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Permanent Monitoring Panel on Desertification - Report

Given to Seminar on Planetary Emergencies
23 August 1999 - Erice, Sicily

1. Report

Problem: The issue of desertification has been debated for a generation. There is little disagreement that there has been an environmental decline in much of the world’s drylands – particularly in Africa. However, there has been contentious debate about:

  1. how large is the area and population affected;

  2. what role climate plays in the process of desertification, and

  3. what might be done to arrest effectively or reverse the environmental and economic impacts of desertification.

Although global conferences have addressed desertification specifically, or as part of a broader set of global concerns that resulted in an international convention, little substantive action has taken place. For the past decade, the desertification "debate" has remained largely a series of academic skirmishes. The reasons for the marginalization of the desertification topic have been economic. Most development in dryland areas has intentionally focused on irrigation where very high returns on investment potentially could be achieved. As investment opportunities, rainfed agriculture or livestock grazing are not competitive and they have received only sporadic attention – usually in the aftermath of disaster. Thus, until quite recently, development efforts have touched only a small fraction of the total dryland area of the globe.

New Opportunities: The prospect of global warming through the accumulation of "greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere will likely exacerbate desertification and the degradation of arid lands. Decreasing the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases has dominated recent environmental debate - most notably CO2 emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels and land use changes (i.e., deforestation; conversion of grasslands to crops). As a result, world attention has focused on limiting CO2 emissions and ultimately reducing total atmospheric CO2. This concern culminated in the Kyoto Protocol to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (1997) that establishes limits on total net CO2 emissions by industrialized countries (i.e., "Annex 1 countries). By establishing these limits, CO2 may be emitted so long as it is offset, or sequestered, through some other process. The imposition of limits also helps to establish a basis by which carbon might be traded as a commodity.

The most obvious way to sequester carbon is to increase standing above-ground biomass (e.g., trees). However, global stocks of CO2 in the soil are two times larger than that in plant biomass but have become depleted through a variety of management practices (e.g., conversions to agriculture and urbanization; overgrazing). Thus, storing carbon in the soil (as living root biomass, soil flora and fauna, and accumulated soil organic matter) offers more substantial prospects for sustained sequestration.

Under "Kyoto," those who emit CO2 (e.g., coal-fired electric power plants) would compensate to adopt alternative tillage practices, or land managers to plant and/or maintain natural vegetation that would sequester carbon in an amount that would offset their emissions using some mechanism of trade or bilateral development. This could substantially help reduce atmospheric CO2, and would also help to distribute more equitably the costs and benefits of a growing world economy between developing and developed countries. In addition to economic benefits, sequestration of carbon in soils in the form of organic matter also would have direct environmental benefits by restoring lost soil productivity, conserving soil and water resources, and preserving biological diversity. Finally, soil carbon sequestration will allow developing countries to become active and meaningful participants in the global struggle to address climate change.

Among all types of land, degraded (desertified) drylands offer considerable opportunity for carbon sequestration: (1) they are extensive; (2) they offer low opportunity costs; and, (3) they are occupied by the most economically and politically disadvantaged populations on Earth. For combating desertification, carbon sequestration may offer a missing economic engine that would allow farmers and herders to benefit from the global economy, enhance their livelihood, and improve their local environment. It thus offers a unique opportunity to address directly two international conventions – the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification. It is also contributes to a third – the Convention on Biological Diversity – by enhancing local habitat and biological productivity and thus reducing pressure on adjacent endangered habitats.

Issues: Two international workshops within the past year have helped focus attention on soil carbon sequestration as a vehicle for development. In these, the potential of soil carbon sequestration was specifically identified as a potential tool for combating desertification and enhancing agricultural sustainability. Discussions during these workshops revealed that the potential of this tool is limited by at least three issues.

Limits of the convention. The Kyoto Protocol focuses on forest ecosystems as the primary vehicle for terrestrial carbon sequestration and does not explicitly recognize carbon that might be stored in soils in other ecosystems.

