Combating Desertification

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Drought and/or Desertification Particularly in Africa

During the Earth Summit which was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development UNCED) it was decided to mobilise the international community to sign a treaty to tackle desertification. After having debated this subject for many years the

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification was drawn up during the first World Conference which took place in Rome at the FAO in September/October 1997.

Shibam (Yemen)

The Convention is an innovative document at an international level because it gives priority to the interests of the communities that are directly affected by this phenomenon and it replaces the traditional idea of assistance to that of co-ordination and participation.

Moreover, the Convention, that specifically addresses those countries severely affected by drought and desertification particularly in Africa, deals with all the issues concerning land degradation and natural resource destruction. In particular, a specific annex addresses the Mediterranean Countries (Annex IV of the Convention).

Desertification in the World and in Italy

Desertification in its more intensive forms affects more than 100 countries threatening the survival of more than 1 billion people.

The situation is particularly dramatic in the arid areas where about 70% of the areas, namely ¼ of the whole earth’s surface, are threatened. But the problem is also widely present in temperate areas. According to research carried out by the European Union in Italy, 27% of the Italian territory is exposed to a high risk of erosion. In fact the regions of Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia show a serious desertification process. In Italy, which is characterised by a highly populated territory, the development of the desertification process is directly linked to the crisis of historic sites where a pattern of massive cement works, energy consumption and environment pollution replaces a traditional asset of the landscape made up of houses and where there is low consumption of resources.

The urbanisation of new areas corresponds to the abandonment and the exodus from ancient centres with the resulting loss of land which could be correctly managed. Therefore, physical and social desertification occurs. The architectural degradation, the erosion of mountains, hills and slopes corresponds to the weakening of human resources. Emigration, the loss of identity and values are all sociocultural aspects of desertification.

Italian Research Centre on Traditional and Local Knowledge

The Italian Government has undertaken a series of actions in order to fulfil the UNCCD mandate. In fact, the Italian Government has established two national organisations situated in strategic areas where the activities can be carried out. These organisations are situated in Porto Torres – Sardinia – and Matera – Basilicata.The Ministry of the Environment and the Region of Basilicata have established the Italian Research Centre on Traditional and Local Knowledge to Combat Desertification in the town of Matera.

Matera has been chosen since it is a typical historic centre where nature’s resources, such as water, stone and sun are appropriately managed. The “Sassi” of Matera is a global ecosystem that best represents the typical situations of Basilicata and Apulia. The rehabilitation and the degradation of the Sassi, that occurred after their abandonment which took place in 1950s and 1960s, are experiences of integrated restoration and of the struggle to combat desertification. Besides being an example for the whole world, these experiences have to be implemented in those areas where the same situations are found such as the canyon and the habitats of the “Gravine” (Canyons).

From 29th to 31stOctober 1998, an International Forum on European Policies to Combat Desertification in the Mediterranean BasinPolicies and Measures to Combat Desertification in the Mediterranean Basin, Local and Traditional Knowledge for the Management and Preservation of Nature’s Resources was held in Matera in order to make scientific remarks and co-ordinate the operational actions among the Mediterranean countries (UNCCD Annex IV). It was organised by the Ministry of Environment in collaboration with the Region of Basilicata and ENEA within the framework of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

International and national bodies such as: UNCCD – EU – FAO – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – ENEA, the University of Basilicata, the mayors and the administrators of 15 local municipalities, 50 NGOs, volunteer and cultural associations participated in the Forum.

The most important scientific scholars as well as political and official representatives of the Mediterranean Basin took part in this Forum during which a discussion of policies and measures to combat desertification was carried out as well as an analysis of the traditional and local knowledge.


Traditional and Local Knowledge Safeguard



Traditional and local knowledge represents a know-how heritage disseminated in the whole Mediterranean Basin.

This knowledge has contributed to soil maintenance and resource saving for millenia.

Traditional structures and practices which were once used in agriculture and urban centres are increasingly being abandoned.

The abandonment of traditional agriculture and the urbanisation of new areas coincide with the exodus from ancient centres causing the loss of settlements which are able to correctly manage the landscape, thus bringing about a physical and social desertification process. Architectural degradation coincides with slope erosion and the salinization of coastal land coincides with a decrease in human resources. Emigration, loss of knowledge and identity are all sociocultural aspects of desertification.


That the local knowledge and the territorial asset were put forward again in new form and solutions for protecting and preserving the quality of soil, water, and typical Mediterranean landscape biodiversity in order to:


Let the traditional rural systems aimed at soil preservation and resource saving (terraced cultivation, dry-stone walls, hydraulic collection systems), play a new global role making these activities sustainable. This role is possible thanks to the integration of other economies such as cultural tourism, archaeology and environment exploitation with the consequential proposal of agricultural practices redevelopment of tilled species, of fin
ancing measures, of desertification factors (stone-racking, monoculture, use of plant protection products ) and the renaturalization of areas that have been affected by industrial agriculture;


Implement new integrated production cycles; consumption and recycling in urban areas with the enhancement of old centres and the reutilization of traditional building materials and techniques for new constructions; the proposal of new quarters based on the saving and appropriate use of resources; the renaturalization and environmental transformation of areas undergoing urban or industrial desertification;


To carry out new programmes of country planning that could take into account the aesthetic, cultural and economic values of the landscape as a specific quality of the Mediterranean area, in general, and particularly of the Italian area.

Petra (Jordan)


Setting up an Annex IV country Permanent Committee for all the Mediterranean Basin.

The establishment of networks extending to all the Mediterranean Basin as far as traditional knowledge is concerned.

The establishment of a first network co-ordinated by the Research Centre of Matera dealing with: traditional use of cave dwellings and water preservation; the establishment of an Internet dissemination group.

The establishment of other networks co-ordinated by other Annex IV countries. Greece has already put forward its availability to co-ordinate the network on forests and their protection against fires.

During an informal meeting the Countries of the Arab Maghreb Union considering that desertification in Africa causes indirect social consequences also in Europe and waiting for the implementation of strategic programmes.


To carry out pilot micro-projects aimed at stopping the present-day processes also in very small areas.

The projects are characterised by integrated actions regarding rural and urban areas as well as traditional habitats.