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Restoring the fragile land

An hour from Addis Ababa, on an empty stretch of road, the car stopped. On the right: old Africa. On the left: the new. The view to the right was a microcosm of what can be seen throughout one of Africa's worst disaster areas, the northern highlands of Ethiopia: topsoil eroded down to bare subsoil, the land split into ugly gullies, rocks exposed -- the scene like pictures of the surface of the moon.

But across the road, the same land was thick with 25 acres of green, graceful, feathery acacia trees. The ancient soil of Africa had produced trees that were providing grazing fodder for livestock and firewood for family cooking.

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Betru Nedessa, a conservationist with the Ministry of Agriculture, pointed out what was almost hidden beneath them: low stone terraces laid carefully on the contours of the land to conserve rain runoff. The workers were local villagers paid with 6.6 pounds of food a day by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Blessedly-green success story

Now the FAO has completed a major study on how villagers can reclaim the highlands themselves. A few days later I witnessed the same kind of transformation from a one-engine Cessna aircraft 500 feet above an arid plain at Kargi, in northern Kenya. A plot of just over an acre stood out sharply against the pale desert: The plot was blessedly green. A UNESCO arid-land research project has had a fence around the plot for the last eight years to see what would happen if no sheep or goats were allowed in. The

result: Grass seed has blown in and taken root. Small acacia trees are growing. Topsoil is half an inch thick.

``A slow process,'' says UNESCO's Dr. Hugh Lamprey, ``but surprisingly successful.''

In Gigiri, outside Nairobi, one of the world's foremost experts on desert encroachment, Muhammad Kassas, chairman of Egypt's Environmental Research Council, had some advice to offer in an interview.

``Africa should look at what the US did between 1930 and 1960,'' he said. ``US droughts in the 1930s were as bad as the Sahel's in the early 1970s. But the US made new laws on tenure and ownership, set minimum sizes for holdings to end tiny plots, built highways and railroads which, in part, allowed cattle to move quickly between summer and winter grazing.''

Dr. Kassas is a professor at Cairo University and has been studying deserts for 41 years. ``The government set up conservation departments,'' he went on. ``The whole science of soil conservation was created in the US in the 1930s. . . . `Desertification can be stopped'

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``Make no mistake: desertification can be stopped . . . but African governments have to be determined to do it.''

These are three glimmers of optimism in a generally bleak picture. Africa south of the Sahara desperately needs a blueprint to enrich its old, often exhausted, highly metallic soil. Scientists say it can be done. But governments are tragically slow to act.

Worldwide, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) says, $4.5 billion is needed to tackle desert encroachment over the next 20 years. By January of this year a special UNEP fund had attracted a mere $48,524.

While icecaps covered northern Europe, America, and Asia 2 million years ago, warmer Africa saw the Sahara formed and its tropical rain forests shrink.

Today much of eastern and southern Africa is open rangeland with low bush and baobab and acacia trees dotted on it. Now the series of recent droughts has weakened vegetation. Africa's fierce tropical rains have washed away nutrients. Forced farther and farther up hills to find good land, families tended to plow down the sides rather than across them because it was easier -- speeding up the process of erosion.

Africa is now at the point where 43 percent of its land not now desert faces the risk of turning to sand, according to the FAO in Rome. Across the seven mainland countries of the Sahel from Mauritania to Chad, the Sahara encroaches south at alarming speed. Too many people and too many sheep, goats, and camels overpopulate, overgraze, and overtread the already fragile ground.

The UNESCO project in northern Kenya shows what can be done if arid land is fenced off, but few village chiefs can persuade hungry, fast-growing populations to fence off land even for a short time, no matter how hard they explain the damage done by livestock.

UNESCO is studying how many animals arid land can sustain without being destroyed. Still unsolved is who will enforce limits on herds in areas where pastoral tribes still count animals as wealth.

The prolonged drought causes nomads to settle down around grain-distribution points. The result can be seen from the air above Kargi: a giant circle of devastated, overgrazed land around the village -- widening by the month.

The FAO project here also shows what can be achieved -- in theory. The government stations men with guns to keep livestock away from protected areas. That isn't feasible for regimes with less control.

``Africa does have the resources,'' says Professor Kassas. ``The Senegal and Niger River Basins can feed the Sahel and produce cash crops for export. . . . The Sudan could feed half of Africa. But you have to work within the carrying capacity of the land. You have to have a land policy.''

To him, ``desertification'' is not just the Sahara spreading.

It is the process all over Africa by which growing populations are overwhelming available farmland, not allowing fallow periods, and destroying the soil, leaving only sand or rock.

``This is a man-made thing,'' he said firmly. ``So man can solve it.''

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