Fighting the Sahara

Article excerpt

Keeping the sands of the Sahara Desert at bay may seem like a no-win situation, but the government of Tunisia has found a way. Now, it is serving as a model for other countries battling desertification.

Under the aegis of its Ministry of Agriculture, Tunisia plants 40 million eucalyptus, acacia, and pine trees a year to combat encroaching desert sands, at an annual cost of about $30 million--less than $1 per tree.

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"Perhaps the most tangible proof that the desert can be defeated is taking place in the oasis of Rjim Maatoug, a recently planted palm grove, nomadic settlement, and experimental market garden," writes Andrew Borowiec in his book Taming the Sahara. Borowiec is a veteran foreign correspondent and political watchdog in the Mediterranean region.

The Rjim Maatoug oasis, in Tunisia's southwest, is a government-sponsored development serving as "a green wall" against desert encroachment. It owes its success to the discovery in 1972 of a gigantic water source with tremendous pressure under the sands. The Ministry of Defense formed a special army unit to build roads, lay power lines, construct permanent housing, and manage Rjim Maatoug's progress. Members of this unit spend most of their one-year stint of national service in the desert. Tunisia uses military manpower to keep costs low.

The army also spends a lot of time helping traditional nomads adjust to sedentary lifestyles and farming. Education is essential to easing this transition, as are modern conveniences like electricity and medical care. …