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Abstract

The notion of arid lands as ‘wastelands’ derives largely from colonial assumptions — assumptions that continue to harm the world’s drylands and impact the lives of millions of people. Our most common conception of deserts and arid lands is that they are ruined wastelands with little value, aberrations that need to be repaired and improved. Up to 70 percent of global arid and semiarid lands are frequently claimed to be suffering from varying degrees of ‘desertification’1 — despite the term having no agreed-upon definition or standardized measure. This problematic notion of the drylands — which constitute about 40 percent of the earth’s landmass — informs both knowledge about, and policies in, desert regions. Academic research, however, has shown for more than 25 years that estimates of desertification have been significantly exaggerated and that most of the world’s drylands are not being invaded by spreading deserts caused by deforestation, burning, and overgrazing, as is often claimed. That hasn’t stopped the misconception from fueling a multimillion-dollar global anti-desertification campaign driven by perceptions of a looming crisis.

While global concern about desertification is most commonly dated to the 1970s when the Sahelian drought and famine hit that region with spectacular suffering and mortality, fear of invading deserts has driven global dryland policy for much longer, dating to the mid-20th century with UNESCO’s Arid Zone Program and to various colonial adventures in the world’s drylands long before that.

In a very real sense, our old fear of desertification has caused dryland degradation where, for all intents and purposes, none existed before.
Indeed, before the word “desertification” was coined in the 1920s by a French colonial forester, western imperial powers had executed many different programs to try to curtail the perceived spread of deserts and also to try to “restore” the drylands to productivity. Underlying these attempts was a complex, long-standing, and primarily Anglo-European understanding of deserts which equated them with ruined forests much of the time.

The assumption that the world’s drylands are worthless, deforested, and overgrazed landscapes has led, since the colonial period, to programs and policies that have often systematically damaged dryland environments and marginalized large numbers of indigenous peoples, many of whom had been using the land sustainably.
Many reasons for the apparent intransigence of policymakers to incorporate the findings of arid lands ecology have been identified — from institutional inertia, to the political expediency of claiming a crisis of desertification or climate change, to the way that such framings facilitate research funding and provide a wide array of professional opportunities from the international to the local levels. An equally important cause, though, derives from the history and evolution of Anglo-European thinking about deserts and desertification that is many centuries old. The legacy of these notions about threatening desert wastelands continues to directly inform contemporary mainstream dryland development and anti-desertification policy around the world.

As I illustrate in “The Arid Lands,” Western ideas of deserts have changed a great deal from the relatively benign view of the classical era 2,000 years ago. These ideas underwent important and complex transformations with the rise and early spread of Christianity in what we now call the Middle East and North Africa. Ideas of the divine and the desert sublime, associated with the hermetic Desert Fathers, developed during this period and have continued to inform a few positive notions of the desert to this day.

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