all organic carbon and all inorganic carbon is stored in plants. The more plant life that disappears, the more carbon is released into the atmosphere, thus greatly contributing to global warming. According to the MA, an estimated 300 million tons of carbon is released into the atmosphere each year as a result of desertification (about 4% of the total carbon released into the atmosphere). It is as still unclear, however, what role climate change plays in desertification. While climate change has reduced rainfall in many places - like Israel - some plants might respond better to all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They might actually become more water efficient, the MA postulated, and flourish even with less water. Amid this massive global blight, Israel has a rather special role. While "making the desert bloom" has been a Zionist clarion call since David Ben-Gurion, it also represents a singular environmental success. Blooming, in this case, means turning land plagued by soil erosion and scarce water resources into vast tracts of arable land. Water and ecological management, as well as learning from one's mistakes, turned large parts of the Negev into farmland. It is one of the few success stories worldwide, according to conference organizer and BGU professor Alon Tal, who represents Israel at the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. While Tal has bemoaned the lack of monetary support and technology transfer to help Africans fight desertification, he noted in a recent article that Israeli side events at the UNCCD gatherings were always heavily attended and the promotional material eagerly snatched up. FROM DECEMBER 14 to 17, BGU hosted the largest ever academic conference on desertification, a follow-up to its first conference two years ago. This time more than 350 people from 55 countries attended in the heart of the Israeli desert. The purpose of the conference was to present the latest research on the subject, share ideas and arrange for technology transfer. There were more than 100 representatives of African nations; panels and sessions featured speakers from around the world as well as Israeli experts like Hebrew University professor Uriel Safriel, who was integral in compiling the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report "Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis" in 2005. It remains the definitive scientific description of the situation. Conferences such as this one are crucial for enabling the spread of knowledge to tackle the problem. For desertification has another property somewhat uncommon in large-scale environmental predicaments - it can be prevented and even solved. With the right resources and planning, at the first signs of a problem, the effect on the land can be mitigated and ameliorated. Even with moderate damage, the degradation process can often be reversed. "You have to see whether they've crossed a threshold," Reynolds told the Post. "Depending upon how bad it's gotten will determine whether the problem can be dealt with on a local, national or international level." Reynolds said his model, the Dahlem Desertification Paradigm, did not represent new ideas, but rather the combination of old ideas in a new light had yielded important new insights. "When talking about desertification, you can't just talk about land degradation. Those are all things that don't affect humans if no one happens to be living there. You have to include the people. Historically, the two were very distinct fields of research. You have to try to understand the people and the land," he said. When diagnosing the problem, there are slow variables and fast variables, he explained. Slow variables are things like soil fertility and cultural ties. Fast variables include how much corn there was this harvest, how much rain they got. The fast variables do not have anything to do with land degradation, he said. It's not just about how many new fissures there are in the gully, it's about people's decisions; it's not about poverty, it's about economic choices, he insisted. "For example, more and more young men are moving from Latin America to the United States. They're very conscientious and send money back to their families," Reynolds said, but there is no one farming the land. There is no younger generation to replace the older one. Without a younger generation, the local environmental knowledge from the old people is not passed down either. In Africa, forced migrations are also causing the loss of local knowledge, he said. So it's not necessarily mismanagement, but people's economic choices which are leading to desertification. There hasn't been any institutional knowledge creation among those who study the phenomenon either, Reynolds said. "In the past, every case of land degradation or desertification was the 'first' time. We're trying to keep memory in the system." WHILE THERE is some sense that in the First World being environmentally friendly is a "nice" thing, the overwhelming impression when talking to experts from the Third World is that it is essential. The profligate lifestyles in the Western world just aren't a possibility in the Third World. "In India, it's not possible for everyone to have a house with air-conditioning and a car," Suhasini Ayer-Guigan, an architect who was invited and sponsored to attend the conference and give a lecture on green architecture noted. She lectured on solar passive architecture which utilizes natural light but reduces heat and glare - a distinct problem in hot India. "There are 1.1 billion people in an area one-sixth the size of the US. That's 24 times the density. We don't have water, energy or money. A very small percentage are actually getting rich in India. Seventy-seven percent of the people are involved in agriculture. Most are not educated. While there is free education, there isn't enough to meet demand," she said. "How do you make sure people have a future? How do you make people think differently about sewage and how it is produced?" Phelire Nkhoma is an agricultural coordinator for the Millennium Villages Project in Malawi. She and 27 others in the program came to Israel for a month of training. She and two of her colleagues, a water coordinator and a community facilitator, were very excited about coming to the conference. "The expectation is so big. We have come to learn. Water management is very crucial when it comes to food production. In normal cases, small farmers produce most of the food for the country. We are trying to make these farms food secure and sustain production," she said. There were numerous difficulties for the small farmer, she said. High prices of imports, droughts and pest outbreaks were some of them. "Technology poses a big challenge for us," she added. There is still much work to be done to try and understand and thereby prevent and rehabilitate degraded land. Codified measuring systems are needed. However, conferences such as BGU's provide a serious forum for potential answers - and conceivably offer a ray of sunshine through the dust.