What exactly is desertification? Unfortunately, there are many responses and
many contradicting definitions. Some say that it is permanent, others say it is
a reversible process. There are even debates on whether the definition should
include human involvement or not. It seems that all that can be agreed on is
that it is “the most serious environmental problem facing Africa
today” (Nsiah-Gyabaah, Kwasi. Environmental Degradation and Desertification
in Ghana pg 27). At the United Nations Conference on Environment and
Developments (Earth Summit, 1992) desertification was defined as “land
degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry semi-humid areas, resulting from various
factors, including climate variations and human activities”
(“Desertification,” Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential
(S J0180). www.uia.org/uniademo/str/j0180.htm). When pondering the terms
‘desertification’ or ‘desertified land’ our culture forms mental images of large
dunes with sand slowing moving over them like in an ocean. Perhaps a camel or
two, baking in the sun. This romanticized idea is far from what scientists call
desertification. In real life desertification looks like an area of hard and
cracked earth with sand blowing above. In this scene you are more likely to see
a nomad with emaciated cattle wandering the deserted plane in search of
something to eat. Not too romantic, huh? Desertification is more the
“destruction of the biological potential of the land or the creation of
desert-like conditions in previously productive areas” (Nsiah-Gyabaah, 28).

There are many reasons for desertification. The two most substantial are the
recent droughts in Africa and humans trying to sustain themselves on marginal
lands (Glantz, Michael H. Drought Follows the Plow pg 35). More specifically,
the reasons for desertification and land degradation include “climate
changes, overgrazing, over-cropping, deforestation, and over-exploited
water” (Mainguet, Monique Desertification pg 66). Although it is hard to
say exactly how much area has already been turned to desert, there is a basic
consensus among most scholars that estimates somewhere around 60 percent of the
world and between 65 and 73 percent in Africa alone (Nsiah-Gyabaah, 3)
(Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. www.uia.org/uiademo/str/j0180.htm).

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Some places are worse than others are, for instance Ghana’s forests have been
degraded into savanna, and the savanna areas are fast turning to deserts. The
invasion of desert through over-cultivation, forest clearing, and overgrazing
has been worsened by extreme changes in climate of West Africa since the recent
severe persistent drought (Nsiah-Gyabaah, 10). Most people do not know this, but
desertification has been around since the Mediaeval period, perhaps even farther
back in history (Middleton, Thomas Desertification: Exploding the Myth pg 2). It
did not receive very much public interest, however, until a series of droughts
plagued the West African Sahel between the years 1968 and 1974. This drought
caused a widespread famine, killing approximately 100,000 to 200,000 people and
about 12 million cattle (Glantz, 35). What are people doing to cope with losing
their land, homes and jobs? It all depends on how much of the farmland they can
salvage. If they are still able to grow some crops on it then they can switch to
substitute foods (tree fruits) and share what they can grow between houses. If
there is little or nothing that can be saved, the situation changes into that of
the Dust Bowl. These people sell whatever livestock and possessions they have
left and perhaps migrate to other areas to farm or try to sell themselves as
labor (Nsiah-Gyabaah, 162). There are general ways to fix desertification as
well. These involve either modifying each individual’s farming methods or
massive restoration efforts that would have to be coordinated and funded by the
government. One way that the government could help rectify the situation is
fairly simple and cost efficient. The theory is based on the idea that people
would be more concerned with the negative effects on the land if they owned the
land themselves and got something from it. Because of local interest in certain
areas, some countries are considering land title registration (Nsiah-Gyabaah,
171). There are also two major undertakings that a government can try in order
to not only prevent and slow, but to actually restore pastoral areas and
eventually farming areas that are currently desert. They are natural and
artificial recovery. “Natural recovery may be obtained by exclusion of
human influence: neither people nor cattle can penetrate the fenced area” (Mainguet,
209). Some examples of where natural recovery has worked are Southern Tunisia
and Iran. “Natural recovery can work in poor soil, coarse sandy soils,
saline soils, even with rainfall lower than 80 mm” (Mainguet, 204). Natural
recovery does have drawbacks though. First of all, the area that is being
recovered must be fenced in. The size of the land fenced in could cause problems
for nomadic farmers who would have to detour the area. Other modes of
transportation may also be affected and disrupted. There are two types of
artificial recovery. The first is intervention on “topography and soils:
contour terracing, scarification, plowing, water-spreading techniques, and
fertilization. The second type of intervention is seeding” (Mainguet, 204).

In the second type seeds are first covered with clay and sand then driven into
the sand by sheep. The clay makes the seeds heavier and helps them to germinate.

Improvement of the situation in West Africa and more specifically Ghana may lie
more in the hands of the individual farmers than on the government as a whole.

Some of the ways that farmers can help is by implementing crop rotation and
multi-crop agriculture. Crop rotation means to change from season to season what
types of plant are grown on an area of land. Cereal farmers should try to rotate
with groundnuts and cowpeas to keep fertility up and the need for fertilizers at
a minimum. (Nsiah-Gyabaah, 180). “Multi-crop agriculture, also called the
inter-cropping system, or alley or strip cropping, is the simultaneous culture
of two or more crops in the same plot” (Mainguet, 220). This come in
several different variations from growing crops separated by rows of trees
(alley cropping) and growing two or more types of plants in alternating rows.

Both of these methods help to control soil erosion. Trees help trap soil and
prevent it from washing or blowing away. If fruit trees are planted they are
also an alternate food source and a source of vitamins that a person may lack if
they only take in one specific food. Obviously, desertification is a major
problem with not only many causes but also as many solutions. The answer,
however, lies in the hands of each country and its citizens. Those that try to
actively make a difference have a high possibility of success, while those who
continue to try to do everything the tradition way will soon find themselves
trying to farm or drive cattle on rock and sand.