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close this bookPerception of Desertification (UNU, 1980, 134 pages)
View the document1. The context of studies into the perception of desertification
View the document2. Desertification in the dry zone of Sri Lanka M. U. A. Tennakoon
View the document3. Perception of desertification on the southern great plains a preliminary enquiry
View the document4. Perception of desertification in the murray mallee of southern Australia
View the document5. Perception of increasing salinity associated with the irrigation of the murray valley in south Australia
View the document6. Summary and conclusions: the role of perception in the desertification process
View the documentOther UNU publications

6. Summary and conclusions: the role of perception in the desertification process

R. L. Heathcote

The aim of this final chapter is to try to draw together the results of these four studies, to summarize the common findings, highlight any apparent conflicts in the evidence, and attempt to provide an assessment of the role of human perceptions of desertification in the process itself. This latter assessment will also try to outline those findings which may be relevant to future official attempts to mitigate the adverse impacts of desertification.

Summary of Conclusions from the Four Studies

In brief the conclusions from the four studies might be summarized as follows:

1) In the four areas studied desertification is currently causing deterioration of both the physical and human environment with associated significant loss of quality in both and hardship in the latter.

2) All the evidence suggests that despite the existence of knowledge of the ways in which desertification may be controlled, that knowledge has not been and is not being applied in an effective manner.

3) In some cases, not only does desertification exist now but its impact may be expected to increase in the future.

4) The continued existence and possible expansion of desertification seem to be the result of a complex interplay of many factors, which might be summarized as the interrelationships between the natural event systems (or physical environment) and the human activity system (or human environment).

5) Significant in those interrelationships are the human resource managers' perceptions of the resources and hazards which the natural environment appears to offer to their particular activity system.

6) The studies suggest that these perceptions have played a significant role in desertification in the past and will play a significant role in the future of certification on a global scale. Unrecognized and ignored these perceptions will lead to continued and locally expanded desertification; recognized and used in planning of resource management they
could significantly reduce the future threat from desertification.

The remainder of this chapter attempts to elaborate upon these conclusions and to suggest ways in which the perceptions of resource managers may be incorporated into planning to combat desertification.

The Nature and Future of Desertification

The four studies have demonstrated that desertification exists in the areas examined but that the extent and detailed significance of its impact are disputed. The overall impression is that the impact is not as severe now as it has been in the past. There has been no recent equivalent of the spectacular disasters of the 1930s Dust Bowl in the United States or the dust storms of the 1940s in southern Australia for example, and certainly nothing in the study sites to rival the Sahel disaster.

Yet desertification continues and its dimensions are sizable if concern for the component of soil erosion alone is any guide. The costs of necessary soil conservation measures in Australia to the year 2000 were noted in chapter 4 as $A 675 million, to which might be added another forecasted $A 203 -2,678 million as the costs of other aspects of desertification In November 1979, the US Department of Agriculture in association with the Soil Conservation Society of America and the National Association of Conservation Districts sponsored a National Conference on Soil Conservation Policies. The preliminary brochure for the conference noted:

Increasing public attention is being paid to the nation's soil erosion problems. Questions are being asked about the effectiveness of existing programs to deal with those problems. Since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, many policies have been written and myriad institutions created to protect soil productivity and enhance environmental quality. But more topsoil is now lost from agricultural land each year than was lost during the worst of the Dust Bowl years. [SCSA 1979, 1]

In Sri Lanka, concern at the official level seems to be less
vocal but several researchers are forecasting increasing costs from excessive land clearance.

The Causes of Desertification

As suggested in chapter 1, the basic cause of desertification appears to be the interrelationships between the natural event system and the various human activity systems. The studies have shown that in each case the natural event system exhibits considerable fluctuations in character through time ( of flora and fauna, crops and livestock) and variations in quality of the system's components (especially soil and water). The fluctuations noted in the four studies are basically within the hydrological cycle and drought is an implicit phenomenon in each case.

