21 November 2007

Desert of Europe

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Low precipitation, erosion, urbanization, changes in agricultural methods or intensive farming… Mediterranean countries are facing a desertification process that translates into a degradation of cultivable land, pastures and forests, as well as a noticeable loss of biodiversity

Faced with the desertification that threatens Mediterranean Europe, researchers with Desertlink, a European Commission funded project, are trying to curb risk zones by studying certain exacerbating factors. Climatic upheaval and global warming will produce future droughts we need to begin preparing for now.

Low precipitation, erosion, urbanization, changes in agricultural methods or intensive farming… Mediterranean countries are facing a desertification process that translates into a degradation of cultivable land, pastures and forests, as well as a noticeable loss of biodiversity. At the same time, the threat of global warming and indicators of droughts to come are making the situation even more worrying. Geographers with Desertlink, a European Commission funded project, are drawing up assessments of land degradation in southern Europe, and providing other European countries with scenarios and farming models more adapted to each situation encountered.

For three consecutive years in southern Portugal, geographers with Desertlink have been analysing the level of land degradation and the reasons behind it in the Alentejo region, and attempting to provide specific solutions adapted to the range of situations. Physical analysis of the land, analysis of climatic and hydrological phenomena, social and economic studies of the region, historical analysis of land occupation, etc. The current degradation of certain farming zones, in correlation with the agricultural history of the country, raises the problem of the successive intensive agriculture policies implemented in Portugal over the past hundred years.

In the poverty-stricken region of Alentejo, we can observe that poor agricultural policies have endured because they’re often more economically advantageous for farmers in the short run. Over-pasturing or even grain crops only increase land degradation over several generations.

Desertlink geographers rely on local stakeholders capable of coming up with economic models of transition for a population that is still too dependent on poor agricultural practices. Portuguese geographers are also working closely with the Vale Formoso experimental farm located in the Alentejo region. Here, for several months, they’ve been using plots of “test crops” to study sedimentation levels in the land depending on what kind of crop is used.

The expertise of Desertlink can contribute to changing certain farming mentalities by concentrating on a more realistic type of agriculture for certain Mediterranean regions like Alentejo. Leaving land fallow for seven to nine years, prioritising pastures and limiting cattle is the price to pay for regaining sufficient vegetation to considerably reduce land erosion.

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