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United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme

Yes, Deserts Can Be Productive

By Diego Cevallos*

Production of solar energy in Chile's Atacama desert and ecotourism in Salta, Argentina, are successful cases of sustainable use of arid lands in Latin America.

MEXICO CITY - Deserts are advancing in Latin America and the Caribbean, where they already cover some five million square kilometers -- almost a quarter of the region. Although there is concern about this phenomenon, new studies suggest that arid lands also can generate wealth.

These ecosystems have the potential to produce electricity based on solar energy, allow fish farming and attract tourism. Furthermore, there are indications that dryland flora and fauna contain genetic resources that can be used to fight human illnesses, such as uterine cancer.

Although in the region there is minimal exploitation of desert lands, there are some successful cases.

In the Atacama desert of northern Chile, solar energy is being put to use. In the northern Argentine province of Salta, tourism is being promoted. And in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, protection of desert brush is aiding the recovery of an endangered rodent species, the prairie dog(Cynomys ludovicianus).

Furthermore, in arid areas of Sonora state, also in Mexico, pure water springs are contributing to the cultivation of high-quality grains.

According to an assessment by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), not all of the changes created by desertification necessarily have to be harmful. Some can have concrete benefits for the indigenous peoples and other inhabitants of the deserts, and even for the entire world.

The study, released for World Environment Day -- June 5 --, says deserts could be converted into carbon-free sources of electricity for the 21st century." This year's theme is "Don't Desert Drylands!"

An area of 800 by 800 kilometers in a desert like the Sahara could capture enough solar energy to generate the electricity needs of the entire world, and possibly more, adds the assessment.

In the Atacama desert, energy is already being produced. The Quechua people of the Ollagüe community, who live at 4,000 meters above sea level and withstand night-time temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero Celsius, heat their homes with solar-powered batteries.

The use of this technology, which is part of a project financed since 2004 by the Global Environment Facility, benefits 12 families in this community of 273 inhabitants.

Because of the region's isolation, there is no electrical network infrastructure. And the houses, made from stone and mud, until recently could only be heated with firewood and illuminated by candles and carbide lamps.

The Ollagüe municipal assistant, Carmen Achu Colte, explained to Tierramérica that the solar panel program will soon be extended to 25 families, who aspire to develop a drip irrigation system, fish farming and tourism.

According to the UNEP desert study, nature-based tourism in the deserts can provide new opportunities for the peoples of the poorest regions in the world.

In Argentina, Los Cardones National Park was established in 1996 in the desert zone of Salta. There, tourism authorities promote photo and observation safaris where visitors can see the local flora and fauna up close.

In Mexico, scientist Gerardo Ceballos is working to preserve the prairie dog population in a 500,000 hectare area of Chihuahua threatened by desertification. He is pressing the government to declare it a nature reserve.

Ceballos, winner of the Whitley Prize for his work, says other animals will also thrive in the area in populations so great that they will make the area an attractive destination for tourists, like Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

According to the UNEP desert assessment, the ecosystems of these areas also hold promising potential on the food front.

For example, it states that in one area of the Sonora desert are springs of pure water that could enhance production of high-quality grains, and could thus contribute to a better global yield of food.

Deserts also promise new sources for medicines derived from their plants and animals, which are uniquely adapted to the severe and unpredictable habitat, says UNEP.

Potential genetic resources lie in the deserts of Chihuahua, in Mexico. According to studies by the international environmental organization WWF, about 25 percent of the 1,500 known cactus species are found there, and many are endemic, that is, they are not found anywhere else in the world.

About one-quarter of the the Earth's land surface is considered desert, and more than 500 million people live in desert environments.

Deserts are threatened by unsustainable human activities, over-extraction of water, and climate phenomena, all of which contribute to the extension of deserts into area previously green with vegetation -- a process known as desertification.

In Latin America and the Caribbean there are some 313 million hectares affected by desertification (250 million in South America and 63 million Central America and Mexico).

The advance of erosion into farmland has become such a great problem worldwide that 191 countries have ratified a UN convention -- in force since 1996 -- aimed at halting the phenomenon.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Gustavo González in Chile.


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External Links

UNEP - World Environment Day 2006

Global Environment Facility


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