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close this bookSocial and Environmental Aspects of Desertification (UNU, 1980, 38 pages)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentIntroduction
View the document1. Tucson-the city and the desert
View the document2. Regional reports on desertification
View the document3. Reports of thematic study groups
View the document4. Reporting session on related MAB projects in the united states
View the document5. Panel discussion: problems of livelihood and desertification
View the document6. Contributed papers
View the document7. Session on United Nations University sub-programme on assessment of the application of knowledge to arid lands problems
View the document8. United Nations activities to combat desertification
View the document9. Field excursion reports
View the documentAppendix A: list of participants
View the documentAppendix B: programme

7. Session on United Nations University sub-programme on assessment of the application of knowledge to arid lands problems

This session was introduced by Mr. Lee MacDonald, Programme Officer, Natural Resources Programme, United Nations University. Mr. MacDonald referred to the University's Charter, which defines it as "an international community of scholars, engaged in research, postgraduate training and dissemination of knowledge in furtherance of the purpose and principle of the Charter of the United Nations." With its headquarters in Tokyo, the UN University functions through a network of research and postgraduate training centres and programmes in both developing and developed countries. It achieves this principally by developing relationships with other institutions around the world and by the award of UN University Fellowships for postgraduate training and research at the various associated institutions and research and training units.

In its aim of directing its research "into the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare," the University has initiated three programmes, namely World Hunger, Human and Social Development, and the Use and Management of Natural Resources. It is with the last-named Programme, established in February 1977, that the interests of this Working Group are most closely linked, and especially its sub-programme on the Assessment of the Application of Knowledge to Arid Lands Problems. The basic premise of this sub-programme is that existing knowledge, while by no means complete, is sufficient to alleviate the most immediate problems of arid lands. Thus initial efforts are directed towards identifying the factors that prevent the effective transfer and use of existing knowledge, and the sub-programme is now considering how to develop and implement means for overcoming the difficulties identified. Institutional links have already been forged with the University of Khartoum in the Republic of the Sudan, and the University of New South Wales, Australia, and expansion is planned to Latin America and southern Asia during 1979. Ten additional research projects have been commissioned, and the first results are expected to be published late in 1979.

Mr. MacDonald noted that the UN University Natural Resources Programme is also concerned with energy systems in rural communities, especially the adaptation and introduction of solar energy. Insofar as some of the most severe energy shortages are to be found in arid lands in developing countries, this sub-programme is potentially very relevant to the Working Group.

Professor J.A. Mabbutt expressed his gratitude as Chairman of the Working Group for the support given by the United Nations University to the Tucson Meeting and to its other activities. The close links between the activities of the Working Group and those under the University sub-programme had been mutually beneficial. Many members of the Working Group had been carrying out commissioned studies under the Sub-programme, some of which are reported below.

In conclusion, Professor Mabbutt pointed out that the theme of the arid lands sub-programme is one that had been expressed in the past by UN task forces and was clearly embodied in the UN Plan of Action to Combat Desertification: namely, problems in the development of arid lands rest less in the fundamental lack of knowledge and technology than in the difficulties of applying this knowledge within the communities affected. It was a theme that brought together technologists and physical, biological and social scientists, and one in which the perspective of the geographer was of great value.

Research into the Perception of Desertification, 1976 to 1978

Dr. R.L. Heathcote of The Fiinders University of South Australia reported on a group of studies under his direction. He noted that the Ashkhabad Symposium of the Working Group provided sufficient evidence of variations in the definition and knowledge of and attitudes to desertification processes, as reflected in reports by Glantz, Heathcote and Malhotra, to encourage a subsequent proposal to the United Nations University for a modest research effort on the perception of desertification. His report outlined progress on that research up to the end of 1978.

Most definitions of desertification acknowledge the role of human activity in stimulating if not always initiating the process, and acknowledge that the process itself poses a problem to resource management on local, regional, national and global scales. Any research which attempts to understand the rationale behind those acknowledgements, and the views of those concerned on the nature of the problems for resource management, might provide a better understanding of the phenomenon of desertification and give some guidance on how best to act to mitigate its impact.

