Desertification

“The entire village is covered in this thick red dust,” he says. “It’s all over everything. Gritty. Even if you wrap your head in a scarf it ends up in your nose and eyes. The gardens are buried in layers of it.” He pauses to take a sip of his wine, shaking his head at the memory. “When I was a child, maybe it would happen every few years, if that. Today? Several times a year, the red dust. It’s everywhere. My little island, you know, not many people live there. Everyone is moving away, to Athens, there’s nothing left here for them.”

It’s a hot, dry wind that blows no good, carrying particles of sand and soil from Africa across the Mediterranean, where it ends up in places like the Greek Islands. The speaker was right; the red dust used to be rare, and now it is not, even as the climate itself is shifting in places like the Greek Islands. It may be subtle, but it’s observable, especially if you talk to people who have been living close to the land for 60 years or more. Things are changing. They are not the same as they were in childhood.

The red dust is the consequence of desertification.

In part, desertification is a natural process. It’s what happens as the Earth transitions. But humans are also involved, and they’ve actually been causing it for centuries, albeit primarily on a relatively low level. Today, however, desertification is proceeding extremely rapidly.

It happens as soil resources are depleted, vegetation dies out, and water supplies are sucked dry. With nothing to hold it down, the topsoil blows away, and the desert creeps tentacles into places where lush gardens once grew, reclaiming the land and slowly spreading. In some parts of Africa, massive dunes threaten villages and towns, forcing people to move before the desert takes hold; large cities are threatened with looming dunes, too. This, in turn, puts pressure on neighboring communities as the population balloons, forcing agriculture to be more intensive, setting up the stage for another round of desertification.

This phenomenon is occurring primarily in the regions of the world where people are living in poverty. Their existence is already fragile enough as it is, and the desert’s encroaching march threatens them even more. There are serious questions about food security in these regions, with concerns that continents like Africa may not actually be able to sustain their population if desertification continues reducing the amount of arable land.

There are a lot of reasons why desertification is happening much more quickly, and why it should be a cause for concern. Changing climate patterns are clearly an issue, for whatever reasons that these changes are happening. The insistence that Western-style agriculture is superior is another reason, as people are forcing native populations to use Western farming techniques (and Western crops and cattle) instead of allowing them to do whatever they’ve been doing for thousands of years. It’s worth noting that whatever they were doing seemed to be working out ok, and that significant declines in food security have been seen in many areas which transition from traditional crops, farming techniques, and farm animals to Western methods.

The creation of artificial political boundaries adds to the problem, making it difficult for many nomadic populations to follow their traditions. Telling people that they need to live in settled and clearly defined areas is another issue. Historically, people moved around much more in many regions prone to desertification. They didn’t deplete the land, they used it for a while and moved on, allowing it to recover between uses. Now, intensive settlement and farming are stripping the land, which people are forced to cling to until the desert drives them out and they become climate refugees. Relying on assistance when before they could have been self sustaining.

The desertification phenomenon is an environmental issue, but it’s also tangled up with colonialism and other matters, and that makes it difficult to address. Part of the problem is that some policies which may seem like a good idea on the surface are actually incredibly harmful for human populations, which makes it difficult to point y’all in the direction of steps you can take to do something about desertification.

Instead, I want to take an opportunity to point out that the world’s poorest populations are most vulnerable to climate change and its consequences. That includes climate change itself, as well as the measures taken to combat it. A number of organizations with lofty goals and aims are actually making refugees, enforcing untenable living conditions, and creating other difficulties for the world’s poor. You aren’t hearing about this because the voices of poor people of colour are generally not centered in the public discourse, and because it makes people uncomfortable to think that their well-meaning efforts are actually damaging.

Before donating to organizations which claim to be doing things like addressing desertification, or any climate change issue, do your due diligence. If an organization claims to be “preserving virgin forests,” does that mean it is driving out native people who have lived in (and shaped, and cared for) these forests for centuries? If an organization claims to be helping the victims of desertification by assisting them with farming, does that mean that they are imposing Western agricultural values, or that they are promoting the retention of traditional agricultural practices?

It’s good to keep in mind that Western ideas of “help” may not actually be very helpful. Not for the people they are “helping” and not for the environment, either. As we address climate issues, we need to be wary of thinking that West is Best, of assuming that what works in, say, the United States will work elsewhere, of thinking that experiences in one nation can be neatly layered over those in another.

Surely we can address issues which hurt everyone without marginalizing part of the world’s population.