Such fluctuations would not of themselves result in desertification, for all natural event systems fluctuate over time; but in the particular ecosystems in the study areas such fluctuations lead to desertification This is because the ecosystems are themselves under stress from human activities. Simply put,the demands placed upon the ecosystems by human management cannot be met by the supply of resources from the ecosystems. The ecosystems are thus physically "marginal" for the resource management imposed by human activity. Any deterioration of supply will therefore created a stress situation which has led and will lead to a reduction in the capacity of the ecosystem to regain the prior level of quantity or quality of resource supply. This holds true equally for attempts to exact an annual harvest from semi-arid crop- and rangelands, for attempts to decrease the return time for shifting agriculture, or for attempts to increase competition for water resources between and within domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses.

It is the demands upon the natural event systems from the human activity systems, therefore, which create the conditions where desertification is most likely. Demands, which tend to be constant or rising, imply goals of production or returns as income. When those goals are not met because of fluctuations in the natural event system, human activity tends to attempt to achieve them by further increased activity which places further demands upon the physical environment. Crop failure or reduced farm gate prices are met by expansion of the area sown, often at the expense of grassland, scrub, or woodland, which automatically may increase the risk of erosion in such areas. Alternatively, irrigation is extended to unsuitable soils and salinity problems occur.

Added to these factors is the broad question of the quality of resource management. Whether the skill is in leaving a buffer of standing vegetation on the chena plots of Sri Lanka or the timing of seeding or emergency tillage on the Great Plains or the Mallee, different decisions lead to greater or lesser chances of desertification. Some of those management skills may come from experience, some from chance coincidence of human and natural systems, some from the perceptions of what could and should be done in the circumstances.

The Future of Dasertification

Desertification will continue to be a problem in the four study areas. The natural event system will continue to fluctuate over time, human activities will place increasing pressure on the physical environment, and the existing conflicts in resource use and management will continue. There is no reason to believe that fluctuations in local hydrological conditions, for example, will be any less erratic in the future than they have been in the past. The demands from human activity will increase in the four areas in the future, because of pressure of population on the land in Sri Lanka, competition for River Murray water in southern Australia, and declining profits from farm products in the Mallee and the Great Plains. Ironically, the pressure leading to desertification in Sri Lanka is from in part a population increase that is faster than the ability of the land to provide subsistence. In Australia and the United States, in contrast, desertification stems in part from inadequate farm profits per unit area leading to amalgamation of properties (to achieve economies of scale), which results in the risk of less effective soil conservation and a deterioration of the quality of the social environment in the areas as rural population densities decrease.

Conflicts in resource management are inevitable in any democratic society. In planning for the future administration of the public domain the United States Public Land Law Review Commission recognized six different "publics" whose legitimate but different interests would need to be safeguarded. They were:

- the national public: all citizens, as taxpayers, consumers, and ultimate owners of the public lands . . .

- the regional public: those who live and work on or near the vast public lands . . .

- the Federal Government as sovereign: . . . to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare . . .

-the Federal Government as proprietor: . . . a land" owner that seeks to manage its property according to much the same set of principles as any other landowner . . .

- state and local government: . . . have responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of their constituents . . .

- the users of public lands and resources: . . . users, including those seeking economic gain and those seeking recreation or other non-economic benefits.
[US 1970, 6]

The inevitable nature of such potential conflicts has been reinforced by a recent review of human adjustments to natural hazards:

Communities have one government, one weather service, one utility; yet even in such situations competitors may arise. Communities have overlapping municipal and regional administrations; specialized weather services exist for air travel and for agriculture; competing resources of gas, coal, oil, or electricity are available to heat homes. Hence it is not surprising that, in hazard adjustment, competitive relations develop around overlaps or vacuums of role and responsibility. [Burton, Kates, and White 1978, 143]

Such conflicts of role and responsibility stem in part from human perceptions not only of the physical environment but of the challenges it poses for human activity. The role of such perceptions in the desertification process needs now to be considered.

Environmental Perception and Desertification: Its Role and Significance

Some indications of the role and significance of environmental perception in desertification are provided by the four studies. They have shown that human recognition of the phenomenon varies considerably; that those variations seem to reflect in part the variety of perceivers; that those variations have given rise to a variety of images of the phenomenon; and that those images seem to affect the action taken (or not taken) in response to the phenomenon.