Since the mid-1960s, the so-called behavioural revolution in geography has provided studies of systems by which environmental information is acquired, understood and used in decision-making processes. The studies have ranged from environmental psychology, through general spatial behaviour and planning, to human adjustment to natural hazards and general studies of the philosophical contexts of historical and contemporary climates of opinion. Such studies raise questions and provide methodologies pertinent to research into the perception of desertification. Studies of natural hazards are particularly relevant since they have shown that the hazard exists at the interface between the natural event system and human activity-a situation directly parallel to the desertification phenomenon-and that the impact of the hazard and adjustments to it depend in part upon the perception of it by the persons at risk. This similarity of subject matter was seen as justification for an attempt to use natural hazards methodology in a study of the perception of desertification.

The research projects proposed in 1977 and now reported upon were designed as case studies under the general heading of perception of desertification. The basic aims were:

(i) to identify perceptions of desertification in each case; and
(ii) to define and illustrate the role that such perceptions play in human reactions to desertification. If such identification were possible and the role proved to be a significant explanatory variable, the next step (not yet attempted) would be to try to assess how this knowledge might be used to mitigate the adverse impacts of desertification.

Perception of Desertification on the Great Plains of USA: R.L. Heathcote The aim was to provide a review of the perceived threat of soil erosion in the Great Plains from the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s to the present. A visiting teaching post at the University of Nebraska (January to June 1978) made it possible to acquire basic historical and contemporary documentation on the threat of soil erosion in the southern Great Plains. A field trip through the old Dust Bowl area provided interviews with farmers and officials (particularly of the Soil Conservation Service) who had long experience of soil erosion problems, some even back to the 1930s.

While the findings of such a brief research exercise must be regarded as preliminary and tentative, they were outlined as follows for information:

(i) Perceptions of soil erosion vary between farmers, between officials, and between farmers and officials.
(ii) This variation has affected and still seems to affect attitudes and reactions to the phenomenon.
(iii) Officials express concern at the assumed productivity losses, at the supposed deterioration of the soil as a national resource, and at the problem of keeping air and water pollution from soil erosion within the legal limits currently being enforced by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, rivalries between official agencies have brought differing resource management policies, and alternating stop-go federal controls on agricultural production have produced sequences of constrasting and even contradictory pressures on farmers and have occasionally countered official soil conservation programmes.
(iv) Whilst generally enthusiastic in the 1930s about official conservation policies, farmers have subsequently reacted with more muted interest. Faced by commercial constraints, farmers have quite logically concentrated on profits, whether from Soil Bank payments, dry cropping, irrigation farming, livestock, oil leases, or real estate deals. Absentee owners, suitcase- and sidewalk-farmers, innovators and diehard traditionalists, all present a varied array of reactions to official policies, of management systems and of attitudes to farming in general.
(v) Although several academics have recently dismissed the possibility of another Dust Bowl, arguing that soil conservation technology could meet any threat, the variety of preceptions of the problem, the increasing dependence upon continuous cropping and emergency tillage for erosion control, the approaching exhaustion of the aquifers upon which irrigation depends, and the economic pressures on the farmers to produce, will make the area increasingly vulnerable to the next major drought sequence.

Perception of Desertification in the Mallee of South Australia and Victoria: R. L. Heathcote

An original field survey, of a semi-arid crop-livestock area astride the South Australian/Victorian border which was badly eroded in the droughts of the 1940s and 1950s, is being updated. Droughts and associated soil erosion in the 1977-1978 season have illustrated the continuing problem in this area, and the aim is to complete the analysis of the earlier survey and attempt a comparison with the contemporary review of the perception of soil erosion in the area.

Perception of Salinization in South Australia: M. Butler

In an average year, the River Murray supplies 66 per cent of South Australia's total water consumption, and in a drought Year this can rise to 83 per cent. Increasing salinity of the river water poses a serious threat to the future of the state's irrigation farms along the river and to the domestic water supply of the state capital, Adelaide. Butler has just completed a survey of irrigation farmers, Adelaide and officials which demonstrates the variety of perceptions of the salinization problem. In a situation similar to that of the Colorado River, South Australia faces environmental problems compounded by political rivalries with the other two upstream states and by a varied local perception of the basic problem of salinity.

