Part one: A strategy on the role of forestry in combating desertification

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1. Scope of the problem
2. The role of forestry
3. Conceptual framework, goals and strategy for action
4. Elements for an action programme
5. International cooperation to develop proposed action


1. Scope of the problem

Arid and semi-arid lands, together with their sub-humid margins, constitute what are called "dry regions, dry zones or dry lands" and cover a global area of about 45 million kmē. It is in this area that desertification is taking place and endangering the livelihood of some 850 million inhabitants.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has estimated that a total of 35 million kmē of the world's range, rainfed crop land and irrigated land - an area approximately the size of North and South America combined - is affected by desertification. Currently, each year some 21 million ha are reduced to a state of near or complete uselessness. Projections to the year 2000 indicate that a loss on this scale will continue, if nations fail to step up remedial action. Inevitably the attrition of productive land at such a rate must lead to disaster.

This is already occurring in developing nations and is now spreading to industrialized countries, some of which - notably Australia and USA - are experiencing serious desertification problems of their own. In the USA alone, about 100 million ha of land are undergoing severe desertification.

A new understanding of the desertification problem reveals its universal impact and causes, which extend well beyond the drylands most immediately affected. Desertification not only destroys a nation's productive resource base, and hence causes famine and starvation during prolonged dry periods, but also causes the loss of valuable genetic resources, increase in atmospheric dust (which could have as yet unknown consequences on the global climate), disruption of natural water recycling processes, loss of markets and the disruption of national economies.

Forestry has a major role to play in reversing the desertification trend and in providing an excellent long-term investment in the valuable natural resources needed for continued development.

It was toward this end that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organized in Saltillo (Mexico) from 24-28 June 1985, as a satellite meeting to the Ninth World Forestry Congress a consultation on the role of forestry in combating desertification. The consultation reviewed and assessed the present state of knowledge in the arid zone forestry field, discussed research and application of existing knowledge and outlined a strategy and proposals for action to enhance the role of forestry in combating desertification. The components of this strategy are summarized in the following sections.

2. The role of forestry

The problem of development of arid lands, and the improvement of the well-being of people living on them, is one of both magnitude and complexity; magnitude in terms of the large area involved and complexity in that their development cannot be disassociated from their ecological, social and economic characteristics.

- Ecological factors

One of the fundamental development problems of arid and semi-arid lands (irrigated areas aside), is that they cannot easily be differentiated into categories for "single purpose uses". This difficulty stems from two main factors; the first is a purely natural one. Since environmental conditions are precarious and, in particular, precipitation is seasonal and erratic in distribution, it is difficult to distinguish between "forest", "bush" or "grazing lands" (as in the case of temperate regions, for instance) because trees, shrubs, herbs and fortes are closely inter-mixed and ecologically interdependent. This close interdependence of various vegetation forms is epitomized by the fact that under drier conditions, the vegetative period of herbaceous plants becomes steadily shorter, as aridity increases and as such plants are found mainly under the shelter of trees and bushes. The second difficulty in segregating lands for single-use development relates to economics. Due to unfavourable environmental conditions the natural vegetation is open, ranging from woodlots to scattered, isolated trees and bushes. This means that prospects for the development and management of vegetation for timber production per se are uneconomic. At the same time, due to erratic patterns of precipitation, average yields of agricultural crops are not only low, but also subject to wide fluctuations. During periods of prolonged drought, it is only the woody vegetation which survives and provides the natural forage for both domestic livestock and wildlife. Thus, forest management needs to recognize the dependence of man (and his livestock) for food, wood and fibres and for other "social services" on the one and same area of land, irrespective of whether it is called forest, wildland or rangeland.

- Social factors

Dry land areas are often inhabited by populations which, despite their role in the national economy (livestock, handicraft, mining, etc.) have not been sufficiently involved in national development. Their land-use practices evolved at a time when population and livestock demands were more or less in balance with the inherent capacity of these lands; when unwritten agreements between tribes, regulating the use of resources, had the force of law; when the nomad was a silvopastoralist, taking full advantage of "total production" and when his management of resources was based, through experience, on conservation principles.

