The long and successful life of ‘desertification’ in the Sahel

In today’s blog, Tor A. Benjaminsen and Pierre Hiernaux introduce the subject of their article, ‘From Desiccation to Global Climate Change: A History of the Desertification Narrative in the West African Sahel, 1900–2018’ in Global Environment, part of a Special Issue on Deserts in Environmental History (Spring 2019).

While the Sahel has become greener since the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, the idea that this large region south of the Sahara desert is becoming more desert-like is, with the recent focus on global climate change, again thriving.

Global warming affects the Sahel as every other world region. While temperatures are increasing in the Sahel, climate models are more uncertain regarding future rainfall trends. On average, models predict a slight increase in precipitation except in the extreme west where a decrease is predicted. In addition, increased variability of the rainfall pattern is expected, with more frequent extreme events, large storms and long dry spells.

However, while rainfall is projected to increase, with some qualifications, the most common and mediatised depiction of climate change in the Sahel remains as a trend towards a warmer and more arid climate, which again would lead to ‘desertification’. And thus, ‘adaptation to climate change’, which has become a leitmotif for most policies and development projects at all scales from the local to the global, is still interpreted as ‘adaptation to desertification.’

Inspired by this opportunity to link desertification to climate change, African state leaders launched in 2007 a project to establish a 15 km wide and 7,100 km long green wall of trees from Senegal to Djibouti to stop the Sahara from spreading south. At the climate meeting in Paris in December 2015, this gigantic project was promised 4 billion dollars in donor funding. At the same time, we know from previous tree planting projects that only a few per cent of the trees that are planted in Sahel will survive, unless they are watered by hand. In other words, the project may potentially become a massive squandering of aid, similar to earlier actions to stop alleged desertification. Although the objectives of the Great Green Wall project have been broadened to rural development, an ambiguity remains in its justification and results, which remain focused on tree planting. In addition, the project is likely to dispossess small-scale farmers and herders of land that they use for farming and grazing.

The Great Green Wall. Source: ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute)/ Agence France Presse.
The Great Green Wall. Source:

The desertification narrative in the Sahel has already had a long life. It started in the second half of the nineteenth century when ‘desiccation’ was understood as a serious problem facing the colonised drylands of West Africa. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, there was a debate among colonial scientists about whether desiccation was natural or caused by local land-use, although the latter view became increasingly dominant. In fact, the view that human-induced desertification is a widespread process in the Sahel emerged largely as a response to the need to portray native land-uses as unproductive, wasteful and destructive in order to legitimise colonial state control over land and resources.

In spite of this strong link between desertification and colonialism, political independence of the Sahel states in the early 1960s did not result in abandonment of the idea of desertification. Indeed, the aspiration towards greater agricultural productivity led to deprecation of small-scale farming and livestock keeping, which continued to be seen as a cause of land degradation and desertification.

The desertification narrative was in addition strengthened by the regional droughts that affected the Sahel in the early 1970s and again in the early 1980s. This facilitated an institutionalisation of desertification with the establishment of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1972, followed by the adoption in 1994 of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

From its inception, the UNEP had pointed to desertification as one of the world’s most severe environmental problems. In 2016, ‘land degradation neutrality’ became the strategic goal of the UNCCD, targeting a sort of balance between land degradation and rehabilitation-conservation, to be accounted for and negotiated at different spatial and temporal scales. The UN’s focus on desertification has remained immovable during the last few decades, even when it meets contradiction from the international research frontier.

Since early in the twentieth century,  a minority of scientists have been questioning the idea of desertification in the Sahel. This critique has, since the late 1980s, increased substantially and changed the thinking among international scientists working in the field. But, regardless of this scientific critique and despite ‘desertification’ being poorly defined and difficult, if not impossible, to map, policies and practices to stop the desert advancing into the Sahel have continued to thrive.

There are at least three reasons why this narrative lives on. First, it is based on an image that easily sticks in one’s mind – a creeping desert, swallowing green and fertile areas, ruining civilisations. Second, the contrasting wet and dry seasons in the Sahelian climate and its great interannual rainfall fluctuations have played a role in the development of the narrative. Droughts in the early 1910s, 1930s, 1970s and 1980s contributed to the promotion of the idea of desertification. Third, the narrative has always been used to justify leading policies of the time; colonial conquest, colonial state rules, aims of development and ‘modernisation’ of independent African states focused on productivity, environmental conservation to fight drought, and, more recently, climate change mitigation.

The establishment of the Water and Forest Service of the French colonies in the 1930s operationalised colonial policies, further strengthening the idea that Sahelian farmers and herders were mismanaging ecosystems. After independence, the powerful para-military Water and Forest Service was further strengthened through the rise of the global sustainable development agenda in the 1980s and the associated support to fight desertification in the Sahel. While structural adjustment programmes led to the scaling down of state services and organisation, the Water and Forest Service expanded in size and available resources, and state foresters were mandated to fine and imprison rural people who allegedly caused desertification by cutting trees. This provided foresters with a rent-seeking opportunity that was widely used and made them extremely unpopular in rural areas.

This history of the desertification narrative from the early colonial period until today demonstrates how the narrative has created winners, including local forest officers extracting rent from the rural peasantry, Sahelian government representatives seeking to increase development aid to their countries, Western development organisations that have used the image of an encroaching desert to collect funds, and Western governments that through funding anti-desertification measures try to give the impression that they are taking environmental and climate issues seriously, while avoiding action closer to home. Scientists may previously also have benefited through receiving funding to conduct research on topics and processes supporting the desertification narrative. In the last couple of decades, however, few outputs of empirical research conducted in the Sahel support the narrative, while policy-oriented scholars, policy-makers, UN institutions, NGOs and public media continue to refer to desertification as a serious environmental problem.

The immediate losers created by the desertification narrative have been Sahelian small-scale farmers and pastoralists. Their livelihoods and rights to use land and natural resources have been restricted, and the desertification narrative has served to justify such restrictions. They have also risked being fined for not complying with the rules established to fight desertification. Yet, the desertification narrative has also created wider damage to society in terms of misguided rural development policies as well as the undermining of already weak democracies, paving the way for insecurity and insurgency.



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