How do we reverse desertification?


Desertification is yet another consequence of climate change that takes a great toll on biodiversity, natural resources and, ultimately, the lives of people who inhabit drylands. Along with measures to curb and compensate it, there are several solutions for bringing life back to arid lands. It is called “reversing desertification”, and it has a great deal to do with permaculture.


In 1989, in “La Chanson d’Azima”, French singer France Gall sang: “When the desert advances / Life flees / It is our decline / An impossible fight.” The song ended with these alarming words of caution: “The night is falling / Upon this dreadful emergency / And it is towards our tombstones / That the desert advances.” In the Seventies and Eighties, desertification and aridification became important concerns, as people became increasingly aware about human-induced climate change. 25 years later, desertification remains a major ecological and environmental problem. But thankfully, it is not an irreversible phenomenon. In an attempt to counter France Gall’s pessimism, here are some positive actions we can take to reverse deforestation.

The anthropogenic causes of desertification


But first, let’s briefly define the concept of desertification, and the main challenges it poses. According to the Princeton University Dictionary, desertification is “the process of fertile land transforming into desert typically as a result of deforestation, drought or improper/inappropriate agriculture.” There are thus various causes, but the bulk of them are human-induced. For example, tillage for agriculture, overgrazing, and deforestation for fuel or construction materials. However, vegetation loss is the primary cause of desertification, as plants play a major part in retaining water and enriching the soil.

Desertification and aridification cause a string of negative consequences. They are a major threat to biodiversity, which in turn depletes the natural resources of populations living in drylands. Access to water and the ability to farm are seriously impaired, and the soil becomes permanently impoverished. As Wikipedia’s notice on desertification says, “unprotected, dry soil surfaces blow away with the wind or are washed away by flash floods, leaving infertile lower soil layers that bake in the sun and become an unproductive hardpan.”

And this concerns millions of people. “Drylands occupy approximately 40–41% of Earth’s land area and are home to more than 2 billion people. It has been estimated that some 10–20% of drylands are already degraded, the total area affected by desertification being between 6 and 12 million square kilometres; that about 1–6% of the inhabitants of drylands live in desertified areas, and that a billion people are under threat from further desertification.” To make things worse, around 90% of the people who inhabit drylands live in developing nations that cannot afford to invest in reversing the desertification process and thus cannot ensure that their populations have access to adequate basic resources. As a result, instead of focusing on finding solutions that reverse or curtail aridification, people tend to abandon the deserts altogether and migrate to urban areas, swelling the population of city slums.


The importance of reforestation


The upside to desertification is that the process is reversible: it is possible to bring back water and vegetation to previously desertified lands.

In fact, some people have even been able to create oases in the middle of the desert!

Since the loss of vegetation is the main cause of desertification, reforestation is logically the key answer. First and foremost, there is much educational work to be done with local populations on the dangers of deforestation and how to curb it. Environmental organisations, social businesses and environmental funds can often provide concrete solutions to deforestation. For instance, the carbon investment fund, Livelihoods, initially created by Danone  in 2008 under the name of Danone Fund for Nature and now supported by eight other companies (Schneider Electric, La Poste, CDC Climat, Crédit Agricole, Hermès, SAP, Voyageurs du Monde, Firmenich), strives to help poor rural communities in developing countries preserve and restore their ecosystems. Livelihoods’ aim is to merge carbon offset efforts with ecosystem restoration programmes, while creating high social value wherever these actions are undertaken.

Among its six active projects is the Hifadhi project in Kenya, which fights deforestation through the manufacturing and sale of clean cookstoves that will reduce the consumption of wood by 60%, saving 13,000 tons of wood annually. More than 68% of the population in Kenya (95% in rural areas) relies on firewood for cooking and each household consumes 13 kg of wood per day on average while using the traditional Kenyan three-stone open fire stoves. This high demand for firewood is a primary driver of reduction in Kenya’s forest cover, which now stands at less than 3%.

The Livelihoods Fund finances three types of projects: agroforestry (the integrated approach of combining trees with crops for agriculture, such as planting coffee plants under the shade of fruit trees); the restoration and preservation of natural ecosystems (i.e. replanting mangrove forests in devastated areas); and rural energy projects that reduce deforestation (i.e. clean cookstoves proposed by the Hifadhi project).

These three approaches are complementary in reversing desertification by slowing down deforestation, restoring ecosystems and reintroducing natural resources that will improve the local populations’ livelihoods.


How to bring vegetation back to drylands


Yet planting trees on fertile land to compensate for the expansion of dryland elsewhere is not synonymous with reversing desertification. The real issue at hand is whether to grow vegetation on parched land. This is where various sustainable agricultural practices come into the picture, and most of them can be united under the realm of permaculture. Permaculture, as defined by Bill Mollison, who coined the term in 1978, is “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” In other words, permaculture develops a holistic approach to ecosystems by “maximising useful connections between components and the synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts,” says the Wikipedia notice.

Australian Geoff Lawton, a permaculture consultant, designer and teacher, has made it his mission to bring life back to arid regions. In this video, he shows how gabions (cages filled with rocks) can function as walls that retain flood water and rain long enough to permeate the soil.

Other innovative techniques include the use of windbreaks made of trees and bushes to limit soil erosion and evapotranspiration, digging trenches parallel to the height lines of the landscape to retain water, and erecting sand fences to control the drifting of soil and erosion. Soil fertilisation is achieved by planting leguminous plants and a variety of crops that fix nitrogen in the soil. The reintroduction of herds of livestock and wildlife is also crucial to preserve the vegetation and ensure that the soil is fertilised.

Lawton has already successfully turned “10 acres of arid, salty Jordanian desert into a lush productive garden,” writes TreeHugger. The next step for him and all the people fighting the desert’s advance is to transform such initiatives into scalable, durable and replicable systems. All deserts are different and require specific knowledge and solutions, which all require experience. The agricultural techniques to reverse desertification must also find a way to be cost-efficient and sustainable in the long-run, so that more and more people will find them worth the effort. There remains ample room for innovation, and certainly for more financial investment, in order to turn ingenious ideas into large-scale, durable solutions to keep the desert from encroaching further and threatening people’s livelihoods.  And that will surely put a smile on France Gall’s face.

Photo © Remi Benali/Corbis

  • wildfeather

    Reversing desertification is possible. There are many permiculture derived ways to implement re-greening process. The population needs to be educated in this. Education in permiculture and sustainable reforestation techniques should even be mandatory learning! As in even in our middle and high school classes. The importance of re-greening our deserts needs to be presented to all people, everywhere. This needs to be done to ensure our future.

    • Angela Padovani

      please – it’s permaculture. Your points are good but your effect on others is better if you are careful about your language

      • Connor Farrell

        please – it was just a one letter spelling error bud. there was no lose of context bozo.