Latin America: The Rapid Spread of Desertification

Desertification might sound similar to desert, but there is a fundamental difference between the two: while deserts are one of nature’s wonderful formations, desertification is a process of degradation that lands go through after they are affected by climate change, human activities, and natural forces until they eventually become deserts.

Photo by Macnolete and used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Macnolete and used under a Creative Commons license.

Although the influence of climate change on desertification has not been fully understood yet, according to GreenFacts, it is known that higher temperatures resulting from increased carbon dioxide levels can have a negative impact through increased loss of water from soil and reduced rainfall in drylands. At the same time desertification contributes to climate change by releasing to the atmosphere carbon stored in dryland vegetation and soils.

Desertification is taking its toll worldwide. At this moment it’s destroying harvests, driving up the price of remaining food, and in some areas, animals are dying. People are also being driven away from their homes, as blogger Miguel Angel Alvarado from El Salvador explains about the president’s home needing to be moved because of desertification [es]:

El traslado de casa presidencial, del Barrio san Jacinto al local en donde estaba el Ministerio de Relaciones exteriores, según informes extrajudiciales, obedece a la prevención del ejecutivo ante un posible hundimiento del suelo generado por cárcavas en este sector.

According to non-judicial documents, the relocation of the presidential home from the San Jacinto neighborhood to the area where the Foreign Affairs ministry used to be, was a preventive measure made by the executive branch to avoid a possible sink of the ground as a consequence to the grooves formed there.

The most affected continent is Africa, and this can be seen especially in Kenya, where one of the most susceptible sectors to the effects of desertification and drought are young girls. When the water storage tanks have been used up at Dago Dala Hera orphanage in western Kenya, volunteer mothers and children have to draw unclean water from a nearby river for cooking and drinking. “Going to the river alone late in the evening is making girls more vulnerable to men who can sexually abuse them,” said Edwin Odoyo, whose mother Pamela founded the orphanage.

Even though desertification has its greatest impact in Africa, Latin America’s environmental conditions are also undergoing significant transformations, as discussed recently in the Ninth session of the Conference to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Italian expert Massimo Candelori, representative of the Convention to Combat Desertification, said in an interview with Tierramerica that the situation in Latin America is worrisome considering that there is not enough information about desertification’s scope in the region. “We have no current data. One of the goals discussed during the ninth session was to get indicators that allow us to better understand the situation….the last data we have is from ten years ago” said Candelori.

In Latin American countries where farming and cattle are one of the main sectors of the economy, desertification can be a silent, but dreadful predator. At least 25 percent of the regional territory is already degraded and the population is increasingly becoming concerned about this, as it is reflected in various blogs.

Eco Briefings [pt], a Brazilian blog, points out that Brazilians in the Northeastern region are witnessing an alarming expansion of desertification[pt]:

Mais um alerta está ligado. Temos pouco tempo para corrigir as coisas. (…)

No Brasil a desertificação tem avançado na caatinga, e zonas do polígono da seca no Nordeste e Norte de Minas Gerais, e também em Estados que antes não tinham áreas secas ou desertificadas como o Rio Grande do Sul. O Rio Amazonas viveu já uma grande seca a pouco tempo, grande com mortandade de peixes.

Another alarm is on. We have little time to set things right (…)

In Brazil, desertification has increased in the Caatinga, in the zones of droughts in the Northeast and North of the state of Minas Gerais, as well as in the states that didn’t suffer of droughts nor desertification before like in Rio Grande do Sul. The Amazon River has been through a major drought just a little time ago, with a large amount of fish dying because of this.

Argentina has several areas affected as well. In the region of Valles Aridos, in the Northeast, where the main economic activity is sheep raising, it is stipulated that during the last 100 years at least 180 thousand people had to emigrate [es] (.pdf format). Southern Argentina has not escaped desertification either. Blogger Ailen Romero, comments on the blog Geoperspectivas [es] that in the Patagonia region, the government actions to combat desertification are not enough:

En la Patagonia, la amplitud del problema es de tal magnitud que ha comenzado a adquirir estado público. Pocos ignoran el tema, pero pocos tienen la posibilidad de actuar de alguna forma o con el conocimiento para hacerlo. El problema de la desertificación en el caso de la Patagonia supera a los planes que se han elaborado para combatirlo. Es por eso que no deben ahorrarse esfuerzos, ni limitar la imaginación de soluciones alternativas.”Si la geografía es la manifestación de la sociedad en el espacio físico, un espacio físico deteriorado refleja una sociedad deteriorada” afirman del Valle y Coronato(investigadores del Centro Nacional Patagónico)

In Patagonia, the magnitude of the problem is so wide to the point that the general public has become aware of it. Few people ignore the problem and only a few have the chance or the knowledge to take action. The problem of desertification in Patagonia overcomes the plans that have been elaborated to fight it. That is why efforts shouldn’t be shy, nor limit the imagination to come up with alternative solutions. ‘If geography is the manifestation of a society in the physical space,a deteriorated physical space is the reflection of a deteriorated society, say Valle and Coronato (researchers from the National Center of Patagonia).

In Chile, where 62% of the national territory is already affected by desertification [es], blogger Alfredo Erlwein expressed concern on the blog El Ciudadano [es] (The Citizen) on how little knowledge citizens have about desertification.

Efectivamente la desertificación es el problema ambiental más grave de Chile y muy poco conocido. Existen grandes zonas, como en la costa de la octava región, donde la erosión severa supera el 50% de la superficie: esto es que literalmente más de la mitad de los suelos se ha perdido por completo. En esas zonas se encuentran cárcavas de más de 50 metros de profundidad. Una tasa normal de formación de suelo puede ser de 0.2 cm por año, lo que evidencia la gravedad del asunto.

Desertification is indeed the biggest but least known environmental problem in Chile. There are vast areas, such as the Eight Region’s coast, where the severe erosion exceeds 50 percent of the surface: this means that more than half of the land has been lost, literally. In those areas there are grooves of over 50 meters of depth. A normal range of land formation is of about 0.2. centimetres per year, which proves the severity of the matter.

According to Italian expert Candelori, using soil in the carbon market will help fighting desertification; this can be decided during the Copenhagen conference. The countdown to Copenhagen has begun and the world awaits it.

Translation of Portuguese citation by Diego Casaes


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