The Perceivers

Desertification has been shown to involve directly or indirectly a wide spectrum of the community. The spectrum includes clusters of individuals or institutions where interests and characteristics appear to be sufficiently common to justify group classification. Three major clusters or groups of interests and personnel have been identified in the studies and two others suggested. Researchers, officials, and farmers have been identified as possessing separate and significant perceptions in each study, while the importance of the perceptions of the regional "promoters" and the general public {regional or national) has been suggested in the Australian and United States studies.


In government, in universities, and in the larger private businesses and institutions there exist groups of personnel, one of whose important rationales for their existence is research. In government, businesses, and institutions, and to an increasing extent in the universities, this is applied research, that is, research in response to a specific request or question (usually about an immediate practical problem), the results of which are weighed in the executive decision-making process. Because of the broad impact of desertification, many of these researchers have been concerned with some aspect of the problem, from perhaps the physics of wind speeds related to soil movement, through the design of machinery for emergency tillage or special cultivation techniques, to the logistics of disaster relief. Given the variety of researchers and the variety of their interests and those of their masters, and again the broad impact of desertification, it is perhaps not surprising that the researchers' perceptions of the phenomena are multiple and varied.

Although taken up as a major problem by the various governments and ultimately the United Nations, the initial concern for desertification as distinct from its effects in terms of famine came from university researchers-in the case of the Sahel at least as early as the 1930s (Stabbing 1935) and on a global scale even earlier. Yet this concern has not resulted in a uniform appraisal of the problem, and there is evidence of considerable differences among the university researchers as to what is the nature of the problem, how it has arisen and is being aggravated, and, not least, where it is supposed to be occurring.

The definitions of desertification offered in prior studies in the scientific literature are many and varied. They seem to reflect in part the expertise of the scientist: the climatologists refer basically to climatic criteria, the geomorphologists to land forms and erosion processes, and so on. The majority seem to accept the interplay of natural and human factors but in detail the definitions show a confusing variation. This becomes particularly apparent when the solutions to the problem are examined. His review of the various proposals led Glantz to conclude:

While there are members of the scientific community who see a hope in the development of weather and climate modification techniques not only for arid zones in Africa but for other parts of the world as well, there are others who are extremely skeptical of their value. [Glantz 1976, 50]

The variety of suggestions (he mentions 18) is matched by the variety of beliefs in their efficacy. The phenomena of desertification are obviously interpreted differently by different scientists.

In the light of the above, therefore, it is not surprising to find that the definitions of the area affected differ in detail. The global maps are specific within the limitations of their scales (Dregne 1977) but the details are often disputed.

Thus, in commenting upon the definitions of the Sahel, Grove lists seven different precipitation boundaries suggested by seven different scientific authorities. He suggested "the discrepancies are of some importance for it would appear that two of the seven . . . are referring to quite different zones when they use the term 'Sahel' end so confusion and uncertainty can arise" [Grove 1978,407] . This ambiguity in the definition of the phenomena of desertification was also evident in the four studies. The boundaries of the Dry Zone in Sri Lanka and the original Dust Bowl in the United States have been and still are disputed, and the experts disagree over the causes of the River Murray salinity and the extent of the desertification problem in the Mallee of southern Australia.

Apart from the obvious question as to the adequacy of available information for the opinions held, a major cause of the ambiguity is that the significance of the phenomena has to be judged on at least two scales. Reflecting the basic model of natural hazard occurrence, the phenomena have to be judged both on the scale of the natural event system and the scale of human activity. Thus the question as to the significance of soil erosion is in fact two questions:

1 ) the significance of erosion as a factor in the characteristics of the soil and soil-forming processes, and

2) the significance of erosion as it affects the capacity of the soil to support a crop.

The first is a problem of pedology, the second is a problem of socio-economics, and significance levels are not necessarily the same.

Similarly the salinity of the River Murray has significance for the basic hydrological cycle in the river basin and for the various human uses of water within and beyond the basin. In such a situation the many and varied yardsticks of significance create a variety of opinion.

The researchers therefore appear from both prior work and these four studies to have played a significant role in the understanding of desertification, but their views have been neither uniform nor consistent, reflecting the fact that desertification involves both physical processes in the environment which have their own importance and the impacts of those processes on human activity which have a separate relevance of their own.


