Desertification is a dangerous Myth – A new book explains why

July 14, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam researcher John Magrath reviews an explosive new bookJohn Magrath

I started off life as a newspaper journalist so I appreciate the power of a good story. And that’s what the concept of desertification provides. Since the great Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, we’ve become familiar with the idea that humans cause environmental desiccation and destruction on a huge scale; local people, usually, herders and pastoralists with too many animals, strip vegetation, soils blow away, temperatures climb as the merciless sun shines down on the newly reflective landscape and often, hunger (and conflict) ensues. This is a powerful metaphor – a morality tale – for what humankind is doing to the Earth, and the answers to this simple narrative can seem equally simple: move people and their animals into settlements, fence off land, plant trees.

The desertification story has had enormous influence. There is a UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the word has recently been incorporated into Sustainable Development Goal number 15. And most importantly, measures intended to prevent and reverse desertification are being pursued, especially in Central Asia and in China. Desertification in this narrative is almost irreversible unless superhuman efforts are employed – ‘great green walls’ of trees spanning nations being a popular strategy.

So it is quite a shock to be presented with an abundance of evidence that ‘desertification’ doesn’t happen – leastways, not in anywhere near the sense in which it has been explained. Scientifically it is a meaningless and indefinable concept; the desertification of the Sahel that created the scare happened for quite other reasons (and wasn’t irreversible); and the standard policies to reverse desertification generally do more harm than good, to environment and to people.

$229 and all I get is two colours?

$229 and all I get is two colours?

This is the thesis of a new book by 20 experts in the field. “The End of Desertification? Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands” is a collection of essays edited by Roy Behnke and the veteran drylands expert Mike Mortimore. Published with the help of the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development and Tufts University in the USA, and launched on 8th July, it pulls no punches (nor do the publishers – at $229 a pop, this blog is probably as much as you are going to read, although you can read a few pages of each chapter before you start reaching for your credit card, see

It begins: “The opening chapters of this book examine something that never occurred but was widely believed to have existed – the late 20th Century desertification crisis in the Sahel”. The notion of widespread, catastrophic environmental degradation was, the authors say, a non-event. And the droughts that happened did not happen because unintelligent local people were over-exploiting their land, but because of global climate changes brought about by changes in the composition of atmospheric greenhouse gases and particulates (and the Sahel is now much wetter once again for the same reasons).

Scientifically, our understanding of dryland ecology has moved on from ideas that drylands are somehow pristine environments existing happily until humans came along, to an understanding that humans and environments co-exist; change is constant; and there is no one size fits all – “ecological change is as varied and locally specific as the heterogeneous social and physical environments in which it takes place”.

That is definitely not to say that severe land degradation doesn’t happen in places, because it does (for example, the

Turns out they're not the problem after all

Turns out they’re not the problem after all

Borana plateau of southern Ethiopia – but the reasons are complicated). And it is not to substitute one myth for another – that somehow herders ‘in touch with Nature’ are always wise and innocent, a kind of ‘noble savage’ myth. But it profoundly changes the right question to ask. Saverio Kratli from the Commission on Nomadic Peoples says instead of starting from the premise that “grazing is wrong, what can we do to stop it?” you ask, “what aspect of grazing is going wrong and how can we correct it?”.

However, will “The End of Desertification?” create a new narrative? That will be very difficult (and not just because their book is very, very expensive). The notion of desertification has three characteristics of a compelling story. It is “dramatic enough to command attention; simple enough to be easily grasped; and general enough to satisfy diverse interest groups”. “The institutionalisation of desertification within the UN system has fostered the conviction that the concept must be relevant to something important” and as we know, publicists, administrators and politicians “thrive on crises and on unequivocal prescriptions for addressing crises”.

Sadly, the opponents of desertification still have no such simple narrative; basically, what they are saying is that reality is messy. And the answers are not environmental, they are political – essentially, stop seeing local communities as the source of the problems. However, even where governments have seemingly abandoned a simplistic notion of desertification for a more sophisticated understanding, as in Ethiopia, practices have hardly

Not just the graphics are rubbish

Not just the graphics are rubbish

changed; as Ian Scoones notes, “they get the [donor] money by using the latest rhetoric but nothing has changed [because] it’s about making the drylands governable by a centralised state”. In China, nothing has changed despite private reservations by many environmentalists and journalists: “In destroying pastoral communities and their way of life, government is unknowingly destroying the means to achieve its environmental objectives”.

So what does work? Mark Stafford Smith sees hope for the non-desertification narrative in dryland dwellers finding common cause with the concept of resilience, and especially, building local institutions with devolved funding and governance arrangements and supportive networks. This may, he reflects, “be a view coloured by living in a pluralistic democracy, where these interventions are hard enough; they may be hopeless in totalitarian or oligocratic systems…”.

Maybe he is right but let’s end on a note of hope. In the Sahel, ‘benign neglect’ – the inability of central government to enforce its writ has been allied to some genuine governmental willingness to listen, learn and change policies. At the book launch veteran anthropologist Mary Tiffen reflected how things had improved in northern Nigeria since her first field work there in the 1960s. She had returned recently to see and ask, what and why? Village leaders never mentioned drought shocks, or climate change, but insisted that three big changes have enabled people to cope better, and they have all been political: in the 1980s local government got some federal revenue; in the 1990s her area of research became a state in its own right with its own tax-raising powers; and lately people elected a competent governor who spent the money wisely.