A global agricultural research-for-development partnership against desertification

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causes desertification?

The immediate cause is the removal of vegetation. Unprotected, dry soil surfaces then blow away with the wind or are washed away by flash floods, leaving infertile lower soil layers that bake in the sun and become an unproductive hardpan. Overgrazing destroys valuable plant species, leaving mostly unpalatable ones. Losses of vegetation and biodiversity threaten habitat for other species.

But what causes the removal of vegetation? This is driven by a number of factors, alone or in combination, such as tillage for agriculture; too many livestock on too little land; removal of crop residues for feed/construction use; deforestation for fuelwood and construction materials; and inappropriate irrigation practices that lead to salinity.

These proximate causes in turn are associated with a wide range of root causes, some of which originate outside the drylands. They include:

  • Drought;

  • Climatic shifts;

  • Growing populations that increase pressure on fragile land resources;

  • Poverty that prevents people from investing in land maintenance and rehabilitation;

  • Policy and institutional shortcomings, such as ambiguous land tenure, and policies that allow or even encourage frontier expansion and over-mechanized land-clearing;

  • Inadequate infrastructure such as roads (Lewis 2003);

  • Limited market access (Tiffen 2002);

  • Inappropriate technologies; and

  • Insufficient research and development.

Return to "What is desertification?"


Lewis, A. 2003. Revitalizing the drive for rural infrastructure. IFPRI Forum Sept. 2003:1-12. Washington DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Tiffen, M. 2002. The evolution of agroecological methods and the influence of markets: case studies from Kenya and Nigeria. Pp. 95-108 in Uphoff, N. (ed.) Agroecological Innovations. London: Earthscan.

UNCCD 1995. Down to Earth: A simplified guide to the Convention to Combat Desertification, why it is necessary and what is important and different about it. Bonn, Germany: Secretariat for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. See also Fact Sheets, FAQ and Explanatory Leaflet at http://www.unccd.int/knowledge/menu.php



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