A global agricultural research-for-development partnership against desertification

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The haunting spectre of advancing deserts

The term 'desertification' emerged in the 1920s/30s to express a concern that the Sahara might be marching southwards, swallowing Sub-Saharan Africa in its wake (Aubréville 1949; Stebbing 1938). Others urged caution though as more careful studies could not substantiate the hypothesis of an advancing Sahara (Anglo-French Commission 1973; Helldén 1991; Mortimore 1989). Nevertheless, the frightening image of a creeping burial by sand triggered urgent calls for action from international aid organizations, donor countries and governments (Swift 1996).

As the 'advancing deserts' narrative faded in the absence of convincing data, attention shifted towards human actions that were clearly degrading lands, such as deforestation, over-cultivation, over-grazing, and salinity-inducing irrigation practices, frequently aggravated by droughts.

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Anglo-French Commission 1973. Rapport de la Mission Forestière Anglofrançaise Nigeria-Niger (Decembre 1936-Fevrier 1937). Bois et Forêts des Tropiques 148:3-26.

Aubréville, A. 1949. Climats, forêts et désertification de l'Afrique tropicale. Société d'Edition de Géographie Maritime et Coloniale, Paris.

Helldén, U. 1991. Desertification: time for an assessment? Ambio 20:372-383.

Mortimore, M. 1989. Adapting to Drought: Farmers, Famines and Desertification in West Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 299 pp.

Stebbing, E. P. 1938. The man-made desert in Africa: erosion and drought. Journal of the Royal African Society, Supplement, January, pp. 3-40.

Swift, J. 1996. Desertification: narratives, winners & losers. Pp. 73-90 in Leach, M. and Mearns, R. (eds.), The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment. London: James Currey/ International African Institute



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