The twentieth century has been an increasing share of resource management decision-making taken over by governments. This has been in part a result of the commitment of governments to specific political ideologies (e.g., fascism, socialism, and communism) which require the state to regulate national resources, and in part a pragmatic response to the size and scope of the problems faced. In the latter context many problems have been seen to require supra-national resources, and various international aid programmes have complemented emergency international disaster relief activities. In the decisions on resource management taken by governments, therefore, we might expect to recognize the role of the various political ideologies and the importance of the perceptions of the executive and administrative branches of government.

a) Political ideologies

Three of the four studies were set in 'western Bloc" countries (United States and Australia), the fourth in a "Third World" country (Sri Lanka). In effect the climate of each study area could be categorized politically as democratic and economically as a laissez-faire capitalist system. In no case did the government of the area appear to wish to have complete control of resource management, and certainly even if it had, there was no evidence of such complete control by the government. Thus the decisions on resource management in the four areas appear to have been taken mainly by non-official decision-makers. That is not to say that governments had no policies on resource management or that actual decisions were not taken in line with those government policies. The point is that the decision-makers had general freedom of action, and where they did act in accord with official policies it was as a result of an economic rather than a legalistic incentive or physical coercion.

In the decisions on resource management in the study areas, therefore, there was evidence of a spectrum of motives, from narrow individual self-interest to broader community or national interests, but all set within the general context of a relatively free market economy and only partially an officially controlled system.

Yet the officials were a significant group of decision-makers whose perceptions influenced desertification in the study areas. The context of their perceptions thus needs elaboration.

b) Constraints on governmentpolicies

The executives in government face considerable external and internal constraints in their resource management decision-making. Increasingly in the twentieth century the internationalization of commodity flows has meant that the controls upon demand and price are external to the producing country. Yet within the country there are further constraints affecting the scope and nature of official decision-making on resource management. The four studies have provided examples of the relevance of both these constraints to official perceptions and desertification.

The International Economic System. Government policies on farm price supports have been shown to reflect external world-market situations, to have affected national agricultural production, and through the resultant changes to have affected positively or negatively the desertification process in the country. International surpluses and low prices for grains encouraged conservation of cropland in the Soil Bank in the United States in the 1950s and early 1970s; international deficits and high prices brought official encouragement for plough-up campaigns in the mid- to late 1970s. In Sri Lanka high prices for exports enabled local food to be imported in the 1950s; price slumps in the 1960s and early 1970s forced greater dependence upon local production and, with increasing population pressure, brought more chena lands into production. In both cases the result was increased risk of desertification in a context of an expanding cropped area.

Ironically, the expansion of the cropped area and the associated risk of desertification has been associated in the commercially oriented grain-producing areas of Australia and the United States with periods of both high and low grain prices. At times of high prices the area was increased to increase profits, and at times of low prices it was increased to at least maintain income by expanding production. The role of the "International Economic System" (Ball 1975) in creating desertification is thus not confined to the Third World.

National Politics. From the executive viewpoint, the problems facing the government, which may include desertification, have to be seen in the limited time context of their expected period in power. Decisions need to show results within that period, and the short-term pragmatic solution may therefore be favoured on principle over the long-term decision. Yet there are often significant delays in implementing those decisions and, indeed, when the executive changes, whether by election or coup d'etat, not only may policies change but the original policies may not yet have been fully implemented (Schneider 1979)

While there is no specific evidence of such constraints in the four studies, there is evidence of inconsistencies over time in official policies on resource management, with associated significance for desertification. In part these inconsistencies have reflected different political ideologies in successive governments; in part they are due to the presence of certain "lobbies" in the official administration, such as the farm lobby in the United States, the pure urban water lobby in South Australia, or politicians looking for rural votes in Sri Lanka,

General policies of national resource management have had indirect relevance to desertification. In the United States, official policies of resource conservation were initiated outside the Great Plains but there is no doubt that the Dust Bowl stimulated federal action-in particular, the Soil Conservation Service was created in 1935 to cope with water erosion on the southern Piedmont and wind erosion on the Great Plains. As part of their conservation policies the US government became increasingly involved in actual resource management, being forced to advocate tillage systems and crop types and varieties in an effort to reduce the risk of erosion. Subsequently, government concern has been for overproduction in the 1950s and 1960s, a reversal of this policy in the mid-1970s to cope with a supposed world food shortage, and at the same time in the 1970s an increasing concern for the problems of environmental pollution. Rural air pollution from soil erosion on the Great Plains now appears to be as serious a problem as the urban air pollution which was the stimulus for the original legislation.