Limits of awareness. There is a general awareness and understanding of the objectives of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification. However, the potential synergism of soil carbon sequestration as a mechanism for addressing them both simultaneously is largely unrecognized – particularly among those countries that might benefit most (i.e., the countries of the arid and semiarid zone).

Limits of experience. The mechanisms by which these conventions might be made to work are not yet well defined. At a national or regional level, there is the challenge of shaping existing governmental institutions to respond to the new demands of implementing projects to satisfy the conventions. At the local level, there are the challenges of:

  1. fostering management practices that may be new to farmers and herders but compatible with current practices and culture, and

  2. ensuring that they directly share in the benefits of their efforts.


The Desertification PMP proposes to initiate a multi-pronged initiative to explore more fully – and demonstrate, we hope – the degree to which three planetary emergencies (desertification, climate change, biological diversity) can be addressed synergistically.

2.1 Erice Declaration on Carbon Sequestration in Soils

In response to issue 1 above, the first involves a campaign to recognize soil carbon within the Kyoto Protocol. This will begin with a statement prepared by the World Federation of Scientists. Subsequently, it will be pursued by explaining to a broader audience (ultimately policy makers) the significance of this oversight through routine publications and briefings (where possible), and pursuit of the following two activities.

2.2 International Workshop on Soil Carbon Sequestration for Desertification Control

In response to issue 2, we propose to hold a workshop in Erice in early March, 2000. The purposes will be:

  1. develop the concepts of soil carbon sequestration as a mechanism for combating desertification within the semiarid zone to national-level policy makers, and representatives of appropriate international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs);

  2. identify how this concept might fit within existing national plans of action to combat desertification; and

  3. develop plans for a regional approach to implementation and the development of a prototype project and implementation center.

Participants would include:

  1. experts in various aspects of soil carbon sequestration and project implementation;

  2. national representatives from one region that might be selected for a subsequent pilot project in Africa;

  3. representatives from appropriate international agencies and NGOs who are involved in formulating and undertaking comparable projects (e.g., United Nations Environment Program; World Bank; World Wildlife Fund; International Center for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics; International Union for the Conservation of Nature); and

  4. regional representatives from other semiarid zones (e.g., Latin America; the Middle East; Central Asia; Australia).

The four-day workshop will have four parts:

Soil carbon sequestration (day 1).
Technical experts will introduce various aspects of soil carbon sequestration. These include: (1) the treaty framework within which carbon sequestration may proceed; (2) the process of soil carbon sequestration; (3) the economics of soil carbon sequestration as it is expected to unfold; and (4) implementation considerations drawn from success stories in local economic development.

National action programs (day 2).
Representatives will present their national action programs designed to combat desertification. The intent is to capture the range of activities that are already in place or planned.

Working group discussions (day 3).
Based on the preceding presentations, small working groups will be formed to identify where soil carbon sequestration either (a) is a substantial byproduct of existing programs, or (b) offers new opportunities that might enhance existing or planned programs.

Reports (day 4).
The final day will be devoted to summary reports from the working groups and the identification of development project models that offer reasonable prospects for successful implementation.

In response to issue 3, the workshop is intended to serve as a sound base upon which substantive programs can be built within Africa and other parts of the semiarid zone. At present, projects are anticipated in at least one region of Africa (sponsored by the United States), and one country in Africa (sponsored by Sweden).

2.3 World Laboratory Fellow in Desertification Control

As noted above, the U.S. Geological Survey EROS Data Center has an active program in soil carbon sequestration in development. To build capacity in Africa and possible lay the foundation for a project in Africa (see 2.2 ), a staff member of Centre de Suivi Ecologique (CSE Senegal) will be detailed to USGS/EROS Data Center. The purpose will be to provide training in: (1) remote sensing; (2) GIS data base development; and (3) carbon sequestration for desertification control.

2.4 Desertification in the Mediterranean Basin

Desertification also affects the Mediterranean Basin. The Italian government has recently released a national report on desertification. It claims that upwards of 40 percent of the country exhibits problems that might be attributed to desertification.

