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UN Aims to Fight Desertification in Africa

The United Nations has launched a program to fight desertification in nine African countries. Scientists hope to employ some of the traditions of African nomads in addressing the problem.

Desertification is one of the most serious environmental problems facing Africa.

This year, millions of Africans are threatened by famine, mainly because of drought. Droughts contribute to the desertification of farmland, which, in turn, extends food shortages into later years, when rainfall improves.

Experts say no significant improvement is in view. Climate change indicates reduced rainfall over the long term, and population growth puts even more pressure on the shrinking supply of arable land.

Pilot projects to stem desertification are being set up in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The U.N. project's global coordinator, Saidou Koala, has said researchers want to use the expertise of African nomads, who have been living on the desert fringes for thousands of years, to help prevent further land degradation. "So far, we haven't capitalized on their knowledge. They know very well how we can conserve some of the wildlife, some of the biodiversity. They have intimate knowledge of the land, of the environment. Unless we work with them; unless, ourselves, we learn from them, we will try to impose new knowledge that may not fit into their way of life. So, it is very important to rely on indigenous knowledge," she said.

In recent years, nomads have started to settle down and modernize. This has worsened deforestation and over-grazing.

Experts have said it is important to revive the nomads' traditional knowledge and skills to protect the environment.

For example, nomads living in northeastern Kenya use local herbs and trees as medicine to treat their livestock.

Henry Cheruiyot, a scientist with the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, says some of the plant-based medicines are more effective than modern drugs.

"For us to bring that valuable tree on board, we work with communities to identify the plants, use the plants ourselves, as though they would themselves in treating key diseases. Our control is treating the disease using the conventional [medicines], and we compare results. Some of their indigenous medicines are even more superior than the conventional," he said.

Over the next five years, the United Nations plans to work together with Africa's indigenous people to draw up action plans to combat desertification. These will be used as blueprints for land recovery and conservation projects elsewhere in Africa.