Just Planting Trees Won’t Stop March of Deserts

Judith Schwartz in her post “Just Planting Trees Won’t Stop March of Deserts” examines two views from different perspectives to stave off the loss of fertile land by challenging the conventional wisdom of merely planting more trees.

Read Judith’s tale of two field scientists addressing the problem from very different directions, Allan Savory and Chris Reij, say that planting trees will not stop encroaching sands.

 Despite the lack of ink, desertification is not a fringe problem. In fact, it is more likely that life as we know it will end due to lack of water (largely related to desertification) than from climate change. Some facts provided by the U.N. offer a sobering understanding: Drylands—arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid areas with seasonal, often unpredictable rains—account for 41.3 percent of the world’s land mass, including 44 percent of cultivated land. Drylands are complex ecosystems whose utility to humans is vulnerable when land and water are not sustainably managed. Each year more than 30 million acres of productive land degrade into desert. Perhaps surprising to those who see desertification and think Third World, the continent with the highest proportion of its dryland areas termed severely or moderately desertified is North America, at 74 percent.

Desertification is not a “natural” development. It’s driven by human action, such as over-cultivation, deforestation, and poor livestock management. Today 1.5 billion people depend for their food and livelihoods on land that is losing its capacity to sustain vegetation. It’s been estimated that half of today’s armed conflicts can be partly attributed to environmental strains associated with dryland degradation. A number of scholars cite desertification as a key factor in the fall of some civilizations: think Carthage, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and Rome.

These trees, he notes, weren’t intentionally planted:

“We’re talking about protecting and managing trees that grow spontaneously on farmers’ fields. A lot of tree planting has not been very successful. The survival rate of trees planted in drylands is only about 20 percent. Yet it’s continued year after year despite not such a good track record.”

Yacouba Sawadogo



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