A whisper from the woods

Community Blog, June 2024

Jun 24, 2024

Desertification – An Environmental Problem And a Social Dilema

By Francisca Gusmão


This month’s Community Blog is inspired by two recent global observances – World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought (June 17) and World Refugee Day (June 20) – both celebrated last week.

As we will see, these topics are linked in complex ways posing our generation and those of the future with serious social- and nature-related challenges.


“United for Land. Our Legacy. Our Future.”

As mentioned in a previous article, “Desertification is a process by which vegetation in drylands, such as grasslands or shrublands, decreases and eventually disappears. Desertification and drought can cause the land to become unusable and can cause a decrease in biodiversity, as well as an increase in poverty and a decrease in food security.”

Desertification is one of the most pressing issues of our time, with an alarming 40% of the land being degraded, and therefore, unfit to provide resources (food, fodder, shelter, clothing, medicine, etc.) and ecosystem services (water, temperature, and climate regulation, pollination, etc.).

Our planet is a well of resources; it is rich and abundant, and it has enough capacity to nurture everyone on the planet. However, growing demand puts too much pressure on the ecosystem which is no longer able to replenish itself. In other words, we are making an unsustainable use of the planet’s resources.

There is not one single cause of land degradation. This makes the situation complex and hard to tackle, with events working as cause and effect, simultaneously. For example, deforestation leads to a decrease in soil quality and it leads to the aggravation of climate change. Climate change, in turn, comes with more frequent extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts, which again, work to decrease soil life and worsen land desertification.

Did you know that deforestation and food production systems are among the leading causes of desertification?

Trees have a unique capacity to retain moisture in the ground and hold the soil together. When a forest is cut down, the soil is more likely to lose its structure and is less able to hold onto water, nutrients, and life. The same fate is haunting the land we farm. The constant use of heavy machinery, the chemical inputs (like fertilizers, pesticides, and hormones) added to the soil, and the constant tillage are all causing the land to become barren and the soil lifeless.

Land degradation is as much of a social problem as it is an environmental one. With less fertile land available, those who are already facing harsh conditions will find themselves forced to flee.


“Climate Refugees”

There is no legal definition of a “climate refugee” nor are climate refugees covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means that protection and aid to those affected by climate disasters are inadequate and insufficient.

Officially, only people who have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” can be considered refugees and seek asylum. Therefore, an unstable climate or repeated extreme weather events cannot be currently cited as a reason for seeking asylum or refugee status.

Regardless, according to figures shared by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, since 2008, 376 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced by events such as floods, windstorms, earthquakes, or droughts.

While climate disasters are mainly responsible for internal displacement (when people move within the same country) external displacement is likely to increase in the coming years, adding to the already-existing tension in places like Europe and the USA.

Desertification and severe drought, as well as floods, heat waves, and other hazardous events, can put vulnerable people in precarious and even dangerous situations. Food insecurity and, in worse cases, famine, gender-based discrimination, racism, and xenophobia, are examples.


Climate change and its effects are expected to worsen. Coupled with such hazardous natural events, armed conflicts are not slowing down. There seems to be an unfortunate overlap between areas affected by armed conflict and those where climate change is most felt. In fact, the more vulnerable populations are, the more likely they are to be victims of any sort of repression.

There is reason to believe that mass migration will not halt and that more and more people every year will, one way or another, be forced to move. But how is our civilization going to answer that? And is there a right answer?


Please share this. Thank you!


  1. Hans Timpner

    Great article, very eye opening

    • Kika Gusmao

      Glad you enjoyed it, Hans!
      This is a very complex subject, and it is important to keep it on the table.


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