Part two: Update of recent developments

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2.1 International programmes
2.2 Production systems
2.3 Conservation and restoration
2.4 Processing and utilization
2.5 Policy, institutions, socio-economic considerations

2.1 International programmes


Desertification has made the world community aware of the fragility of the low rainfall areas and the risk involved in over-exploiting them. The tragedy of 1968-73 in the Sahel, which is repeating itself in the mid-eighties in many low rainfall areas, is a typical example of the consequences of crossing the threshold of resources tolerance under mounting population pressure. Long before the current drought, FAO drew attention to the danger resulting from the destruction of woody vegetation, particularly in the most vulnerable areas of the Sahel and suggested a strategy to curb the rate of resources degradation. The strategy prescribing action against desertification and improving the living standards of the people should be developed within the framework of integrated development of the rural sector.

Africa remains the region most affected by desertification, and FAO programmes have therefore concentrated in this region. The scope and importance of the desertification phenomena has led FAO to carry out a number of activities through its specialized Departments, which are briefly reviewed in the following paragraphs, with particular emphasis on forestry activities.


These activities are articulated around five general lines of action to answer the following questions:

Coordination of efforts of the various units concerned is ensured through an ad hoc Group on Desertification of the Interdepartmental Working Group on Environment and Energy.

2.1 Assessment of desertification

2.1.1 Desertification assessment and mapping

FAO and UNEP launched a Desertification Assessment and Mapping project in 1979, in association with Unesco, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the International Society of Soil Science (ISSS). The objective was to provide more reliable data on the rate and risk of desertification activities at national and regional levels, as a basis for international action. A provisional methodology was compiled and subsequently tested in nine countries.

World map of desertification

In cooperation with WMO and UNEP, FAO and Unesco prepared a world map of desertification to delineate deserts and those areas, mainly on the fringes of deserts, which risk desertification. The map, presented to the United Nations Conference on Desertification (1977), provides a preliminary synthesis of the available cartographic information on desertification on a global basis. It locates homogeneous areas and representative sites for monitoring and conservation and development programmes, and serves as a framework for more detailed surveys in selected areas. Data on the extent of desertification, by continent and by bioclimatic zone, are shown in Tables 1 and 2.

FAO, under UNEP funding, further worked in 1983 and 1984 on the finalization of an internationally accepted methodology for the assessment and mapping of desertification. The provisional methodology, tested for the African Region, evidenced some deficiencies which were examined at an Expert Consultation held in Rome in November 1984.

2.1.2 Assessment of soil degradation

Another project having a direct bearing on desertification is the World Assessment of Soil Degradation conducted by FAO, UNEP and Unesco. m e first phase of this project, which started in 1975, drew soil degradation maps for Africa North of the Equator and the Middle East, showing present and potential soil degradation. The assessment was based on the compilation of existing data and on the interpretation of environmental factors influencing the extent and intensity of soil degradation (such as climate, vegetation, soil characteristics, soil management, topography and type of land use).

2.1.3 Economical assessment and monitoring

Successful assessment means using simple, quick, easily-applied methods. These enable a determination to be made of the demands on the land, as well as its capacity to support human and animal life, and the future relative productivity and stability of the land and its vegetation under different forms of management.

In East Africa, an effective methodology is in use. It involves the simultaneous and repeated collection of data from three levels:

a) from the ground, by mobile teams and some fixed stations;

b) from the air, by human observers flying low over the ground in light aircraft on systematic reconnaissance flights (SRF); and

c) from space, by the colour-sensitive scanners in orbiting satellites such as LANDSAT.

A pilot project on the Inventory and monitoring of Sahelian pastoral ecosystems is being carried out in Senegal. In Botswana, a successful national range and monitoring programme has been built up for recording range conditions on commercial ranches.

