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Environmental Wear In Dry-Land Areas

`DESERTIFICATION'' is a mouth-filling word that seems to have both an inevitability and a distance for most of us. As in: deserts marching inexorably across northern Africa - a fact to which those in more-developed countries have become resigned, like those periodic reports of famine.

But the impact of environmental degradation in dry-land areas (for which desertification is the short-hand word) is far broader than we may imagine, and its reversal is a key component in solving other social as well as ecological problems around the world.

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Desertification affects about one-quarter of the earth's land area, according to the United Nations. And of all dry lands used for agriculture, 69 percent have been degraded by such things as overgrazing, high-impact cultivation, improper irrigation, and the cutting down of too many trees.

We tend to think of such degradation as the result of too many people in developing countries scrambling to grow crops, feed their animals, or make charcoal for fuel. Population growth clearly is a major cause, as are the millions of refugees fleeing civil war. But international development agencies backed by developed countries and promoting mechanized agriculture and resettlement programs have had a role as well. So have ineffective or corrupt governments in the regions hardest hit.

The situation in Africa is best-known. Two-thirds of the people there live in arid or semiarid areas where 73 percent of dry lands used for farming have been degraded. But the percentage of degraded dry lands in Asia is almost as bad (70 percent). And according to the UN Environment Programme, annual income losses due to desertification have risen to $1 billion in Europe, $3 billion each in Australia and South America, and $5 billion in North America.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that most of the world's 800 million malnourished people live in dry lands, and the private Worldwatch Institute has reported that, after years of improvement, the annual production of grain per capita has begun to drop in parts of the world.

The role that desertification plays in the loss of species, climate change, and mass migrations also makes one realize the global nature of the problem - and the need for international solutions. The subject is of growing interest to experts from around the world, many of whom are meeting this week in Phoenix, Ariz. And the search for solutions got a boost last week with the formal signing of the United Nations Convention on Desertification by 87 nations in Paris.

This UN pact, which came out of the Earth Summit in Brazil two years ago, will become legally binding when 50 of those nations officially ratify it. The agreement recognizes the need for ``substantial financial resources,'' although it does not commit donor countries to the ``new and additional aid'' that developing countries had sought. Still, several countries represented at the Paris signing ceremony (Germany, Japan, and France among them) did pledge increased spending for environmental efforts abroad.

Such money is needed for several things: revegetation programs, training in methods of farming that are less harmful, appropriate technology transfer, and adequate monitoring.

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Other issues need to be addressed as well in order to reverse the moderate to extreme soil deterioration which UN Development Programme administrator James Gustave Speth points out has impacted an area the size of China and India combined since World War II. These include questions of land tenure, trade, and debt.

And above all, the population and development issues recently addressed at the UN conference in Cairo - especially family planning and improved economic conditions for women - need adequate follow-up. Without this, desertification - with all the environmental damage and human misery it causes - will become inevitable.

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