Desertification is a strongly emotive term with significant negative environmental overtones. Much of this emotion can be defused by considering desertification as the net result of a set of processes that can result in land degradation. Each of these processes occurs naturally, but short-term climatic fluctuations, long-term climatic desiccation, human activities or a combination of these factors can accelerate the rates of these processes. None of these factors is new— climates have always fluctuated (although maybe not always as rapidly as at present) and there is a long history of the impacts of human occupation in drylands (although, again, not at current levels). We may then reason that, because of the high contemporary population levels in drylands and the rapidity of climate change, the processes that constitute desertification are currently operating at higher than normal rates. The importance of desertification is underlined by the fact that drylands (hyper-arid, arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions) comprise about approximately a third of the world’s land area, and are home to over 900 million people (Toulmin 1997). The aims of this chapter are to show:
|• desertification is so important that it is recognised globally as one of the world’s major environmental issues; |
|• the processes that comprise desertification cannot be considered simply but only in a holistic, complex manner; |
|• responses to it, like its causes, are far from straightforward; and |
|• geographers have an important role to play in future desertification research. |
The International Convention to Combat Desertification
While deconstruction of the term desertification has approached some kind of academic epitome, the term is widely used (in academia, among practitioners and in the media) and, most importantly considering its global importance, has been a key environmental and development focus within the United Nations (Toulmin 1997).
Stimulated by the Sahelian droughts of the 1970s, the UN organised a major conference on desertification in 1977 in Nairobi, which produced the Global Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was given the mandate to execute this plan, which mainly focused on national action plans, surveys of the extent of desertification and the establishment of a donor funding mechanism. Its success was limited, particularly in terms of the national action plans (which were often unfeasible and did not tackle the most important issues on the ground) and donor funding (which continued along bilateral lines). In the negotiating period leading up to the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, African states called for a further UN initiative on desertification. This call arose because they felt that their main concerns