The impact of a monetary economy, disruption of traditional customs and increasing population, without corresponding adjustments in land-use practices, have disrupted the former balance. As a result, many of the land-use practices employed in dry lands are now antagonistic; the cereal fallow system found in many areas restrains both cereal and livestock production, unregulated grazing results in conflict between livestock production and the survival of the vegetative cover, and speculative cultivation on fragile ecosystems goes against basic ecological principles. The overall result of this land abuse is impoverishment and the onset of desertification. Because of the fluctuations in climate, this phenomenon is self-accelerating. Among the adverse effects on dry land populations are hunger and emigration, brought about by continued crop failure or the massive destruction of livestock, particularly in marginal subsistence societies. As droughts continue, life-support systems will collapse together. Social disasters stemming from the collapse of life-support systems are now better understood in terms of their serious effects on the national economy, which has to provide drought relief to the afflicted populations. Some societies have worked to incorporate their most remote and vulnerable populations into the community at large. Such actions are most effective when they support dryland people in their efforts to maintain sustained productivity, in their harsh and demanding environment.

The incorporation of these populations in the national development process poses a considerable socio-economic challenge. This is compounded by the fact that populations continue to increase in the low rainfall areas, without a corresponding increase in extra agricultural employment possibilities.

Any intervention in the low rainfall areas should, therefore, recognize the need for restoring the balance in human resource relationships and the incorporation of dry land populations in the mainstream of the national development process.

- Economic factors

Low productivity of the resource base in the dry zones, coupled with fluctuations in yield, due to low and erratic precipitation, has tended to discourage investment and the development of scientific inputs to conserve and develop the productivity of low rainfall areas. Whereas the argument for giving priority to allocation of development funds to the more productive areas may seem to be justified in terms of bank criteria, such policies, where adopted, have set in motion a vicious circle whereby lack of adequate investment (financial and technological) perpetuates retrogressive management and an anaemic economy in low rainfall areas, because of the degradation of natural resources. Even from an economic viewpoint, the validity of this option is doubtful. Concentration on more productive areas has most often been synonymous with concentration on cash crops, for which dry areas are generally ill-suited. The resulting distortion, in terms of insufficient foodcrop production, has had severe economic as well as social consequences in many parts of the dry region. Treatment of these areas as anti-priorities, and hence areas to be neglected when establishing priorities for development, has accentuated socio-economic disparity within the rural sector itself, between "favourable" and "less favourable" land areas and their populations and generated disruptive pressures. It has prevented the low rainfall areas and their people from making a greater contribution to, as well as benefiting from, overall economic and social progress.

There are, however, valid economic possibilities for return on investment. For instance, if crop production is integrated with livestock, then low yields in crops could be partly offset by income from livestock products. With further integration of crops, livestock, forestry, wildlife, cottage industries, etc., investment possibilities are more likely to move from "marginality" to profitability.

Thus, for physical, economic and social reasons, development strategies need to aim at "total production" through first, promoting the horizontal integration of production (agrosilvopastoral management) and second, the vertical integration of the products of the land with processing and marketing, in order to maximize investment.

Forestry has a major role to play in such a development strategy because:

3. Conceptual framework, goals and strategy for action

The proposals for action to enhance the role of forestry were conceived within the framework of the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification (PACD) adopted in 1977 by the UN Conference on Desertification.

The following principles constitute the conceptual framework within which the action proposals on the contribution of forestry to conservation and the prevention of desertification processes were conceived :

The above principles are also in line with those elaborated by the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD) and the Jakarta Declaration which emanated from the 8th World Forestry Congress.

