Invisible turning of the Earth into the desert: can we avoid it?

    07 Jul 2021

    Let’s continue our explanation of what desertification is and why it can be “invisible.” I am thankful to zoologist Oleksiy Vasyliuk, the head of the UNCG NGO, for the brilliant advice.

    There are many adaptations and interpretations of the story of Easter Island. There, as a result of human impact on the environment, civilization perished. Another example is the so-called fertile belt of Greenland, where the land thawed one year month later, and the grass did not grow in time. During this time, cattle accustomed to eating what people had stored had eaten all their food. So it died together with humans.

    This is how small civilizations disappear. But, in oppozite, we are a great civilization. We have the opportunity to retreat from fields that are no longer cultivated. 

    For example, in Eastern Europe, black soil is now weathered, leaving a bare underlying rock instead. In the mid-XX century, the ground, which has accumulated for 9,000 years since the glacier’s retreat, has completely disappeared in a few decades. By the way, all the carbon from the soil was released into the atmosphere and led to climate change, described in detail here.

    But we overlook this desertification; we do not die from it. We just stop using these territories. It’s just that if in Greenland the whole civilization was around a small fjord and in one year people died out, then we don’t have that, and that’s why we think everything is fine. We, Eastern Europeans, believe that nothing terrible is happening. 

    In Ukraine, black soil reserves accumulated by plants for ten thousand years have disappeared in a few decades, but we do not notice this. Because for us, it happens smoothly, somewhere else, agricultural plants still grow. And there are more such places than those where it does not grow. And somewhere you can pour more fertilizer, and somewhere you can grow crops in greenhouses. And we do not notice that this resource is disappearing, albeit not forever, and that this is an alarming prospect for us. After all, in our lifetime, it will not resume.

    The landmass of our planet is 40% desert. There are mountains and the Far North, and only a tiny part of the land is available for agriculture or forestry. All the plains of Eastern Europe are mainly divided into arable land, settlements, and forests. This means that we have occupied 2/3 of the area available to agriculture (instead of woods, for example).

    40% of Ukraine is a steppe climate zone, and about as many are forest-steppe. This means that everything that used to be steppes, including animals and plants, is no longer there. Everything alive, all the diversity of species that lived in Eastern Europe in the steppes is extinct; it simply does not exist at all. If any species remain on the slopes, it is the species that should be on the slopes. What was supposed to be in the plain steppe is extinct. Russia still has some steppe, but Russia does not comply with international environmental legislation. Therefore, the last pieces of steppe in Ukraine are the only thing that is protected in Europe from the remnants of this climatic zone. And agriculture governors continue to plow the last steppes.

    So, our planet is gradually becoming a desert. There are very different estimates for this; for example, 135 hectares become a desert every year – this figure appears from time to time. But I’m afraid it’s more popular just because more sources share it. I think that there is no average reliable estimate of the rate of desertification.

    Because the desert does not necessarily look like a dune landscape, this is an area that has lost its fertile soil layer. And, accordingly, if some territories became areas covered with dunes, it would be possible to identify such a landscape as a desert. Instead, some regions of Eastern Europe do not look like a desert. It is difficult to identify visually.

    Therefore, the rate of desertification is high-speed. The world has thought about this and accepted the international legislation.

    There is, for example, the International Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s at the center of thoughts on nature conservation. Countries around the world are funding serious international research on its topics.

    In 2000, a meeting of the convention set the task that humanity will stop biodiversity loss by 2010. And in 2010, the so-called Nagoya Conference took place in Japan. It was a meeting of the parties to the conference (signed by 190 countries).

    Nagoya Protocol

    On October 29, 2010, the “Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits from Their Use” was adopted.

    In July 2014, the Biodiversity Conference announced that the required number of ratification documents had been received (50). The Protocol entered into force on October 12, 2014.

    Strategic Plan for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity for 2011-2020 “Living in harmony with nature.”

    The Tenth Meeting approved the Strategic Plan of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (Nagoya, Japan, 18-29 October 2010). The plan includes 20 main targets for 2015 or 2020 (“IT’s Biodiversity Targets”), classified as five strategic objectives.

    Delegates from more than 190 countries that signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity arrived in Nagoya at the time.

    In 2002, UN members pledged to “significantly reduce” the rate of wildlife losses. The benchmark date was then 2010, declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

    But in 2010, UN experts concluded that the primary goal of the convention had not been achieved.

    Scientists warn of high animal extinction rates and damage to ecosystems such as coral reefs or tropical forests.

    The parties acknowledged that no country in the world had stopped the loss of biodiversity. This was not done bh the most developed and smallest states, such as Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Suriname, where most of the territory is wildlife. Even in countries with solid rainforests, biodiversity loss continues, and we do not know what will happen next.

    A document entitled The Global Perspective on Biodiversity has emerged. The next horizon for biodiversity protection was set there – until 2020. In 10 years, the world was to make 17% of the land and 10% of the world’s oceans the protected areas. Everyone on the planet had to understand the problems of biodiversity and everything else related to agriculture.

    The movie “Our Planet” with David Attenborough begins with the famous presenter saying that if we do not stop the loss of biodiversity over the next 20 years, we will not save lives on Earth.

    There are five leading causes of biodiversity loss on the planet.

    1. Loss of habitat. All species that can live in the old oak virgin forest or the steppe are endangered and fall into the Red Book because they simply have nowhere else to live.

    2. Fragmentation of ecosystems. We wrote about them in detail on the example of forests here. This is when nature is divided into many small pieces. 

    Why are there almost no large predators left on the planet? Not because they are dangerous to humans, but because they require large areas. The Amur tiger needs a colossal territory on which it simply has to circulate regularly. If this animal, during its life, bypassing these lands, does not face people, it survives. But where are such territories? The fate of the Amur tiger is a typical example of how fragmentation leads to species extinction.

    3. Introduced species, or alien species. Maples and acacias entered Europe from North America. This invasion does not look scary, but instead of all of them should be European plants. Alien species spread rapidly on the new continent because, for example, there are no pests that would eat them, or predators that would hunt them, or parasites that would undermine them from within. The Colorado potato beetle from America found whole wheat fields in Europe, which would have to be found in his homeland, among other plants. Of course, beetle multiplied a lot.

    4. Environmental pollution. Here, the inhabitants of rivers and lakes, freshwater fish, suffer just because they have nowhere to go.

    5. Global climate change. For example, in winter in Europe, insects can wake up because the temperature suddenly rose to +15° in December (when it should be -15°). They will die and will not be able to pollinate the plants in the spring when they bloom.

    6. Hunting, fishing, harvesting branches, etc. The Global Perspective does not highlight this reason, but other documents highlight it.

    The first five reasons are one way or another related to agriculture. This does not mean that we have to get rid of agriculture. We can’t help but deal with the farming. But we need to understand why the ship called Humanity is sailing to the abyss and do some measures to prevent it.

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