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Desertification Indicator System for Mediterranean Europe


The main issues associated with Mediterranean desertification

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Changes in the economic activity in desertification affected areas
Lead authors: Giovanni Quaranta, Rosanna Salvia, Monica Caggiano <quaranta@unibas.it>
With contributions from: Maria José Roxo and Pedro Cortesao Casimiro <mj.roxo@iol.pt>, Jorge García Gómez <jorgegg@um.es>, Constantinos Kosmas <lsos2kok@aua.gr>

g Description of reasons leading to changes in economic activity, and why changes in economic activity are an issue in the context of desertification
g Examples of changes in the economic activity in Mediterranean areas
g Portugal
g Spain
g Italy
g Greece
g Overview of how the indicators inter-relate
g Link to table of indicators specifically relating to this issue

g Description of reasons leading to changes in economic activity, and why changes in economic activity are an issue in the context of desertification
Authors: Giovanni Quaranta, Rosanna Salvia, Monica Caggiano <quaranta@unibas.it>

Desertification, for a long period of time, was commonly viewed, both at institutional and scientific level and moreover in the general public perception, as an environmental problem with environmental solutions (Spooner and Mann, 1982). The planned desertification agendas showed a lack of specific consideration of the social-economic context. As underlined, in fact, by an external review of the Global Action Plan to Combat Desertification drawn up in 1977 one of the main reasons of the failure of the Plan was the lack of attention to socio-economic factors (UNEP, 1991). Gradually the desertification definition incorporated the centrality of human activity as a cause of land degradation processes, arriving at the UNEP definition: "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, among which climatic variation and human activity" (UNEP, 1994).

This reflects a general perspective on the development issues that have been conceived without considering the repercussions and interrelationships with the environment. The implications of the adoption of this approach have been an over-exploitation of natural resources and irreversible degradation processes of the environment.

A good example is the formulation and implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) through its price and structural policies. On one hand price support has ensured an adequate income to farmers, and thus contributed to the development of regional economies and the maintenance of landscapes, especially in less favoured areas. But at the same time, the price support under the CAP also accelerates the intensification and specialisation process in Europe. Higher farm prices under the CAP encourage farmers to produce more which, given the limited land base in Europe, implies greater intensification and use of non-land inputs. Differences in protection rates under the CAP tend to favour more environmentally stressful crops. Imbalances in protection were also responsible for the growth in intensive animal husbandry. The negative effects of such approaches have been particularly evident in the Mediterranean basin, where man and his activities have been a very significant factor in shaping the landscape that is part of the biodiversity, and cultural and natural heritage.

In the last few decades this landscape has experienced a simultaneous explosion of new activities, such as mass tourism, growing urbanization and intensive irrigated agriculture, extensive single cropping, all leading to a progressive decline in traditional agriculture. These land use types compete among themselves for water, soil and other natural resources and produce effects on the stability and degradation of landscape and social system.

Intensive irrigated agriculture shows impacts on water and soil resources such as water and soil pollution or physical and biological soil degradation. Extensive single cropping may lead to deforestation and over-exploitation of resources, to soil erosion and soil degradation, to landscape changes and loss of biodiversity. Urbanization, tourism and recreational activities put strong demands on water, and have effects on flooding, erosion and general land degradation. The risk of environmental degradation, which arises from these activities, has an international dimension due to the areas of incidence and to the interconnection of economies.

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g Examples of changes in economic activity in Mediterranean areas

g Lower Inner Alentejo, Portugal
Authors: Maria José Roxo and Pedro Cortesao Casimiro <mj.roxo@iol.pt>

In Mértola municipality in the Lower Inner Alentejo most of the economic activities are related and connected to agriculture, hunting and forestry, so the primary sector represents more than 90% of economic productivity. However, of the municipality population actively employed in the economic sector, 49% are employed in the tertiary sector, while 29% and 22% are employed in the primary and secondary sectors respectively.

Within this economic context, agricultural enterprises (and others associated with animal production) represent around 90% of all enterprises, as well as 90% of the total primary employment. They also represents 45% of the total sales for the primary sector.

Collectively, it is the agricultural activities, those associated with agricultural and animal production, and activities of related services (hunting and game) that show competitive productivity, and a bigger growth capacity.

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g Spain
Authors: Jorge García Gómez <jorgegg@um.es>, Francisco López Bermúdez <lopber@um.es>

Changes in the economic activities in desertification-affected areas of the Guadalentín basin are due to the pressure of the tourist activities, the enlargement of irrigated areas and increased land abandonment. In those areas where tourist settlements affect the economy, (mainly the coastal areas and a few inland areas with attractive landscapes), the high prices offered for the land tempt the owners to sell. Then tourist activities become the main economic focus, changing the structure of the population and their occupations. Farming and industrial activities decrease while service sector and building activities increase. In many cases immigrants are employed in the service sector because of the lack of interest in these kinds of jobs (which are often low -paid) by the "native" population.

In inland areas the most important change in economic activities nowadays is the enlargement of irrigation farming, wherever water is available. This is normally achieved by sinking new wells or by building water transport infrastructures. This has been a major process in the area for the few last years. Irrigation agriculture has undergone intensive development at the expense of almond and cereal crops.

The higher profitability of irrigation farming activities (with products produced in periods of high demand, like autumn and winter) and the low profitability of dry farming due to the climatic conditions (mainly the low rainfall) convince farmers to try and change the land use. Most of the small dry farms are still worked only by older farmers because of tradition, and these farms are often abandoned when the farmers retire. Sometimes farmers join forestation programmes as attractive subsidies are provided, but this is a minor event. Young people from rural areas are much more attracted by the increasing tourist activity of the coastal areas than by farming, so they become building workers or join the service sector (particularly women).

