Desertification triggers migration flows but is overlooked in environmental debate

Desertification is a wretched process that is caused by fertile soil becoming dry and impoverished and that eventually ruins the soil’s productivity completely. Soil that is unfit for cultivation is a major trigger for migration flows in Africa and the Middle East.

Desertification is a wretched process that is caused by fertile soil becoming dry and impoverished and that eventually ruins the soil’s productivity completely. Soil that is unfit for cultivation is a major trigger for migration flows in Africa and the Middle East. 
Desertification has been overshadowed by other environmental concerns. “Desertification is widespread in the Mediterranean region, and it is becoming more common in Central Europe, too, and even more widely in the Mediterranean. News footage of drought and wildfires in Europe foreshadow conditions that can lead to impoverished soil and desertification,” according to forest and environmental experts Vesa Kaarakka and Matti Nummelin, who contributed to a recently published book on desertification. The book, titled ‘Climate Forests’, is in Finnish. 

The book is edited by Kari Silfverberg, who is one of four current or retired environmental experts from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs who contributed to the book. 

Flight from dry areas

According to Nummelin, desertification advances rapidly in North Africa and the process is discouraging. “At this rate, all arable land in North and Central Africa dries out and becomes unfit for cultivation. Currently, the largest migration flows burden the countries’ and the continent’s largest metropolitan areas, and only a small stream of people heads to Europe,” Nummelin says.

How to combat desertification? Carbon sequestration and versatile use of arable land are the best ways to combat desertification and climate change, according to forestry experts at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. “There is no need for engineers’ tricks. Trees that bind carbon from the atmosphere are the best and cheapest way,” Nummelin assures.

Finland has supported development cooperation projects against desertification in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, among other countries.

Finland has left its imprint on international forest agreements

Before joining the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Kaarakka was a research and a lecturer in tropical forest management at the University of Helsinki. He was among the Finnish delegation when the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification was being negotiated in 1992 and 1993.

Forestry expertise has been at the heart of Finland’s development cooperation for decades, and Finland has succeeded in having its own objectives included in international forest and environmental agreements.  

“Thanks to Finland we have trees and agroforestry included in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Another important Finnish achievement has been the inclusion of gender equality in the implementation of environmental agreements,” Kaarakka says.

Finland has supported land registration in Ethiopia and the strengthening of the land use and forest management practices in Tanzania. People take better care of arable land if they own it or at least have right of possession, according to the forestry experts.     

“Smallholders are hoeing fields and managing trees on the field margins. That is why it is so important that smallholders get their voices heard and can influence decisions on land use and forest ownership,” Nummelin says.