Bearing in mind the above principles, the main objectives of the action proposals are:

i) to enhance the place of forestry and woody vegetation within sound land husbandry, so as to ensure that the whole system contributes effectively to the production of goods and services and to the wider aim of food security;

ii) to enhance the benefits to the community by appropriate use of forest resources and to involve the community in their expansion, diversification, management, conservation and rehabilitation;

iii) to create awareness among politicians and the public of the contribution of forestry to sustained use of the resource base; to minimize damage and degradation caused by desertification, salinity, droughts and torrential phenomena to food security and rural development;

iv) to ensure that forestry is made a vital part of national plans regarding food security, conservation and prevention of desertification.

The strategy to promote the above principles and objectives consists essentially of a more effective presence of forestry institutions and foresters at all stages of the decision making process, by participation in sectorial and multi-sectorial fore; by more actively using the mass media; by becoming part of, or organizing, pressure groups or lobbies to influence policy making and legislation, and by presenting forestry programmes in a way which will be attractive and understandable to politicians, planners and administrators. At the international level, there is a need to foster umbrella programmes and regional projects which contribute to the above objectives. The promotion of Technical Cooperation between Developing Countries (TCDC) arrangements, particularly the establishment of regional and sub-regional networks and working groups, could also catalyze the exchange of expertise and experience. At the national level, the role of forestry should receive more emphasis when plans to combat desertification are conceived and implemented.

4. Elements for an action programme

The structure of the package of proposals designed to foster forestry's contribution to checking and reversing desertification corresponds to the three main areas covered by the Working Groups established during the Expert Consultation. These covered:

A. The production, utilization and processing component aims at promoting the integration of the various production, utilization and processing systems in a coherent land use management plan and programme. Priority actions for each of the sub-components are the following:

i) Forestry systems:

ii) Combined production systems

iii) Wildlife production systems

iv) Processing and utilization

a) Native woody vegetation

b) Non-woody plants

c) Wildlife

B. The conservation and restoration component envisages to investigate, through surveys, studies and applied research, of conservation practices suited to the needs of dry areas, and the development of techniques and methods for the conservation of the resources of these areas. Recommended areas and projects have been grouped under four main headings, namely: Wind control; Water conservation; Land restoration and revegetation; and Wildland, wildlife and genetic resource conservation.

B.1 Wind Control

i) Shelterbelts and windbreaks

Studies must be performed at two different levels:

a) Regional : Information is needed on the effect of windbreaks at a regional level.

b) Local: At a local level the following points require examination:

c) Aspects requiring further study and research

Testing of species and combinations there of for different sites and types of crops to be protected. Special attention should be given to multipurpose use of windbreaks (e.g. wood, fruits, honey).

ii) Control of wind erosion

a) Prevention by developing techniques which can be used to avoid wind erosion, including:

b) Reduction of wind erosion. The following points should be developed:

B.2 Water conservation

i) Watershed management

Action on watershed management is recommended at three levels: a) International

b) Regional

c) National

ii) Water harvesting

B.3 Land restoration and revegetation

The major need identified for restoration and revegetation of degraded land is for the establishment of successful projects at the village level and their support through networking arrangements. Projects may involve combinations of forestry, range, agricultural and appropriate industrial activity. It was recommended that:

B.4 Wildland, wildlife and genetic resources

The following action is required at national, regional and international levels:

National-level action

Regional-level action

International action

C. The policy, institutions and socio-economic aspects component provides guiding principles for policy formulation, proposals for strengthening forestry administration, education and training, information and extension and a strategy for finance. Since the elements relate to policy and basic institutions, it is not possible to allocate priorities. With regard to institutions, the following points deserve attention and priority:

5. International cooperation to develop proposed action

The proposals for action recommended by the Expert Consultation under the three main subject areas could constitute an Action Programme to be implemented with the technical and financial support of the international community. Although specific action addressed at global, regional and national levels still needs to be quantified in terms of resource requirements, and clear priorities need to be defined to tackle the problem in those countries most threatened by desertification processes, the proposals highlighted above provide a general action framework. This could assist donors in recognizing needs and permit technical and financial assistance sources to better focus their efforts. A comprehensive action programme to enhance the role of forestry in combating desertification would need the close cooperation of the international community to maximize the impact of resources and capabilities.

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