In Kenya, FAO has developed one of the largest collections of East African grasses, legumes and fodder shrubs, which are now being tested and multiplied for demonstration purposes. Ability to adapt to drought and to soils with low fertility are major requirements in selecting plant species for the overall improvement of forage production on grazing lands. These plants will also help combat desertification. A further example is the search for legumes with tolerance to low temperatures in the sub-tropical areas of South America. The DEVTROP Programme (Integrated Development of Tropical and Sub-tropical Pastures), and various regional programmes on tropical and sub-tropical pasture research and extension are involved in this activity.

The EMASAR programme (Ecological Management of Arid and Semi-arid Rangelands) was developed and tested in many countries. Demonstration and development activities have been carried out in Africa and the Near and Middle East, designed to show how improved grazing management of rangelands can be affected by balancing the annual feed deficits on rangelands with adequate levels of supplementary feed (mainly provided from fodder shrub and tree plantations). Integrated rangeland projects under way in Libya are exploiting this approach. EMASAR is also involved in research, education and training. Grassland training reports have been prepared for Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, and documents on the arid and semi-arid forage plants of Africa and the Near and Middle East have been published.

2.2 Impact of desertification on human nutrition and on the basic needs of the populations

2.2.1 Agro-ecological zones

An evaluation of the land resources of five regions in the developing world and the physical potential of land resources to produce food was undertaken by FAO in collaboration with the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Considerable differences were found between regions. For example, it was estimated that dry desert conditions prevailed over 54% of Southwest Asia and 29% of Africa. It was also found that only 18% of Southwest Asia, but over 80% of South America and Southeast Asia, were suitable for rain-fed crop production (Table 3).

The population-supporting capacity of the land, based on livestock and crop products, was evaluated for different input levels for the years 1975 and 2000.

The results of this evaluation indicate that, taken as a whole in the five regions considered, the area of potential rain-fed cropland is liable to be reduced by 18%. Rain-fed crop production potential could be reduced by 29%. Currently productive land could be degraded to marginally productive land. The overall loss in production from rain-fed crops and grassland over the five regions is estimated at 19%. The situation is particularly severe in desert-prone regions of Africa, largely dependent on rain-fed production and in South America (Table 4).

Table 1. Area of regions affected by or in danger of desertification

Degree of
Desertification risk
South America North and Central Africa Asia Australia Europe
km % km % km % km % km % km %
Very high 414195 2.3 163191 0.7 1725165 5.7 790312 1.8 307732 4.0 48957 0.5
High 1261235 7.1 1312524 5.4 4910503 16.2 7253464 16.5 1722056 22.4 - -
Moderate 1602383 9.0 2854293 11.8 3740966 12.3 5607563 12.8 3712213 48.3 189612 1.8
Extreme desert 200492 1.1 32638 0.16 177956 20.4 1580624 3.6 - - - -

Source: FAO/Unesco/WMO. World Map of Desertification,1977

Table 2. Areas likely to be affected by desertification (classified by bioclimatic zone)

Degree of Desertification risk Hyper-arid Arid Semi-arid Sub-humid
km % km % km % km %
Very high     1110477 6.4 2180546 12.1 158528 1.2
High     13439968 77.3 2440098 13.6 579717 4.3
Moderate     2105167 12.1 12452272 69.4 3172905 23.3
Extreme existing desert 7991710   16655612   17072916   3911150  

Source: FAO/Unesco/WMO. World map of desertification, 1977

2.2.2 Fuelwood supplies in developing countries

On the occasion of the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, Nairobi, August 1981, FA0 drew attention to the other energy crisis: that of fuelwood, which affects the daily energy supplies of a great many rural people in the third world. A study was undertaken for the purpose of demonstrating the dependence of third world population on fuelwood as a source of energy and identifying more precisely the emergence of ever more marked deficits on the basis of up-to-date information.

The main results of the study can be summarized as follows:

1) In Asia, some 30 million people, mainly in the coldest zones of the Himalayas, were unable to ensure their energy supply in 1980, despite over-utilization of all the wood available. Approximately 710 million people were in a situation of decidedly inadequate fuelwood supplies, mainly in the highly populated zones of the Ganges and Indus plains and in the lowlands and islands of South-east Asia. It is estimated that by year 2000, if present trends continue, 1.4 thousand million people in this region will be living in zones where fuelwood supplies are completely inadequate to cover their minimum energy needs. The deficit might reach 500 million m of wood. A total of 11 heavily populated countries are mainly concerned.

