• Twenty-four billion tons of fertile soil are lost every year.
• Desertification affects one-quarter of the Earth's surface and has already eroded two-thirds of its farm land.
• Two billion people are confronted with the environmental, economic, and social consequences of this silent - but not irreversible - disaster.
Desertification is not the desert advancing, but rather a haemorrhaging of the soil's vital nutrients to the point where they are totally exhausted. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) speaks of "land degradation" to describe this phenomenon. Although Africa, Asia, and Latin America are worst hit by desertification, it should not be forgotten that all 5 continents are affected.
Desertification begins with any kind of damage to the soil's natural potential which jeopardizes the ecosystem's integrity. Sustainable, environmentally-friendly production, biological diversity, and soil recovery capability are that three criteria to be taken into account in diagnosing this ailment of the earth.
Poverty and Desertification: a Downward Spiral
Although several interlinked factors speed up the decline of fragile soils damaged by radical climatic contrasts, the decline is overwhelmingly due to the actions of Man. Overgrazing, over-use of the land, deforestation, and inappropriate irrigation compound the soaring greenhouse effect and the global warming caused by the intensification of human activity, thus creating a vicious circle. The fact is that poor soil is often linked to the poverty of the people living on it. These populations are forced to overwork the land in order to survive. In the face of the short-term oriented laws of the international market, and in those regions of the world where natural resources are not estimated at their proper value, the local inhabitants, who are often among the poorest on our planet, attend to the most urgent things first. Poverty and desertification follow on from each other in a deadly interplay of cause and effect.
At the Point of Intersection of two Millennium Development Goals
To counter this scourge, in the wake of the Rio Summit, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) came into effect in 1996, affirming the will of the 190 signatory states to combat desertification and to reduce the effects of drought. In September 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development designated land degradation as one of the major global environmental challenges. In particular, it called for sustainable management of both natural and cultivated forests as an instrument to counter poverty. Thus, combating desertification stands at the point of intersection of two of the eight Millennium Development Goals proclaimed by the United Nations at the end of 2002, namely to halve the proportion of poor people by 2015 and to ensure environmental sustainability.
(Re)finding the right Responses
Solutions exist for regenerating soil, combating the effects of wind, hastening reforesting, and fostering sustainable agriculture. Making a gradual change away from intensive monocultures and back to biodiversity gives depleted soil a chance to recover, and people at risk are given a chance to rediscover a brighter economic and social future. In this process, there is much to be learned anew from the wisdom of traditional cultures which knew how to live in harmony with the most hostile natural environments, while developing flourishing civilizations that lasted for thousands of years.
The SDC focus: Bilateral Cooperation in Combating Desertification
The SDC supports the UNCCD's campaign by earmarking some CHF 50 million a year for over 70 development projects and programmes that target the problems specific to arid regions. Numerous projects are designed to preserve water and fertile land by means of sustainable agricultural production and forest management. In concrete terms, this means that local players are trained to become competent in the parsimonious use of scarce resources, while support is provided for agricultural research projects and assistance is lent in the preparation of institutional reforms in the field of environmental management.