Brief History of Desertification

Again like globalization, desertification is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Humankind has had a stake in the availability and accessibility of arable land and pastures ever since it started to cultivate crops and to herd livestock. Arguably, then, processes of anthropogenic land degradation are just as old. In fact, anecdotal evidence for an early human awareness of desertification is dispersed throughout literature. Plato is said to have deplored the vanishing of fertile soil in ancient Attica, Sumerian literature illustrates the adverse impact of deforestation in Mesopotamia, and the region of today's Argentina purportedly suffered from considerable land degradation at the time of the Spanish conquest. France and Great Britain installed a joint Anglo-French Forestry Commission to advise their colonial administrations on natural resource management [27]. This did little to prevent them, however, from spurring considerable dryland degradation in vast parts of West Africa through colonial plantations in the early 20th century. For instance, the areas west of today's Senegal and south of today's Niger were particularly affected by large-scale groundnut monocultures. The social consequences of land degradation in the North American "Dust Bowl" have found expression in American art and literature of the 1930s.*

The case is not settled, however, over who established desertification as a subject for systematic academic research, although natural scientists, geographers and cultural anthropologists evidently were concerned with the respective issues as early as the 1920s. For instance, the aforementioned Anglo-French Forestry Commission also investigated evidence of an advancing desert in the West African colonies [27]. Several scholars attribute the coining of the term "desertification" to the French colonial geographer Andre Aubreville. While Aubréville's seminal Climats, forêts et désertification de l'Afrique tropicale (1949) assessed the progressive loss of vegetation cover and soil erosion in African drylands, he stopped short, however, of defining desertification [28]. A more systematic scientific inquiry into environments under arid and semi-arid climatic conditions only commenced in 1951 when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established its Arid Zone Research Program. Commissioned through this program, Peveril Meigs eventually provided the taxonomic basis for most contemporary efforts to define arid conditions [11,29]. These pioneering achievements notwithstanding, the history of desertification as a global issue only really began with the 1977 United Nations Conference on Desertification, which followed the experience of the Great Sahelian Drought of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its contribution to the globalization of

* See, but for two outstanding examples, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties by photographer Dorothea Lange and agronomist Paul Taylor as well as John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, both originally published in 1939.

desertification and subsequent implications for the political responses to it will be addressed below.

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