2) In Africa South of the Sahara, 59 million people, mainly in the arid zones and the sparsely inhabited mountainous areas, were unable to cover their minimum energy needs in 1980, although the existing woody vegetation was over-utilized. Approximately 130 million people, mainly in the relatively densely populated savanna zones, could cover their minimum energy needs only by over-cutting the existing vegetation. It is estimated that in this region as a whole, about 500 million people will be faced with marked fuelwood supply difficulties in the year 2000 unless present trends are modified. The deficit might reach 300 million m and concern 37 countries of the region.

3) In Northern Africa and the Middle East, the situation of fuelwood deficit concerns approximately 79 million people spread over all the countries in varying degrees. On the basis of present trends, by the year 2000, about 160 million people will be affected by a deficit of over 37 million m.

4) In Latin America, about 20 million people were unable to cover their minimum energy needs in 1980, even by over-cutting the vegetation to which they had access. The zones concerned are arid or at high altitudes in the Andean region, and particularly densely populated zones in Central America and the Caribbean. About 150 million people, mainly in the rest of the Andean region, were able to cover their minimum needs only by over-utilizing the existing resources. If present trends continue, by the year 2000, the fuelwood deficit might reach 135 million m and affect about 340 million people in 17 countries of the region.

2.2.3 Assessment of the evaluation of the forest resources in the tropical world

The important depletion and degradation of forest cover in tropical zones is having serious effects on the production of forest goods and services. For this reason, at the end of 1978, following the recommendations of the Stockholm Conference, FAO and UNEP undertook a joint programme of forest resources assessment within the framework of the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS). This study shows that annual deforestation rates are 5.6 million ha in Tropical America, 3.7 million ha in Tropical Africa and 2.0 million ha in Tropical Asia. In Africa, 70% of deforestation is due to shifting cultivation.

Table 3. Major climate and growing- period zones (distribution by region)

The table shows percentages of areas Total Africa Asia America
South-west South-east South Central
Area: million ha. 6 495 2 878 677 898 1 770 272
Per cent of total area 100 44 11 14 27 4
Climate/growing period            
Cold - severe temperature constraints            
- Zero growing period 4 - 17 5 3 -
Warm/cool - no severe temperature constraints            
- Dry: zero growing period 21 29 54 4 5 13
- Inadequate growing period: 1-74 days 12 17 11 6 6 23
Sub-total: unsuitable for rain-fed crops 37 46 82 15 14 36
- Short growing period: 75-179 days 18 19 15 23 13 23
- Long growing period: 180-365 days 42 34 3 52 66 41
- Year-round humid 3 1 - 10 7 -
Sub-total: suitable for rain-fed crops 63 54 18 85 86 64
Total: per cent 100 100 100 100 100 100

Source: FAO 1983. Land, food and population, Rome

Table 4. Soil conditions for agriculture (Distribution by region)

The table shows percentages of areas Total Africa Asia America
South-west South-east South Central
Area: million ha. 6 495 2 878 677 898 1 770 272
Per cent of total area 100 44 11 14 27 4
Soil condition            
Soils with no inherent            
fertility limitations 21 19 8 36 20 44
Soils with severe fertility limitations 22 15 - 25 41 6
Heavy cracking clay soils 3 3 1 6 1 5
Salt-affected soils 3 2 8 2 3 1
Poorly drained soils 6 5 - 8 10 5
Shallow soils 14 13 26 11 11 22
Coarse-textured soils 14 20 19 6 8 6
Semi-desert and desert soils 13 16 34 5 5 11
Miscellaneous 4 7 4 1 1 -
Total: per cent 100 100 100 100 100 100

2.3 Combating environmental degradation

2.3.1 The World Soil Charter

The 21st Session of the FAO Conference (1981) adopted the World Soil Charter. The Charter establishes a set of principles for the optimum use of the world's land resources, for the improvement of their productivity and for their conservation for future generations. The Charter calls for a commitment on the part of governments, international organizations and land users in general to manage the land for long-term advantage rather than short-term expediency. Special attention is called to the need for land-use policies which create the incentives for people to participate in soil conservation work, taking into account both the technical and socio-economic elements of effective land use.