2.4.1 Desertification Demonstration Project

Problem statement:
Because of its central position within the Mediterranean Basin and the variety of conditions that exist there in terms of physical environment and land use history, Italy offers a unique opportunity to develop a demonstration site on which to demonstrate methods for desertification assessment, monitoring, and control.

To develop a site with which to demonstrate methods for assessment, monitoring and control of desertification that might be used by various land management agencies (national, provincial, or municipal) within the region.

To establish the degree to which primary and secondary productivity has declined on specific tracts of land over the past millennium (or more) as a consequence of environmental variation and human use.

To detect changes (positive and negative) in the productive capacity of the land.

To identify (1) management practices that retained or restored productive capacity to the land, and (2) sites that are most suitable for reclamation.

All activities would be based on the initial assessment. This effort would rely on a geographically explicit (map-based) reconstruction of environmental history. The intent would be to develop an understanding of: (1) how the environment has changed within the period of available records (perhaps a millennium); and (2) the causes of those changes (i.e., climate variation; extreme events [e.g., drought, fire, flood, earthquake] or human agency including direct action [e.g., forest clearing; dam building] or indirect [e.g., land tenure policy]).

The data sets that might be employed include systematic observations (e.g., weather records), historical ground and aerial photography, historical satellite images, archival records (e.g., agricultural production; crop or forest surveys), historical narratives (e.g., newspaper reports; personal journals; published descriptions of specific sites), and personal interviews (e.g., land managers, residents, government officials).

Monitoring would be based on the baseline assessment, with the intent of identifying where changes from those "initial" conditions occur and determining their causes. The effort would be based on an analysis of the most current data within the sets described above. However, satellite data (and aerial photography where available) would be the primary monitoring tool, supplemented by systematic observations, archival records, and interviews.

Control/intervention would focus on those areas in which land management practices had been successful in retaining or restoring productive capacity. The purpose would be to develop an understanding of: (1) the physical and biological processes involved, as well as; (2) the physical, biological, economic, and policy preconditions that allowed the management practice to succeed. This would permit the identification of suitable interventions and the areas that would be most favorable in which to implement them.

2.4.2 Capacity Building for Wildfire Potential Monitoring

Problem statement:
Wildfire has been identified as major economic threat and cause of broader-scale desertification (environmental degradation in dry lands) in the Mediterranean Basin.

A system has been developed and implemented in the United States by the U.S. Geological Survey EROS Data Center to assess wildfire potential on a daily basis using satellite data, land cover maps, and meteorological observations. This would be used to predict fire potential in the Basin.

Develop and present a training workshop in Erice for interested countries within the Mediterranean Basin. The intent would be to: (1) introduce the system to a receptive audience; (2) provide them with hands-on training; and (3) equip them with the software to implement the system in their home institutions.




1.   "Land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities" (United Nations Environment Program, 1992). Here we largely exclude irrigated areas and focus on those drylands characterized by land uses such as livestock grazing and marginal rainfed agriculture.    (Back to text)

2.   United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD), 1976.    (Back to text)

3.   United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) 1992 (the Rio Conference), which led to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) 1994.    (Back to text)

4.   "Carbon Sequestration in Soils: Science, Monitoring and Beyond," organized by Batelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, held in St. Michaels, Maryland in December, 1998.
      "Carbon Sequestration in Soils and Carbon Credits: Review and Development of Options for Semi-Arid and Sub-humid Africa," organized by the EROS Data Center, U.S. Geological Survey, held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in April, 1999. Members of the Desertification PMP were involved in the planning and execution of both workshops.    (Back to text)

5.  Lal, R., H.M. Hassan, and J. Dumanski. 1999, "Desertification control to sequester C and mitigate the greenhouse effect," in, Carbon Sequestration in Soils: Science, Monitoring, and Beyond, N.J. Rosenberg, R.C. Izaurralde, and E.L. Malone, eds. Batelle Press. Columbus and Richland (pp. 83-152).    (Back to text)