Perception of Desertification in Sri Lanka: M.U.A. Tennakoon

The Dry Zone of Sri Lanka is currently undergoing a slow but steady desertification as rising population and living standards put pressure on the interrelated paddy irrigation and shifting dry-farming (chena) agricultural systems. A two-month field survey of sample sites in the Dry Zone has just been completed. Interviews with local farmers and officials have shown complex attitudes to the risk of drought and to the demographic and economic pressures facing the area. With limited water supplies, the only possibility for increase in production appears to be to reduce the returntimes for chena plots on the deteriorating wooded interfluves.

Although as yet incomplete, the research studies described above have already demonstrated the variety of perceptions of desertification which exist, and have provided some evidence of the influence of such perceptions on individual reactions to the phenomenon. The next stage will be to try to suggest ways in which these findings might be used to mitigate the impact of desertification.

Impact of an Arid-Zone Research Station on Local Land-use Problems: Examples of the Central Arid-Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur, India

A Preliminary Report: J.A. Mabbutt This study is part of a projected series of enquiries into obstacles to the application of existing knowledge to arid lands problems and deals with relationships between an arid zone research institute and problems of land management in its region. The Central Arid-Zone Research Institute, Jodphur, India (CAZRI). was selected for the study because:
- it is situated in one of the world's most densely populated dryland areas, with severe problems of increasing land pressure and diminishing productivity;
- the Institute has a record of 25 years of research into arid zone problems, and an even longer history of investigations into problems of afforestation and soil erosion, during which it had established a world wide scientific reputation, and this is well recorded in reports and publications;
-the essential collaboration of the Director of CAZRI, Dr. H.S. Mann, and that of his staff, was freely available.

A period of four weeks was spent at the Institute in January and February 1978, when research staff were interviewed, visits were made to field sites, and reports and other materials were assembled. Unfortunately these materials did not arrive in Australia until the latter part of the year, and this report is a preliminary statement only.

Essentially the investigation was conducted from the research station end, looking towards the land user, and the questions put to those interviewed included:
- How far have local problems influenced priorities in your research?
- What channels exist for translating research findings into local land management practices, and conversely for the research scientist to become aware of local problems, and how might these be improved?
- What is your own assessment of the effectiveness of research conducted at the Institute in alleviating local land management problems?

The organization of the Institute would appear to assist in several ways in establishing contact between the research scientist and the land user, notably:
-the survey activities of the Division of Basic Resource Studies. The regional survey reports give evidence of close liaison between scientists in the survey team and village communities in the areas surveyed. Enquiries are made of land users concerning land management practices, and about local problems such as soil erosion and inadequate water supply. It is noteworthy that many of the scientists have learned to speak the local dialect to facilitate this liaison. During the course of a survey the team may stay at a village rest house for several days. The more detailed follow-up surveys for the development of land transformation plans, following an initial basic resource survey, also involve close study of land use and the problems of the land user. This degree of community contact by survey teams is much greater than in comparable CSIRO surveys, in arid Australia for example;
- the existence within the Institute of divisions of Economics and Sociology and of Extension and Training. The creation of research groups active in sociological and social anthropological aspects of rural land use was a natural follow-on from the original biophysical surveys;
- participation by the Institute in certain co-ordinated projects of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, notably the Project for Dryland Agriculture, which has its main centre located at the Institute.

Activities of the Institute which are directly concerned with the transmission of research findings to the land user and, conversely, with feedback from the experience of the land user to the research scientist are:

- Experimental Farms and Range Management and Soil Conservation Areas, and additional forestry areas and nurseries in different agroclimatic zones, which naturally serve as demonstration plots and in many cases directly involve villagers;
- an Operational Research Project on Arid Land Management organized through the Division of Extension and Training but closely linked in part with the Dryland Agriculture Project, based on five villages in the local area, and involving sand dune stabilization sites, shelter belts and roadside plantations, grassland development and horticultural demonstrations. These directly involve village populations and individual farmers.
- farmers' days, involving tours of the Institute farm and farmer-scientist discussions, when hand-outs are given to farmers;
-field days in project villages and at demonstration sites;
- the work of the Division of Wind Power and Solar Energy in the design and testing of solar heaters and driers and biogas plants, including the installation of test equipment in houses in project villages to serve for demonstration purposes.