In Sri Lanka official "grow more food" policies since the 1960s, aimed at providing food for a growing population, have indirectly increased the desertification hazard. Increasing illegal occupation and cultivation of government reserved lands has been officially condoned by the imposition of only nominal annual fines (which become in fact a land rent over time), and the conservation of forest land (advocated by the State Forest Department) has been virtually abandoned and the encroachments of the chana farmers tolerated.

In Australia, the history of land settlement since the European occupation began in the closing decades of the eighteenth century has been a history of resource exploitation, whether of minerals, vegetations, or soils, aided particularly from the mid-nineteenth century onwards by official policies encouraging the transformation of the variety of the original ecosystems into commercially productive and relatively simpler ecosystems. The results have been an increased ecological and economic vulnerability. Only within the last 30 years have official policies begun to discourage further land clearance, and even now, as the Mallee study indicates, the expansion of cropland into marginal areas has not necessarily been permanently halted.

Basically the situation is that policies to mitigate desertification may not be politically acceptable. The withdrawal of marginal land from production may be seen as a "defeat" for human ingenuity in the face of a natural challenge; restrictions on chena land use have been made impossible to enforce because of the immediate food needs of the expanding rural population; the creation of officially reserved areas may be opposed as a further constraint upon private land development.

c) The bureaucrats

Policies decided by the executive arm of government have to be administered by the servants of government-the bureaucrats-and their perceptions of both their role and the job in hand may be significant influences on the fate of official policies and the desertification process. The rise of bureaucracies is a global phenomenon associated with the increasing complexity of modern societies, but a direct relationship between bureaucracy and agriculture has been hypothesized (Schlebecker 1977), and there is no doubt of the importance of the bureaucrats in administering basic official policies on rural land use and production as well as the emergency activities associated with desertification per se. Yet the perceptions of the bureaucrats show contrasting opinions as to the problems to be tackled as well as to the most appropriate solutions; this has led to varying implementations of policies and to the failure of some policies even when implemented.

The departmentalization of the administrative arm of government brings with it the potential for conflicting interests and activities between the various departments. In the immediate aftermath of the Dust Bowl in the United States, a rapid multiplication of disaster relief and conservation agencies led to inefficiencies in their overlapping and often duplicated activities. While reorganization reduced the problem, it still remains; for example, policies on livestock grazing controls differ between the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Department of the Interior) and the Forestry Service (part of the Department of Agriculture), and the controversies between the US Corps of Engineers and the Department of Agriculture over the size of flood-control dams are well known (Burton, Kates, and White 1978,143-145). In Sri Lanka different government departments view desertification differently, and policies on soil conservation and the significance of the salinity of the River Murray waters differ across state borders in Australia.

The differences in the perception of the desertification problem between different government departments and agencies have been noted in prior work. These differences have led to a lack of coordinated effort and a reduced efficiency in mitigation measures. In the Sahel the claim was made that over the entire episode [1968-74] in spite of the dedication of many officials at all levels, there was the shadow of bureaucratic factors in the United States or United Nations scarcely related to human suffering in Africa-programs continued or initiatives neglected out of institutional inertia, rivalries between offices and agencies, an unwillingness to acknowledge failures to the public or even within official circles. [Sheets and Morris 1976, 27

The result was a sectoral approach to the problems associated with desertification; this created an "administrative trap" wherein the "capacity to recognize and deal with interdisciplinary problems" was determined by the structure of the administration, irrespective of the abilities or dedication of the staff (Baker 1976, 248).

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the processes and impacts of desertification it is not surprising that the fragmented and sectoral structure of governmental administrations hinders effective responses. Because desertification impinges upon the jurisdiction, actual or perceived, of so many different official bodies, the reactions of the various bureaucrats in those bodies vary considerably and the official response is as a result fragmented and often inconsistent.

In the four case studies, however, the main decisions on resource management which had immediate relevance for desertification, actual or potential, were made by neither the researchers nor the officials but by the farmers themselves.