2.3.2 Special action programmes

The Forestry for Local Community Development Programme, started in 1977 with financial from SIDA (Swedish International Development Authority) support has concentrated in three areas: Dissemination of knowledge on social forestry; development of supporting materials and small-scale technical assistance at country level for training, pilot implementation, surveys; and promotion of awareness on the potential of social forestry.

The Forestry for Rural Development Programme emphasizes the development of land-use systems which integrate trees and agriculture (agroforestry) in a manner which is both environmentally sound and optimally productive for rural people. Projects funded by Norway are under way in five countries.

The Special Action Forestry and Rural Energy Programme was started in 1981 to mobilize resources for large-scale forestry projects in dry lands, with emphasis on fuelwood plantations. Projects are under way in Senegal, Kenya and Sudan, and others are planned for Mali, Togo and Ghana. While the direct aim of these projects is to meet the urgent fuelwood requirements, they are also intended to form an integral part of the rural development programmes of these countries.

The Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP) has been devised and prepared over a period of several years, commencing around 1984/85 through the combined world-wide efforts of governments, forestry agencies, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. It covers all tropical forests and includes savannah woodlands and semi-arid steppes. The Plan thus has a direct impact on forestry measures to combat desertification through its tree planting and afforestation components and its action to conserve tropical forest ecosystems as well as developing fuelwood resources.

2.3.3 Education and training in forestry

Forestry education at all levels is a major activity of FAO. In the last two decades, FAO has assisted developing countries to improve their national capabilities in forestry through its field project programme and fellowships for advanced training. Colleges and faculties of forestry have been established with FAO assistance in Nigeria, Libya, Uganda and Gabon. A survey of forestry research capabilities is under way in Africa in order to ascertain the feasibility of establishing a viable network for information exchange and cooperative activities related to fuelwood production and use.

In the Near East region, a forest ranger school was established at Latakia, and a forestry school in Morocco. Assistance was given to the Cyprus Forestry College through fellowships. Training courses in fuelwood production techniques in the Sahelian countries were organized in 1978-79.

Training for forestry development planning in the arid areas has been in progress for well over a decade. The first seminar was held in Rome in 1971 with funds provided by SIDA, in which 13 officers from 10 developing countries participated. In 1972, another seminar was organized in Ibadan for 23 officers from Nigeria. Training courses on watershed management, sand dune stabilization, practical aspects of producing fuelwood, studies on multi-purpose tree and shrub species for arid zones, shelter belts and afforestation were organized in Lebanon, USSR, Denmark, Libya and India. FAO collaborated with DANIDA in conducting some of these courses.

2.3.4 Exchange of information

Exchange of information has been stimulated by FAO's Regional Forestry Commissions and by the specialized meetings (e.g. the World Eucalyptus Conference, Working Party on Eucalyptus, Working Party on Afforestation Techniques, International Poplar Commission. Dissemination of knowledge has been made through a broad range of manuals and reference books, including "Tree planting in arid zones", "Eucalypts for planting", "Poplar an Willow" and "Tools and equipment for planting and reforestation", and through the FAO Forestry Papers (1-52), FAO Conservation Guides (1-10) and Unasylva.

2.3.5 Technical missions

Several technical missions have visited countries in Latin America, the Near East and Africa. These missions dealt mainly with shelter belts, desert control, ecology and the establishment of research stations. In 1976, for example, FAO's Regional Office for the Near East organized a mission to Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia and Libya to study desertification problems, and to draw up a research programme and the organizational structure to implement the programme.