In the area of publicization of research results, the Institute undertakes training programmes on both a national and an international scale, in areas such as land evaluation, etc. The Institute acts as the centre of the Arid Zone Research Association, and publishes an international journal, Annals of Arid Zone.

The main problems which impede the translation of research findings into improved land management are:
Administration: CAZRI is a federal institution, whilst extension and the local administration of land use and agriculture are matters for the government of the State of Rajasthan. Although there are examples of successful collaboration at the two levels, particularly on a personal basis, there are many more in which the gap between the Research Institute and the local Department of Agriculture has hindered the effective extension of research findings;
Environmental: The problems common to all marginal arid lands, namely those which hinder increase of production through investment, are here exacerbated by severe pressure on the land, arising from a major increase in population since the beginning of the century, and a corresponding decrease in the area of land available to farming families in the region, in which 90 per cent of the population is rural, and 80 per cent dependent on agriculture;
Social: Many such barriers to change have been identified by studies in the area, including caste, nomadism, social tradition, and lack of education. These probably constitute the major problems;
Political: Political commitment to undertake and carry through local development schemes is often lacking.
Funds made available at the federal level frequently cannot be spent effectively at the state level during the life of the programme.

Obstacles to the Extension of Existing Knowledge and Technology to Dry Lands Problems in Mexico

A Preliminary Report: H.J. Schneider It was stressed that this report was based on fieldwork and associated studies in Mexico over a period of four months, and that in consequence it cannot offer more than a limited and partial view of environmental problems in dryland areas of Mexico.

Although discussion is here limited to the arid regions of Mexico, desertification understood as "a large-scale process of degradation involving shifts in ecosystems from greater productivity and stability to lesser productivity and instability" also occurs in the more humid areas of the country. Recent data point to a figure of 83 m ha, out of a total of 200 m ha, as being seriously or extremely degraded; this severely eroded land is increasing by at least 100,000 ha annually. However, these figures should be taken as approximations based on qualitative rather than quantitative evaluations.

Continuing degradation of extensive areas must be viewed against pressure to increase agricultural and livestock production and productivity. Mexico continues to experience a population explosion, and its population, at present 70 million inhabitants, will pass the 100 million mark in 1992-1993, taking the lowest projection. Mexico has become a major importer of cereals, and immediate prospects are of even greater imports of foodstuffs in the coming years, as a result of the widening gap between agricultural production-which has experienced a sharp drop in productivity-and population.

Desertification in Mexico must be analyzed within this reference frame. There certainly exists considerable concern, among government departments, research institutions, universities and the public in general, about environmental deterioration. Following the Nairobi Conference, there has been a continuous effort to define, plan, assist and coordinate actions against desertification. A number of ministerial departments and several universities and research institutions are working to this end, under the auspices of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Mexican scientists are involved in a considerable number of research projects, covering a wide range of topics in arid lands studies. However, there does not appear to be sufficient linkage between the agencies involved in combating desertification and those engaged in efforts to increase and intensify agricultural production. The latter involve considerable potential risks of further land degradation, through the extension of rain-fed agriculture and increased use of heavy farm machinery. Efforts to improve dryland management will also probably continue to take place within agrarian structures and land tenure systems which favour intensive short-term land use rather than longer-term conservationist policies.

