The Growth of Deserts

This morning Lagos is covered with fine dust and visibility was very poor. Often Beijing shares this fate. It is more understandable in China because to the north of the Chinese capital there are large areas of real desert, but Lagos? Lagos is on the coast and is surrounded by what was tropical forest. The nearest desert is hundreds of kilometers inland.

I heard on the BBC the statement that some 2 million square kilometers of land in China has become desert since the Chinese Communists took over in 1949. Now that is a lot of land in anyone’s language.

The growth of deserts in Africa is a matter of history. At one time the Sahara Desert was open savannah with herds of wild animals, cattle, goats and sheep. Early cave paintings record a network of lakes and rivers. Today it is a barren landscape of desolate sand and rock. Lake Chad, once a huge inland sea is now surrounded by desert and is a fraction of its former size and shrinking every year. Steadily the open savannah that boundaries the deserts of North Africa is retreating and with it the nomadic farmers that make their living from those vast grasslands.

If you want a quick lesson in the geography of Africa and its desert regions take a daylight flight from Europe to Cape Town and look out your window at the world below. The Sahara Desert is spectacular at any time of the year, the deserts of central and western Africa just as picturesque - but that is where the images below tell a false picture. These are not natural deserts but are by and large man made. They are the graveyards of ancient civilizations that had maths and physics long before their western cave man colleagues.

I found the Chinese experience particularly interesting and would like to have heard more on the subject. How did this happen, what were the causes? What was the role of the Chinese communists and their collectivization of agriculture? I cannot answer those questions but I suspect that, as in Africa, these new deserts are more man made than natural.

Here in Zimbabwe the threat of desertification has been present for many years. Peasant agriculture is based on the ability to clear a piece of virgin land, burn the vegetation and then grow crops for three of four years before moving on. Housing was simple, easy to build and had no permanence for that very reason. When they moved on, they burnt their huts and built new ones at the new location.

With very low densities of population these forms of agriculture worked fine under African conditions. But as the populations grew, the pressure on land forced people to stay in one place for much longer. Land degradation then becomes a common feature of the areas occupied by peasant farmers. A visit to any satellite image of this country will show, even to the naked eye, the sharp contrast that existed between the peasant farming districts in Zimbabwe and the commercial farming areas. The former are clearly very degraded and vegetative cover is sparse or non-existent. In some areas desert like conditions have emerged, rivers and dams are seriously silted up by erosion and millions of tonnes of topsoil are lost annually.

This state of affairs is not due just to people pressure, but also to agricultural practices and the lack of any sort of management of the natural resources being used. Population density on the ground in commercial farming areas prior to the year 2000 were in fact similar to those in peasant farming districts. In fact in the more intensive farming areas, the population density on commercial farms was often greater than in the communal lands adjacent to them.

In the semi arid regions, the depletion of the natural vegetative cover is due to constant pressure on grazing from animals - often at levels far in excess of the carrying capacity of the land in question. This is made even worse by the lack of water points forcing great concentrations of livestock in the vicinity of water sources. There is also no fencing on communal areas and this inhibits grazing management - although there is no such tradition among our pastoralists.

By contrast in developed (most of Europe and the United States and Canada) countries the general state of agricultural land is one that reflects minimal erosion, improved fertility and expanding areas of planted and natural forest. The reasons are not just weather conditions or global warming, but also management and the impact of private ownership and control over land in all its forms.

Perhaps the most dangerous action taken by African governments coming to power after a period of colonial occupation or government has been the action to strip their citizens of the right to own land on a freehold or secure basis. Many have nationalized land wholesale - often driving their former owners off the land in a style similar to that taken by the Mugabe regime here since 2000. In Mozambique and Angola the new governments deliberately drove their remaining white settlers out of the country in their hundreds of thousands and then simply nationalized all land - urban and rural.

In a conversation with President Samora Machel in the late 80’s in Mozambique I raised this issue and said that in my view, no real development or recovery in Mozambique was possible unless the Frelimo government allowed private property rights and protection of those rights under the law. I remain convinced of this.

The actions taken by the regime here in recent years to take over commercial farm land by force, nationalize land and put all farm land into State ownership, is a recipe for disaster. It is one of the key objectives of the MDC, by contrast, to undertake a broad based programme of land reform that will result in all rural land being held under some dorm of secure title that will allow the farmer to use the value of the land as collateral and to ensure that they look after this scare resource while it is in their hands. Only private ownership of land can halt and turn back the deserts in Africa.

The impact of private ownership can perhaps be best illustrated by simply driving around your own neighborhood. Look at those homes that are rented or leased. They are never as well maintained as those homes owned by their occupants. When land is owned by everyone, in fact no one has any responsibility for its care and maintenance. Global warming just makes this an even more important agenda for African governments. Once they are established, deserts are tough customers to deal with.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 23rd January 2007