2.3.6 Field projects

Over the past two decades many projects have been implemented in dry zones emphasizing conservation aspects, watershed management stabilization and afforestation of sand dunes, fuelwood production and agro-silvo-pastoral management. Some 40 projects are currently under way with UNDP, trust funds and TCP funding. Six of the projects are regional. Projects are being implemented in the following countries: Algeria, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chile, China, Ethiopa, Guinea, Haiti, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Pakistan, Yemen (P.D.R.), Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia and Turkey.


3.1 Formulation of policy and programmes

The interest of foresters in the development of arid zones has been intensified during the last two decades. In 1954, the Fourth World Forestry Congress paid special attention to the reclamation of degraded soils and deserts. The Congress also recognized that much remained to be learned about the precise role vegetation could play in desert reclamation projects and recommended that research be conducted under the auspices of an appropriate regional body. At the Sixth Session of the World Forestry Congress in 1966, attention was again drawn to the urgency of doing something about the desert areas. A technical commission of the Congress drew the attention of the Director-General of FAO to the need for pursuing studies of desert and semi-desert land utilization and the need to halt the advance of desert conditions especially in the critical area adjacent to the Sahara. Following this expression of interest, FAO approached the Organization for African Unity (OAU) and the Scientific and Technical Commission of the OAU held a meeting on Arid Zones in Khartoum in April 1972.

At the Fourteenth Session of the FAO Conference in 1967, a group of foresters from ten countries bordering the Sahara met informally to discuss the problem and recommended that the results of their discussions be drawn to the attention of the next session of the African Forestry Commission (AFC). The AFC discussed the marginal lands question at its sessions of 1969 and 1972.

At the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, many delegates expressed great interest in the dry lands and recommended a special programme under UNEP funds.

In considering FAO's medium-term objectives and priorities in forestry, the 9th Session of the FAO Conference (1977) accorded priority to increased and carefully planned investment, and to reforestation for combating desertification, providing watershed protection and increasing fuelwood production.

Particular attention is devoted to aridity and associated problems, especially in Africa, the Near East and Mediterranean regions. FAO's Regional Forestry Commissions have studied the problems of arid zone forestry carefully and have developed policies for land use, soil conservation, forest management and livestock grazing. The Forestry Commission for Africa gave special attention to aridity problems in the Sahel area, South of the Sahara. The CILSS/UNSO/FAO Consultation on the role of forestry in a rehabilitation programme for the Sahel, Dakar (1976) emphasized the importance of forestry and the role of foresters in combating desertification. It drew up an action plan for mobilizing the role of forestry in combatting desertification with particular emphasis on the following:

a) aspects of soil conservation and protection of plant cover;
b) studies on the possibilities of restoring soil fertility;
c) regulation of the water supply system; and
d) production of fuel, fodder and other raw materials.

Project proposals were jointly formulated by FAO and the National Sahelian Forestry Departments. The outlines of a forestry programme within the framework of a broader rehabilitation and rural development plan were established.

The 8th Session of the Near East Forestry Commission (1978) discussed the role of forestry in reclaiming degraded lands, and in increasing crop and livestock production. It was felt that owing to the large-scale land problems generated by misuse and abuse, land reclamation in the region should be given high priority, and that study of forestry and land planning should appear in school curricula. Similar recommendations were made by the 11th Session of the Asia and Pacific Forestry Commission (1981) affirming the need to integrate the two major sectors of land use, agriculture and forestry, based on scientific land use capability studies.

The 6th Session of the African Forestry Commission (1983), reviewing national progress reports, observed that 60% of land in Africa is subject to desertification which was considered the most serious threat to the African environment. Thus the main objective of forestry policy in a number of African countries is to combat desertification, and it was decided to change priorities for short and medium-term work. This would ensure:

a) the evolution of new management systems (which could increase forestry's contribution to controlling desertification, regional employment, rural development and environmental protection), and

b) the integration of forestry with other forms of land use, especially agriculture.