Obstacles to the extension of existing knowledge and technology to dryland problems can be related to a wide complex of structural, economic and cultural factors. If it is agreed that (i) improvements in this area must come through measures based on long-term objectives which take into account existing conditions and problems and priorities, and (ii) the magnitude of dryland deterioration is such that only a sustained and combined effort by concerned institutions can make significant contributions towards improvement, the following points appear to be relevant:
- There is a problem, inherent in the Mexican political system, of insufficient continuity in public action. Policies are strongly linked to the sixyear presidential term, and their implementation and levels of priority can be drastically changed under the following government. For the same reason, a large number of personnel are displaced or shifted to different positions with the change of president, not only at the top but at intermediate ranks in governmental, educational and research institutions, adding a further element of discontinuity.
- These problems appear even more serious when considered together with the time lag between decisions taken at the executive (presidential/ministerial) level and their implementation at the base. In the context of this study, the important decisions of administrative reform taken in 1976-1977 to decentralize and restructure governmental action at the regional level, involving units based on ecological regions in each state, are still being implemented and, as far as agricultural extension is concerned, appear to have produced few practical results.
- A lack of co-ordination exists between different governmental and other institutions and agencies working on similar problems, sometimes even in the same region, with a consequent parallelism and duplication of effort. Interministerial Groups on the Environment and Desertification are trying to improve this situation, but they can only formulate recommendations and have little control over decisions.
- Insufficient continuity and inadequate structures and priorities for research and extension constitute a further problem. A recent document published by CONACYT, National Council for Science and Technology, in its preliminary version, refers to these problems in the rural sector as follows: "During the present decade, part of research undertaken by some institutions has been reoriented towards the problems of areas with severe economic restrictions and traditional technologies. . . however, a major problem lies in the inadequate organization for linking up re
search, extension and production . . . Generally, attention is paid only to information flow in one direction: from researcher to extensionist to producer . . . Research results which could be immediately applied are only partially utilized and not adequately circulated anong specialists, not to mention producers. Extension appears sometimes limited to simple distribution of booklets, brochures, etc., delivered without proper attention to the way potential users-producers, public and private agencies and others-might benefit therefrom . . . Communication gaps appear to exist both between research institutions, educational centres and rural communities, and within these bodies with regard to research interests and (relevant) topics."*

These statements contain some of the more relevant aspects of extension problems. Limited experience in this study appears to confirm the insufficiency of links between governmental and academic institutions on the one hand and land users on the other. In particular, policies and techniques for rational dryland management appear to develop mainly as a consequence of research generated in the former, tried out in experimental stations, and in some instances applied on a larger scale on ejidal land or on private properties. However scientifically sound and appropriate the research might be, there appears to exist very little prior communication between researchers and potential beneficiaries about objectives, priorities and applicability;
- with respect to the last point, very little appears to be known about the perception by the land users of the surrounding environment and its problems. In the author's opinion, not enough attention has been paid to the long experience of and adaptation to adverse environmental conditions by dryland farmers and ranchers, which have been necessary for survival. It is probable that they perceive current forms and intensities of land use as best adapted to the area and offering a certain degree of security against complete failure of crops and livestock. In fact, little appears to be known about the land-user's perception of risks and rewards related to possible alternatives in land management, both those conducive to improvement proposed by agricultural extensionists, soil conservation specialists and so on, and those involving alternatives to present land use;
- educational levels of the rural population can be assumed to be an important factor for wider acceptance of innovations in land management. The recent creation of large numbers of elementary agricultural training centres (Escuelas Tecnicas Agricolas), together with the upgrading and improvement of tertiary agricultural and livestock studies, can be seen as an important positive step toward the raising of educational levels for a sector of the rural population; -however, rural-urban migration is removing from the rural scene an important age group of its population, often the better-educated and more dynamic young adults between 15 and 40 years of age. The remaining population is composed of a large number of children and an increasingly aged group of adults. Especially serious is the move of young people, trained in the agricultural schools mentioned above, from their elido-based homes to towns and cities, in the most favourable cases to desk jobs in some rural-oriented agency, but often to industrial or other occupations. An important factor in this out-migration is the contrast between the more dynamic character of towns and cities, fast-growing and offering certain employment possibilities, and the relatively static and often depressed rural sector where there appears to be little chance of improvement. The pervading influence of urban models and their acceptance as desirable standards for living conditions could lead to further deterioration in the prospects for the adoption of better and more rational forms of land use.