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Halting the march of empty deserts

Empty desertsThe silent spread of deserts into once fertile grazing land is one of the world’s most burning environmental problems, threatening a third of the planet’s surface - about the same size as Europe.

The University of Leeds is at the sharp end of a £6.1 million (€9 million) European Union research project that will use cutting-edge science and local ingenuity to transform 16 desert hotspots around the world back into productive land.

There is a great deal at stake - safeguarding the livelihoods of more than 250 million people living in dry regions who are affected by declining crop yields, scarcity of food and global warming. But the crucial question is: can land degradation be reversed?

The five-year ‘Desire’ project involves 28 partners from every continent, including universities, research institutes, government agencies and local communities.

Mark ReedDr Mark Reed, a lecturer in participatory conservation from the School of Earth and Environment, helped to write the funding proposal for the project and feels “very optimistic” that it will be a success. He previously worked in Botswana for six years, investigating ways to revive grazing land invaded by thorn bushes in the Kalahari Desert.

Dr Reed now leads a team of seven scientists at Leeds with international expertise in computer modelling. Their role will be to analyse and evaluate the effects of antidesertification techniques applied at each of the 16 hotspots over three years, such as mulching, mixed cropping, windbreaks, terraces and bunds, and livestock and crop rotation.

The other members of the team are Professor Mike Kirkby, and Drs Joseph Holden, Mette Termansen, Klaus Hubacek, Andy Dougill and Evan Fraser.

FarmingDr Reed believes that foreign experts often overlook the complex political, economic and social factors that contribute to land degradation: “For example, Botswana has a trade agreement with the UK to supply us with organic, free-range beef, which represents their second biggest export. As a result, since the 1970s the Botswana government has carried out a massive programme of putting bore holes into Kalahari grasslands to graze huge numbers of cattle on the land. Unfortunately the cattle eat all the best plants and nothing else, so thorn bushes have taken over, creating a‘green desert’.”

Encouraging local farmers to get directly involved at each of the 16 sites will be crucial to the success of the Desire project, explained Dr Reed.

“We want to develop an enormous database of shared solutions based on local insights as well as scientific data, and then spread this knowledge as widely as possible.”

Farmer“We can empower people to recognise and respond to land degradation in simple, cost-effective ways, without having to rely on ‘top-down’ government interventions. In Uganda for example, farmers already use banana leaves to collect rainwater from trees, gathering up to 200 litres in a single storm.”

And in Botswana, local farmers have discovered that after cutting back thorn bushes, they can spread them over dry ground to protect it from wind erosion. This reabsorbs plant nutrients back into the earth, and stops cattle eating the grass before it has fully recovered.

The 16 hotspots chosen for the Desire project are located in parts of Africa, the United States, South America, southern Europe, China, Russia and Australia. After the trials, farmers will be given field manuals to help them identify the warning signs of land degradation, and facilitators will run practical workshops in dozens of villages.

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Page owner: | Updated: 28/05/07