14 June 2010

Maria José Roxo: "Misuse of natural resources can cause desertification in Portugal"

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Maria José Roxo, Geographer, Department of Geography and Regional Planning – Universidade Nova de Lisboa, points out the negative effects of an agricultural drama

Drought, low precipitation and global warming are all problems threatening Mediterranean regions, but other causes, such as intensive agricultural use, might affect desertification. The current degradation of certain farming zones, in correlation with the agricultural history of Portugal, raises the problem of the successive intensive agriculture policies implemented over the past hundred years. The Department of Geography and Regional Planning of Universidade Nova de Lisboa has analysed the level of land degradation and the reasons behind it for three years during the EC funded project Desertlink. The study area of the project was the Mertola district, in the Alentejo region, which is experiencing serious desertification problems. In this extremely poor region of Portugal, where the problem of water is particularly worrying, there is a need to find solutions to improve the population’s living conditions without further undermining the environment and resources.

Which are the visible effects of desertification in the Alentejo region?
Global warming has two serious implications in this region. First, during certain seasons of the year, like in the spring, it rains less. Secondly, we have noticed that the rain is much more concentrated and so has greater erosive power. And this is directly linked to the intensification of natural processes that contribute to desertification. Concerning temperatures, there is also an increase in extreme temperatures which means that in part, it is difficult to conserve water and there is thus a natural selection of plants in the region.

Which are the factors that your study team identified as possible causes for the desertification of this region?
Desertification in this region and throughout Portugal in general can be explained by the misuse of natural resources and, particularly here in the Mertola district, by the use of land that was already poor quality and never should have experienced such intensive agricultural use.
We have two types of landscape in Portugal: a flat landscape and one that’s more hilly, because we also have two different kinds of rocks. This land is much more agricultural, much more exploited by man, whereas the poor quality land on the other side was less farmed in the past because it was covered with natural vegetation. But then land division policies made it such that these lands were heavily used for agriculture and raising cattle, and since the soil was much less dense, they were extremely ravaged and degraded.

In the poverty-stricken region of Alentejo, we observe that poor agricultural policies have endured because they are often more economically advantageous for farmers in the short run. From your point of view, how is it possible to come up with economic models of transition for a population that is still too dependent on poor agricultural practices?
We can follow for almost one century that most of the landuse changes and the landcover changes are completly guided by policies, national and European, or whatever more than by market necessities .
Certain agricultural practices could be modified without engendering major economic losses for farmers like, for example, ploughing larger surface areas but not as deeply, ploughing along the contour lines and also reinstating certain farming practices from the past that would be much better adapted to the climatic and pedological conditions (of the land). It is very important to work with different groups of people, like technicians from the Agricultural Ministry or other institutions, but also with professors who are able to educate large groups of young people; it is important to work with farmers too, but also with NGOs that play an important role in spreading information. It is indispensable to help guide farmers towards choosing crops that are more respectful of the environment.


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