The four studies included farmers from a wide socioeconomic spectrum: at one extreme were individuals managing several thousand hectares of land for commercial grains and livestock for global markets with the manipulation of costly machinery, with fossil fuel for power, and with various chemicals as fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides; at the other extreme were individuals managing fractions of a hectare for domestic food supplies or local markets with hand tools and minimal use of chemicals or external energy sources. Yet the overall impression was of a vast number of individuals making decisions about the way in which the resources available to them would provide them and their families with a livelihood. Although each case study provided evidence of some necessarily cooperative activities, e.g., watering times for the irrigators or marketing procedures for the grain farmers, most of the decisions appear to have been made by the individual farmers and for the benefit of their immediate families.

Those decisions appear to have been made in a relatively free atmosphere where official constraints upon individual decision-making, apart from those protecting individual property, were basically advisory, or by means of economic incentives rather than physical coercion. In this situation, therefore, it should not be surprising to find attitudes and actions by the farmers in direct and open contravention of official policies and scientific opinions.

As resource managers the farmers had a wide variety of experience. The majority were by tradition farmers in the study area, and their family experience of resource management in the area covered several generations. As a result they exhibited a wide array of management strategies and knowledge of the vagaries of resource production. They further expressed considerable psychological attachment to their land as a place and possessed even in the technologically oriented societies a folklore of environmental phenomena which suggested an awareness of their patterns in time and space.

A significant minority in each case, however, were relative newcomers to the area and, in the Australian and United States studies, even to farming itself. For this minority, their experience was obviously constrained, and their attitudes to present and future problems (including desertification) often influenced, by the conditions of the area in the immediate past and their expectations of material gain from their activities. Given the relative freedom of movement of the population in all the study areas, such mobility, affected in part by fluctuations in seasonal conditions, provided further variety in farmers' perceptions of their environment and its resources or hazards.

Farmer attitudes to resource management reflected in part an expected contrast (derived from the prior natural hazards studies) between traditional and technologically oriented attitudes to man-nature relationships. Such a contrast was evident between the "traditional" attitudes of the Sri Lankan farmer and the "technological" attitudes of the Australian or American grain farmer; from the fatalistic acceptance of crop losses to the belief in effective technical environmental management systems to prevent those losses. Yet such a contrast omits the many instances of attitudes which appeared to be out-of-context, out-of character. Thus the highly skilled irrigation technology in Sri Lanka and acceptance of new crop species by the farmers, the still extant environmental folklore and attitudes to chance or luck of the Australian farmers, and the variety of attitudes to weather and weather forecasting of the American farmers {noted in Kollmorgen and Kollmorgen 1973) belie the simplistic picture of the natural hazard studies.

In the face of stress, specifically desertification, the farmers provided attitudes which did conform more closely to the findings from the natural hazards work. Attitudes to desertification exhibited the same range-from denial of the existence of stress or any significant effects, through recognition but implicit or explicit inability or unwillingness to combat the effects, to recognition and action to mitigate the effects.

The explanations for the range of attitudes seemed to support the rationales put forward in the natural hazards studies (Burton, Kates, and White 1978), but the specific explanations for the majority of the farmers' failure to recognize the stress of desertification, or their unwillingness to react even if they did recognize it, should be highlighted.

There seems no doubt that to most farmers in the study area the phenomena of desertification were generally invisible, partly because the effects were pervasive rather than intensive in space and time. Yet the hot winds and dust storms which were "intensive" and specific in time and space were seen as a fact of life-a normal component of their environment-and not as a symptom of environmental decay. The very familiarity of such phenomena may have reduced the recognition of their significance.

Awareness of desertification, however, did not automatically bring effective, or indeed any, action to mitigate the impact. For many farmers who did recognize it, desertification was not an immediate or pressing problem; there were many other problems more pressing -falling incomes, declining profit margins, increasing family responsibilities without adequately increasing family resources. And for many farmers, even in the United States and Australia, a fatalistic attitude to the future, together with experience of fluctuating and often conflicting government policies on farming in general, dissuaded them from individual mitigation measures.

For the men-on-the-land the environment had a wide variety of images and their perceived roles in its management a wide variety of possibilities.


