Desertification and Global Interdependence

Considering that most historical examples of desertification, as well as recent ones, typically relate to local occurrences of dryland degradation, it would appear that the phenomenon is global merely in the sense that it can be observed all around the world. Moreover, there is considerable regional variation in the causes, appearance, and consequences of aridity. For instance, geographers distinguish four basic categories of deserts according to the dryland zones where they are found. These are the trade wind deserts beneath the subtropical atmospheric high-pressure zones, the continental deserts in the interior drainage basins of the mid-latitudes, the rain shadow deserts typically found on the lee side of mountain ranges, and the coastal deserts found at those continental edges that are affected by cold ocean currents [11]. Also, land degradation is higher both in extent and severity in some parts of Europe and North America than it is in those regions that are commonly associated with deserts and desertification, namely Africa and Asia [30]. Yet, the peoples of the latter regions are much more severely affected by desertification by way of complex interlinkages within their regional context, notably poverty, population pressures, governance issues and ensuing questions of food security. From this perspective, desertification might hence be considered as a predominantly regional affair.

The global scope and significance of desertification is immediately apparent when taking into account the global interdependencies that are evidently interlinked with desertification, even if the complexity of these interlinkages is only partly understood today. In fact, "a complex but plausible chain of causation between Western driving habits, Western transport and energy policies and the changing agricultural fortunes of Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa and their internal politics" can be established without much difficulty [31]. This relates in particular to the tangible interlinkages between desertification and two genuine global common problems that will be addressed below, namely climate change and the loss of biological diversity.

Moreover, from a perspective of political economy, the structuralist argument can be made that desertification is a global issue in as much as the supply and demand for arable land has become increasingly transnationalized. By definition, land degradation decreases both the quality and absolute availability of arable land. Land rights granting people access to (potentially) useful pastures and arable soil have always been a crucial determinant for socio-economic development and equity. Historic examples for local uprisings and violent conflicts about the use of land abound were often charged with ethnic or other pretexts. Yet, free market globalization and its inherent tendency to increase privatization does not stop short of land ownership. Hence, even more land is turned from a state controlled public good into private commodities, an increasing share of which is directly or indirectly managed by transnational enterprises. In conjunction with an eventual breakthrough in the liberalization of world trade in agricultural commodities, in itself an epitome of globalization, this trend is likely to intensify. To be sure, public ownership does not necessarily preclude the marginalization of rural population as can be witnessed in many poorly governed countries around the world. Nor does it guarantee properly functioning markets at macroeconomic and sector levels [32]. However, the appropriation of private land is clearly out of the reach of the rural poor, who predominantly inhabit the world's dryland regions. Consequently, the so-called anti-globalization movement, rather ironically a highly transnational phenomenon in its own right, has duly enlisted the cause of the landless among its objectives.

Not least, the issue of desertification is inherently linked to global political ambitions, namely the fight against world poverty and the promotion of sustainable development, both of which are again intertwined with the economic issue of agricultural trade liberalization. In the following, I will briefly discuss the global interdependencies between desertification and agricultural trade liberalization as well as among desertification, global warming and biological diversity to illustrate the actual globalization of the desertification phenomenon.

5.2.3.1 Agricultural Trade Liberalization

On many counts, the liberalization of world trade epitomizes the common understanding of globalization. If they provide a reliable and realistic barometer, the vivid and at times militant protests of the aforementioned anti-globalization movement routinely address the governmental conferences convening under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the realm of agricultural trade, liberalization has so far been comparatively modest due to persistent protectionist measures on behalf of developed countries, notably represented by the United States' farm bill and the European Union's common agricultural policy. Subsequent distortions of the world food markets seriously affect the terms of trade to the disadvantage of food producers in many poor dryland countries [13]. Accordingly, agricultural trade liberalization continues to be a bone of contention in protracted trade negotiations among a significant number of stakeholders with very different stakes. Yet, the history of the world trade regime and the agenda of the WTO's ongoing Doha Round suggest that further liberalization of agricultural trade is pending rather than stagnating [33]. The interdependencies of agricultural trade liberalization and desertification are two-fold. On the one hand, agricultural trade liberalization is supposed to substantially promote economic growth in the developing world and thus provide a powerful instrument in the fight against poverty. Indeed, the margin-alization of developing country farmers in the world trade system is commonly perceived as a major driver of poverty [34]. This, it is further assumed, would in turn alleviate the pressures exerted on the world's drylands by the rural poor. On the other hand, the extension and intensification of agricultural production that is likely to ensue from agricultural trade liberalization is expected to accelerate dryland degradation, thus further compounding the scarcity of usable land

[13,34]. Export-oriented crop cultivation is typically accompanied by water shortages due to large scale irrigation, water pollution through the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and soil degradation both by sterilization and saliniza-tion. Either of these ecological impacts can be a driver of land degradation and accordingly increases the risk of desertification in dryland regions. Moreover, large-scale agricultural production for the world market bears the risk that rural populations may be further marginalized in terms of access to both land and markets, thus potentially off-setting whatever alleviation might be achieved through economic growth. Indeed, the globalizing aspects of the political economy would arguably benefit some stakeholders while others are left behind and unable to improve their lot in the globalization process [2].

5.2.3.2 Climate Change and Loss of Biological Diversity

Although estimations about the magnitude of recent global warming vary considerably, it is by now well established that it is indeed occurring, first, at an alarming rate and, second, mostly driven by anthropogenic factors [35]. First and foremost, anthropogenic climate change is linked to the large-scale emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that follow from the tremendous energy consumption we find ingrained in the economic structures and subsequent behavioral patterns of the industrialized world [31]. Despite a lack of similarly robust knowledge on global precipitation patterns, it can reasonably be assumed that anthropogenic-induced global warming has serious consequences for desertification [36]. For one thing, natural scientists expect climate-related biological feedback loops to affect global desertification [37,38]. In particular, so-called carbon fertilization is hypothesised to boost plant growth by way of a carbon-dioxide enriched atmosphere. The latter is assumed to enhance photosynthesis as well as water use efficiency in plants [11]. However, recent research cautions that the positive effects of carbon fertilization may be offset by an ensuing loss in soil nutrients [11]. More importantly, rising temperatures are certain to lead to increasing evapo-transpiration. This, in turn, further intensifies the feedback between global warming and desertification. Given no substantial changes in rainfall, increasing evapo-transpiration, in combination with continuous pressure from human land use under drier conditions, could ultimately cause the desertification of degraded drylands. This would then intensify global warming through the release of ever more carbon dioxide from cleared vegetation and the subsequent reduction of carbon sequestration potential of the degraded land [11]. The magnitude of this feedback is considerable. At the current rate of desertification, it is estimated that an annual average of 300 million tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere from drylands, which equals about 4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions [13].

A further dimension of the global ecology, biological diversity is deeply ingrained in most ecosystemic services that drylands potentially provide. It is adversely affected both by global warming, which tends to perturb the stability of ecosystems, and desertification, which directly compounds the loss of species as reductions in vegetation cover affect both flora and fauna. However, vegetation and its diversity of physical structures are instrumental in soil conservation, as well as the ability to fulfill crucial regulatory functions pertaining to rainfall infiltration, surface runoff and local microclimates. The disruption of these and other related ecosystemic services that are provided through dryland flora are found to be key drivers of desertification and accompanying manifestations, such as the loss of important habitats of a wide variety of species and reduced capacities of carbon sequestration [13]. Taken together, the strong interlinkages between desertification, biological diversity and climate change, underscore the globalization of desertification in spite of its local appearance.

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Responses

  • quinn aitken
    How is globalization causing desertification?
    2 months ago

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