Why the UN Desertification Treaty is All Wet

On Point No. 7

After his recent visit to Africa’s Kalahari Desert, President Bill Clinton proclaimed himself “a greener person” and called for Senate ratification of the United Nations Convention on Desertification, an international treaty calling for another round of aid transfers to Africa. Officials from 87 nations met in Paris in October 1994 to sign this Convention, following calls by UN officials for $480 billion dollars to be spend on “anti-desertification” projects over the next two decades. Unfortunately, this Convention is based on junk science and its objectives are dubious. Ratification is not in the best interests of either Americans or Africans.

The Desertification Myth. According to conventional wisdom, Africa’s deserts are expanding inexorably, covering towns and villages in a sea of sand, and destroying everything in their wake. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) 1991 calendar says, “At present, desertification affects directly or marginally one quarter of the global land surface and almost one fifth of the world population.” UNEP also claims that: “[a]t least one third of the present global deserts are man-made, the result of millennia of human civilisation or, rather, the result of human misuse of the land.”

As is so often the case, however, the conventional wisdom is wrong. The principal reason why deserts exist is that the climate in desert regions – characterized by very high temperatures and very low rainfall – is inhospitable to flora and fauna. When compared with nature, man's actions have been negligible. It is highly unlikely that one third of the world’s deserts have been caused by man’s misuse of the land.

No detectable southerly expansion of the Sahara has occurred over the last thirty years. Analyses of satellite images and data from ground-based surveys show that the southern boundary of the Sahara fluctuates around a fairly stable mean position in accordance with rainfall conditions: During periods of drought, the boundary temporarily moves southward; during periods of higher rainfall, the boundary contracts northward. Evidence also suggests that droughts have always been a frequent phenomenon in Africa’s Sahel region, although this area, located just south of the Sahara, is frequently identified as a victim of desertification. The balance of evidence does not support the hypothesis that the world is becoming a more arid place, through man’s actions or otherwise.

Land Degradation. In many cases, man’s actions have caused land degradation – soil loss, salinisation, and depletion of nutrients. But it is unlikely that such degradation has resulted in more than a tiny area. Moreover, man’s actions have often have the opposite effect. For example, in the arid district of Kenya called Machakos, severe droughts in the past killed many thousands of people. In the last seventy years, population growth has enabled local people to invest in labor-intensive soil conservation techniques which increase agricultural output. As a result, the effects of droughts are today much less severe.

The claim that desertification affects “one quarter of the world’s land area” is based on very dubious statistics. It is true that much of the world’s arid land in risk of soil degradation, but desertification is an extreme that requires an inconceivably low amount of investment in soil conservation. Even where the land on the desert fringes becomes degraded, the people living there usually adapt to the new conditions, eventually reversing the process. For example, in Mali, where overgrazing of cattle denuded the marginal land, so the nomads switched to grazing goats, which could eat the remaining thorny acacias. The goats excreted acacia seeds into the denuded areas causing them to blossom once again.

Finally, the degradation that is taking place is not a necessary result of man’s presence on the land. Rather, it is often caused by state intervention in land use practices – especially nationalization and subsidies. The threat of nationalization reduces people’s incentive to invest in soil conservation, since individuals are skeptical that today’s will bring a return tomorrow. Government agricultural subsides to fertilizers, pesticides, and water, as well as price support systems, result in land overuse. Despite their adverse effects, nationalization and subsidies have been persistent features of he economies of developing nations for the past fifty years, due in large part to the international aid bureaucracy. Given this, the suggestion that current conditions can be improved by more of the same is disingenuous.

Desert Colonialism. The myth of the expanding deserts has been a long-standing one in Africa. It was originally invented in the late nineteenth century by colonial agriculturists, who argued that the ‘natives’ were overgrazing and overcultivating their land. These arguments were used to justify the theft of millions of animals from indigenous people.

Officials from USAID and other agencies added impetus to the myth in the 1970s to gain funding for more projects in Africa. These agencies spent billions of dollars on “anti-desertification” projects – most of which went to bureaucrats and scientists rather than on soil conservation plans.

While serving the needs of the colonialists, neo-colonialists and aid agencies, the desertification myth perpetuates a false conception of the problems that face people in developing countries, thereby contributing to their continuing misery. Where people have been left alone, free to establish institutions of their own and to trade with the outside world on their own terms, they typically fare well – as economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, no democracy has ever experienced a famine. It is now time for the people of the developing world to be allowed a chance to be themselves. Ratification of the Convention on Desertification would create a further excuse for bureaucrats to impose their silly ideas on people in developing countries. It is a very bad idea.



Julian Morris is a Research Fellow at the IEA Environment Unit in London, and the author of The Political Economy of Land Degradation (1995), available from the IEA ([email protected]).This paper was adapted from an article published in the December 1996 PERC Reports.

1 Poverty and Famines (London: Oxford University Press, 1981).