In any situation where people move to settle a new area a system of information diffusion is created by which the resources of the new area are relayed to the prospective migrants by persons or institutions who often have a direct material interest in the area itself. These interested parties either own some of the area's resources which they hope to sell at a profit now or in the future, or they possess information about those resources from which they similarly wish to profit. Not only therefore are the resources themselves a commodity with a commercial value; so also are the information and opinions about those resources. Any facts or opinions, therefore, which reduce the quantity or quality of those resources automatically reduce the potential profit of those interested parties, be they individuals or institutions or governments.

By definition desertification implies a reduction in the quantity or quality of the resources of the area affected. Any suggestion, therefore, that desertification is affecting an area must expect an adverse reaction from these interested parties. This will be true irrespective of whether
the party is a local or regional real estate speculator, a bona fide landholder or farmer, a local newspaper editor, or a government attempting to maintain existing land settlements in the area or introduce new ones. Such a reaction has been evident in the studies in this volume and explains in part some of the conflicting opinions on desertification.


There was some evidence of the existence of opinions on desertification held by some sectors of the various national communities, although they were not specifically canvassed in these studies. A simple division between the regional and metropolitan or national perceptions of the phenomena seemed to be evident.

At the regional level there appeared to be some evidence of attitudes similar to those of the local farmers, of identification with the farmers'view of desertification as influenced by their more pressing problems (which undoubtedly also affected the local community). The community itself often contained a significant component of retired farmers who could be expected to reinforce this viewpoint.

At the metropolitan or national level contrasting perceptions of desertification seemed to reflect in part the extent of media coverage. This coverage appeared to be inconsistent and to have a bias towards the more newsworthy (i.e., sensational) aspects of the desertification phenomena. As a result a high level of ignorance by the general public seemed to be demonstrated, whether of the quality of their urban water supply or the condition of the national farmlands. Since the public elects the governments whose task includes mitigation of such problems, such ignorance must be some cause for concern.

TABLE 6.1. Images of Desertification as a Problem

Perception of Desertification


Soil Erosion Salinity
  Sri Lanka Great Plains Mallee River Murray
1. Evaluation as problem
- very serious     R   O2         O  
- serious   O     O1     O R R  
- tolerable F       F1     F1      
- not recognized         F2 R2   F2   F  
2. Evaluation of duration of problemb without mitigation
- short term F       F     F (F = No problem)
- medium term   O     O     O      
- long term     R     R     R O R
3. Ability to combat the problem
- impossible F                    
- possible with supernatural                      
aid or chance                      
- possible by human effort   O2 R2                  
- possible by human use of advanced technology   O1 R1 F O R F O R F O R    

The Images of Desertification

From the four studies it is possible, albeit with diffidence, to suggest that three images of desertification seem to exist in the minds of the various resource managers. To explain the construction of these three images, the various perceptions of the problem of desertification by the various perceivers have been generalized for each study area in Table 6.1. While it must be admitted at the outset that this generalization is a personal assessment, contact with the four studies in their preliminary as well as final stages provided a certain familiarity with the data and might justify at least the attempt if not necessarily the results.

The three images reflect differing levels of concern among the three main perceivers, farmers, officials, and researchers. For most researchers desertification is seen as a serious or very serious regional or national environmental problem which will have long-term consequences and significance unless it is tackled by scientific use of available technologies. This view is generally shared by officials, except that the duration of the problem is generally considered to be medium rather than long term.

A second image is of desertification as a tolerable, usually local, problem of short duration which can be controlled by skillful resource management and use of available technology. This seems to be the image of the majority of the farmers in three of the sites. The exception is the Sri Lanka study where the majority of the farmers recognize the problem but feel unable to do anything about it.

The third image does not identify desertification as a problem at all. Minority groups of farmers and some researchers either do not recognize the process of desertification or recognize it only as part of a normal iong-standing natural process in which human activity has played at most only a minor role.

Explaining the Images

That the perception of desertification varies between perceivers is a result in part of the variety of perceivers noted above. That variety can, however, be further understood by an examination of the scale at which the environment is perceived, a classification of the motives which might influence the perceptions, and an examination of some hypotheses for human adjustments to the hazard of desertification.