Recent studies prepared by the Forestry Department give particular emphasis to the restoration, management and development of arid lands. The prospective overview prepared for the 9th World Forestry Congress "Forestry Beyond 2000" devotes a special section to arid and semi-arid lands. On the other hand, two of the five Action Programmes prepared at the request of the Committee on Forest Development in the Tropics concentrate on the dry lands: "Forestry in land use" and "Energy and fuelwood". The paper prepared at the request of the Committee on Forestry "The contribution of forestry to food security" also highlights the role of forestry in environmental protection and in direct food production in the dry lands.

3.2 FAO/IBPGR/UNEP Project on Genetic Resources of Arboreal Species for the Improvement of Rural Living in Arid and Semi-Arid Areas

This project started in 1979. Its main objectives are:

The work has concentrated on specified species of the genera Acacia, Eucalyptus and Prosopis, and included exploration, collection, conservation, evaluation and training.

Some publications produced by the project are:

Additional relevant publications include:

The project contributed to a meeting dedicated to a comprehensive study of Prosopis tamarugo (a desert fodder tree) which was held in Chile in March 1984. This tree is native from Chile where 20 000 ha have been planted. Specialists on the production and utilization of fodder trees in arid zones attended.

3.3 Training

The main events related to training during the last two decades have been:

A training course on management of woody vegetation for fuelwood production for the Sahelian countries was organized in Mali, in October 1985.

A training of trainers course in French on sand dune stabilization and dry land afforestation was held in Mauritania in 1986, funded by DANIDA.

3.4 Manuals, reference materials, audio-visual aids

The following manuals have been produced:

Filmstrips, based on field activities in Morocco, Cape Verde, Senegal and Sudan were produced on the following topics:


4.1 Forestry's role and contribution

In reviewing FAO's contribution to the development of dry zones, a number of breakthroughs made by forestry both in the area of techniques and in development concepts deserve special mention:

(i) Stabilization of moving dunes, even in areas with less than 300 mm of annual precipitation, is a notable achievement. In some locations former dune areas are now providing fuelwood and small roundwood supplies but, more important, sand dune fixation has and is contributing to the halting of desert "creep" and further land deterioration;

(ii) Soil and water conservation schemes through vegetative-mechanical measures have and are contributing to the conservation or recreation of soil fertility and the provision of clean and regulated water supplies;

(iii) Protection or re-establishment of vegetative cover has and is contributing towards crop and livestock production, through the beneficial influences of vegetation on the micro-climate;

(iv) Forestry is largely responsible for, and has been instrumental in the development of wildlife management. At the same time, forestry is also making a substantial contribution to the management of national parks. These contributions have helped to promote recreation and tourism based on game hunting and viewing;

(v) Forestry, because of its vast experience in land management, has perhaps made the greatest conceptual contribution among land use disciplines towards the planning of development of the dry areas. Conservation concepts and ecological principles are not new to forestry. Multiple use and sustained yield principles have been developed and applied by forestry for many decades.

4.2 Main problems and needs

In the implementation of field activities, a number of problems were encountered and should be considered in guiding future action. These are as follows:

Social and human constraints

The control of land degradation and desertification is a medium and long-term endeavour and as such, little has been done to convince dryland populations that this activity is for their own interest and is more profitable to them than the over-exploitation of the existing resources. This is particularly true for the forest resources, and the prevailing forest laws have often prevented the involvement of rural people in the conservation and management of forest resources.

On the level of resources use, a conflict has always arisen between pastoral and agricultural activities. This conflict has prevented the integration of livestock and agro-pastoral and sylvo-pastoral activities.

Ecological constraints

Drought has been more frequent over the last two decades and this has seriously affected the food and livestock production in many countries. Because of this phenomenon, larger areas were cropped and rehabilitation activities (reforestation, soil conservation, etc.) were difficult to implement.

Technical constraints

The most important technical constraints are:



Despite an increased awareness of the fight against desertification, funding remained very low and disproportionate to the challenge posed by the problem. This has led to:

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