Talking about desertification nowadays proves more than relevant. In the Anthropocene, factors such as climate change, pollution, deforestation, intensive farming and livestock breeding are exacerbating the risk of desertification worldwide. Nevertheless, there are some solutions to desertification. We talked about them with Guido Cencini, expert agronomist and LCA & Forestry strategist at zeroCO2. 

What is desertification?

When we talk about desertification, our mind tends to link this phenomenon with the image of a hot desert with sand, dunes, sunshine and aridity, such as the Sahara desert. However, this association between the desert and desertification turns out to be a partial and inaccurate simplification of a much more complex process.

Desertification consists of the continuous and progressive soil degradation due to the loss of organic material or humus that makes it fertile. If these nutrients are lacking, the soil dries and dies, turning into a desert. This process causes loss of biodiversity and land suitable for cultivation, forests, and other productive activities. Thus, the desert is the point of no return, the final and irreversible result of the desertification process of a given area. 

As Guido Cencini, our LCA & Forestry strategist at zeroCO2, points out, the lands suffering from desertification are always areas already considered already at risk, i.e. where activities such as deforestation, intensive agriculture, livestock farming or urbanisation have been carried out in an uncontrolled and irresponsible way, leading to soil degradation. 

Causes of desertification

Intensive agriculture and livestock farming increase soil aridity, thus leading to soil degradation. However, the risk of desertification is considerably aggravated by climate change. The World Atlas of Desertification is a valuable source of information and data about soil degradation and contains a series of specific maps for each of the causes of desertification.

On the one hand, soils tend to become drier when the temperature increases, catalysing degradation processes. On the other hand, climate change can increase salinisation: in some cases, the aquifers can be subjected to seawater infiltration, which is then used to irrigate the land. With the lack of rainfall, irrigating fields with salt water leads to a drastic depletion of organic matter. Other anthropogenic causes worth mentioning are pollution and the misuse of potentially fertile land for cementification and urbanisation.

Contrary to popular belief, these phenomena are universal as they occur within the same atmosphere: this means that desertification does not only affect Africa, Latin America or Australia but also affects the European continent. Vast land areas in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania suffer from an exceptionally high risk of desertification. 

In the beloved Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia, as well as in the Dry Corridor in Guatemala, “just one more degree would upset the entire ecosystem, leading to desertification and loss of soil resilience,” explains Guido.

Possible solutions to desertification

There are, however, some possible solutions to desertification. As Guido clarifies, those are prevention and reforestation. 

  1. Preventing desertification means preserving and caring for existing forest and native vegetation areas while avoiding exposure to soil degradation factors.  
  2. Reforestation, on the other hand, has to be carried out consciously, previously analysing the context, soil, and type of crops to be planted and designing a maintenance plan to take care of plants and trees properly. A reforestation project is successful and beneficial when the trees planted remain alive. As Guido highlights, “failure in keeping the trees alive would nullify the benefits of deforestation, leading to even more pollution.”

Considering the points mentioned above, ideating deforestation projects in environments where forests have never existed prove inefficient and dangerous. On the contrary, it is crucial to stress the importance of balanced agroforestry systems in counteracting the expansion of this phenomenon. In Guatemala, the zeroCO2 nursery is home to various fruit trees and native cultures, nurtured and taken care of by local peasant communities. In those activities lies campesinos’ strength and resistance, besides symbolising zeroCO2 efforts to contrast desertification.

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Written and translated by Alice Spada


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