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The human fight against the desertification: heroes and enemies

Deserts are the lands of our planet more similar to Mars. Probably, Mars was full of water sometime in the past. In my opinion, desertification is not only the tendency of some land to become a desert but it is also a very dangerous tendency for our planet. As a matter of fact, almost 33% of the Earth is yet covered by desert land.
The forces that turned Mars into a land of dust are different from the one that are transforming some of our lands into deserts. Desertification, on our planet, is a process of land degradation in arid and sub-humid areas due to various factors.

Historically, deserts were not created by human beings as desertification has been a natural process. On the contrary, the humankind has been fighting the desert, at least in the last 5000 years. For example, oases are not a natural product of nature but a masterpiece of human technology and social organization.

There are many other ancient technologies developed by the humankind to fight droughts and deserts. Unfortunately, since many of these techniques were very ancients, some of them are lost and others are undervalued by the modern and rich humanity.

In the last 1000 years our species has gone true a huge transformation, as a result, our impact on the planet is probably now too heavy to be sustainable on long term. Overall, we are now helping the desertification of many lands.
Global warming is only one of the negative consequences of the human footprint. But global warming is only one of the causes of desertification, since desertification has been acting for thousands of years. Tragically, for the last 1000 years, the modern culture has been more and more a problem rather than a solution for the desertification problem. In my opinion, it is very stupid to invest huge resources to go on the dead planet Mars while we are not able to solve the huge problems we are creating to our living planet. I must confess, that for me, the space tourism is one of the many enemies of the fight against the desertification.

Human induced deforestation and reforestation

I wrote this article for my English C1 certification, on July 2021. In fact, I had always dreamed to transform the desert into a beautiful Eden. But I decided to publish this little research after hearing the bold announcements at Cop26 in Glasgow. In particular, the imminent start of the Great Green Wall project. Obviously, if we could transform deserts into forests and grassland, we could solve many problems, including the global warming.

Human induced deforestation is the most evident and negative impact of our species to this planet. Forests preserve humidity and produce vapor; they are one of the tools to prevent soil degradation and global warming. On some latitude it is usually easy to reforest the bare soil, while in many other regions it is very difficult.

Rainforest: deforestation and reforestation

The rainforest reforestation is very easy and can be used to fight the global warming and the desertification. Actually, the humanity is constantly deforesting the rainforest.

For example, as you can see in the photo below, this 15 square km of land in the State of Minas Gerais (Brazil) was almost bare soil in 2000. This was the result of the normal human activity.

The photograph of the area in Minas Gerais (Brazil), from 2000, 2006 and 2012.

Fortunately, Sebastiao Salgado, a famous photographer, and his wife wanted to reforest that wide area around their house. They have been very determent to bring back the flora and fauna of this tropical region. With the help of Instituto Terra (institutoterra.org) they have planted there 2 million trees made of 290 different species. In only twelve years the rain forest was back, at least there.

Reforestation in Africa to fight the desert

The reforestation of almost arid soil is not easy but is very import to fight the desertification. In Africa there are already big desert and vast areas of arid soil.

The reforestation effort in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government has big reforestation plans. They planted over 350 million trees in a day, setting a new world record. But is not so easy in other places where there is less rain during the year or when the desert has arrived yet.

The first “modern white corporation” attempt to fight desertification.

One relatively famous “desert fighter” has been Allan Savory, a white Zimbabwean ecologist, biologist and livestock farmer.

Allan Savory

Until 1970 he advocated for slaughtering large numbers of elephants since he thought they were too many, and so they were destroying their habitat. Thus, his research led the government to cull approximately 40,000 elephants. However, this didn’t reverse the degradation of the soil. Actually, this cruel action led to an acceleration of the degradation of the soil. At least, this unnecessary massacre made Savory determined to solve the desertification problem.
Eventually, Savory has found an improvement to farming in very arid lands. Indeed, when the dry season arrives, many farmers are used to burn the dry grasslands, living the soil dangerously bare. In the short term, burning the dry grass and bushes was at least good for the agriculture. Sure enough, doing nothing would have stopped the new grass growth.

Savory’s idea was to mimic the nature in the arid African’s lands. He used, for a limited time, livestock (cattle, sheep, etc.) to remove part of the dried vegetation and to fertilize and break the soil. In this way, the water could have gone inside the ground and the new grass was going to substitute the old one without overgrazing.
So, the herds of herbivores, which move finding new lands to feed, are not a danger for the land like, for example, a stationary herd of cattle that will produce overgrazing. Hence, if you move the herd like in the nature, this is actually of great benefit for the health of the soil. In this way the herd can be part of the virtuous cycle which mitigates the desertification.

This is at least improvement, but the modern humanity is still losing the fight against the desertification.

The black African who stopped the desert

Incredibly, a real solution to fight desertification arrived from an illiterate African farmer, Yacouba Sawadogo. He is living in Burkina Faso, south of the Sahel desert, and has been fighting desertification and drought since 1970. His story is inspiring and moving, it has been filmed in a 2010 documentary “The man who stopped the desert”.

Yacouba Sawadogo

He started his fight against the desert using Zai an ancient local agricultural technology used traditionally to restore barren land. After many attempts, he invented his more powerful version of Zai. The main points of his version of Zai are: deeper hole, filled with biodegradable waste and, last but not least, termites. Obviously, he used also agroforestry. Namely, trees to protect the cultivation from the wind and to keep the flora and soil healthy. This is not his invention but worldwide knowledge.
Despite his illiteracy, he has been so smart and successful that his new knowledges have spread in Burkina Faso and beyond. So that now, far from the space, you can see the results of this new type of culture: the greening of the desertic lands.

The area in Burkina Faso in 1975 and then in 2005

I hope that in the future, more investment will go to fight desertification. A brilliant illiterate, without any help from his government, with only a lot of will and a shovel, has done so much. We can and must do much more!


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Enrico Filippucci
Enrico Filippucci. Profilo Twitter in

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