The Growth of Deserts
This morning Lagos is covered with fine dust and visibility was very
Often Beijing shares this fate. It is more understandable in China
to the north of the Chinese capital there are large areas of real
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
land in China has become desert since the Chinese Communists took over
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,
and sheep. Early cave paintings record a network of lakes and rivers.
it is a barren landscape of desolate sand and rock. Lake Chad, once a
inland sea is now surrounded by desert and is a fraction of its former
and shrinking every year. Steadily the open savannah that boundaries
deserts of North Africa is retreating and with it the nomadic farmers
make their living from those vast grasslands.
If you want a quick lesson in the geography of Africa and its desert
take a daylight flight from Europe to Cape Town and look out your
the world below. The Sahara Desert is spectacular at any time of the
the deserts of central and western Africa just as picturesque - but
where the images below tell a false picture. These are not natural
but are by and large man made. They are the graveyards of ancient
civilizations that had maths and physics long before their western cave
I found the Chinese experience particularly interesting and would like
have heard more on the subject. How did this happen, what were the
What was the role of the Chinese communists and their collectivization
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
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
before moving on. Housing was simple, easy to build and had no
for that very reason. When they moved on, they burnt their huts and
new ones at the new location.
With very low densities of population these forms of agriculture worked
under African conditions. But as the populations grew, the pressure on
forced people to stay in one place for much longer. Land degradation
becomes a common feature of the areas occupied by peasant farmers. A
to any satellite image of this country will show, even to the naked
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
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
resources being used. Population density on the ground in commercial
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
due to constant pressure on grazing from animals - often at levels
excess of the carrying capacity of the land in question. This is made
worse by the lack of water points forcing great concentrations of
in the vicinity of water sources. There is also no fencing on communal
and this inhibits grazing management - although there is no such
among our pastoralists.
By contrast in developed (most of Europe and the United States and
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
over land in all its forms.
Perhaps the most dangerous action taken by African governments coming
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
secure basis. Many have nationalized land wholesale - often driving
former owners off the land in a style similar to that taken by the
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 -
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
or recovery in Mozambique was possible unless the Frelimo government
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
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
MDC, by contrast, to undertake a broad based programme of land reform
will result in all rural land being held under some dorm of secure
that will allow the farmer to use the value of the land as collateral
ensure that they look after this scare resource while it is in their
Only private ownership of land can halt and turn back the deserts in
The impact of private ownership can perhaps be best illustrated by
driving around your own neighborhood. Look at those homes that are
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
governments. Once they are established, deserts are tough customers to
Bulawayo, 23rd January 2007