Land Degradation

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 20:46
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Environment    Topic: Land degradation

Land degradation has affected some 1900 million hectares of land word-wide. In Africa an estimated 500 million hectares of land have been affected by soil degradation, including 65% of the region's agricultural land. Three quarters of the soil in sub-Saharan Africa is severely depleted of nutrients because farmers do not use fertilizer or spread manure (Coghlan, 2006). The rate at which arable land is being lost is increasing and is currently 30-35 times the historical rate. The loss of potential productivity due to soil erosion world wide is estimated to be equivalent to some 20 million tons of grain per year. And this is happening worldwide, not just in Africa or Asia (UNEP, 1999).

The understanding of the extent and causes of this phenomenon - "desertification", however incomplete, is now far too clear for the global community to ignore. In some cases the cause could be solely natural or purely human, but often both human and natural causes combine to accelerate desertification. However the graphic talk of marching sand dunes and expanding deserts distracts attention from the real problem - the continuing human impact of the degradation of the dry lands on the millions of desperate people facing hunger and despair.

There are close linkages between desertification and poverty. No long-term strategy of poverty eradication can succeed in the face of environmental forces that promote persistent erosion of the physical resources upon which poor people depend. No programme for protecting the environment can succeed without alleviating day-to-day pressures of poverty. These pressures leave people little choice but to discount the future so deeply that they fail to protect the resource base to ensure their own and their children's well being. The feminization of poverty in areas affected by desertification is an aspect that must not be ignored. Strategies to improve and safeguard the local environment should be built on the knowledge and resourcefulness of local women, and remove their special burdens and constraints. (UNEP, 2000)

The negotiation and signature of the Convention to Combat Desertification by June 1994 was a major post-Rio accomplishment, providing a mechanism to assess and respond to the problems of dryland degradation around the world.


Coghlan, Andy. 2006. Can ber bottle tops help to rescue Africa's soil? New Scientist, 10 June 2006, p. 32.

UNEP. 1999. Global Environment Outlook - 2000. United Nations Environment Programme. Earthscan Publications, London.

UNEP. 2000. UNEP News Release 00/81 of 16 June 2000

Based partly on materials originally prepared for UN System-wide Earthwatch

Article last updated 2000

Return to IEF sustapedia


Return to e-learning centre

Last updated 8 September 2010