The changes in economic activities result in important impacts on environment and social structures in this area. Inland areas tend to be more depopulated, with an older population and with less and less economic activity. In the few inland areas where tourist settlements are developed there are important changes in the social structure, land uses, landscape and resource management. The same changes are shown in coastal areas, where the scale of this phenomenon is much bigger and changes are more intense.

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g Agri Basin, Italy
Authors: Giovanni Quaranta, Rosanna Salvia <quaranta@unibas.it>

The Agri Basin is located in the Basilicata region, southern Italy. It is situated at the heart of the Basilicata Apennine Mountains and covers 1,730 square kilometres, with a population of 94,291 inhabitants. The Agri river flows 136 km to the Mediterranean sea.

Past policies, led by a top down approach based on exogenous resources and with an income-support nature, have provided the area with important, but still insufficient, public infrastructures, such as roads and irrigation systems. The public investments had a weak impact on the increase of the local self-development capacity; on the contrary, they augmented the external dependency of the local economy on the national and EU subsidies.

In addition, the past public intervention concentrated its efforts on the richest areas of the region, thus increasing economic regional disparities. At the beginning of the 1990s, by applying endogenous resource theories and some fiscal adjustments, as required by the EU, the developing policies focused more on structural local problems, and adopted a more cooperative decision-making approach that led to a more effective legislative and administrative decentralization. The Basin is now interested in an ambitious socio-economic development plan, the Regional Operational Programme (ROP). The 2000-2006 Community Support Framework has planned to invest around 1,300 million euros throughout the whole Basilicata Region.

The actions to manage the natural resources of the Basin are still moving in an unclear and contradictory policy framework. An indicative example of this lack of consistency and general planning is given by the direct competition, in the same area, between the oil drilling exploitation and the institution of a natural park, whose boundaries have been defined in December 2002 after years of debate.

The local economy is characterised by an unemployment rate for the entire Agri basin of about 25%, almost three times more than the national rate. In 2000, the GPD per capita value of the Basilicata Region was 14,398 euros, while the national value was 20,165 euros.

In the last few decades, the trend of industrial employment showed a moderate increase that peaked in the 1970s and now includes 30% of the employed work force. The public and private services sector has experienced a rapid growth, reaching 43% of the total employed work force, thanks to the expansion of income support policies and an increase in public employment.

Despite its huge increase in the last few years (from 1993 to 1998 the number of hotel beds have increased by around 70% of the total), the tourism sector still has a weak impact on the local economy, due to a low integration in terms of investments between the local context and the tourist operators, and it is mainly localized along the coast. This means it has a strong pressure on environmental resources of the coastal area.

Uncontrolled development of tourist infrastructure with high environmental impact (photo by G. Quaranta)

Despite a continuous decrease of importance, the agriculture sector still accounts for almost one third of the working population living in the Agri valley. Therefore, in terms of percentage of employed work force, the agricultural sector of the Agri valley represents one of the most important sectors of its economy, as it used to be years ago.

In 2000, 16,247 farms have been identified, almost one thousand more than the previous decade, showing an opposite trend in comparison with the Regional trend and that of the developed economies. These farms manage about 104,000 hectares of the cropping area, with an average size of 6.4 hectares. The agricultural development in the area follows a dualistic model. On the other side there is a marginal agriculture strictly dependent on subsidies and characterised by low productivity that is conducted in the interior. The area presents a soil structure with clay-marl and sandstone lithologies and is characterised by water erosion and landslides that give rise to evident gullies and badlands, called "Calanchi". The "Calanchi" present a distinctive asymmetry in the slope form: "South-facing slopes are steep, bare and intensively dissected whereas north-facing slopes are more gentle with macchia vegetation cover and runoff and sediment yields". This strong soil degradation process has been caused by the nature of the soil itself and the past and present agricultural practices and the deforestation that has strongly affected the area.

In the more fertile valleys the agriculture is intensive, using large amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides. This agricultural system, however, is no longer sustainable. The area is affected by land degradation, particularly along the borders of water streams and on the coastline, mainly due to the groundwater salinisation problem.

Typical calanchi landscape (photo by G. Quaranta)
Intensive agriculture in the Agri basin (photo by G. Quaranta)


  • Spooner, B. and Mann, H.S., 1982. Desertification and development. Dryland ecology in social perspective. Academic Press, London.
  • United Nations Environment Programme, 1991. External Evaluation of the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification, Report of the Executive Director, prepared for the 16th Session of the Govern Council. UNEP, Nairobi.
  • Nessim Ahmed, 2003. Economic, social and cultural causes and consequences of drought and desertification, including linkages to poverty, population pressure, food security, international trading patterns, traditional mechanisms for coping with drought and desertification, and gender/religion aspects. International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD)
  • Hassan M. Hassan, 2003. Impact of economic policies, including incentives and disincentives to appropriate technologies, particularly land tenure systems and subsidies. World Bank (WB)
  • Moustapha Soumare, 2003. Role of planning systems and instruments, including integration of anti desertification programs rall development programs. United Nations Sudano Sahelian Office (UNSO)

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g Greece
Author: Constantinos Kosmas <lsos2kok@aua.gr>

The population of Lesvos is around 108,000, about 1% of the total Greek population, with a declining birth rate (-3.2 per 1000 inhabitants in 2002). Between 1991 and 2001 the census showed that the population increased by 3.7% on Lesvos. There is a continuous decrease in population in remote agricultural areas accompanied by movement towards Mytilini (the island's capital city), or mainland Greece (Athens, Thessalonica, etc.). According to a Eurostat survey of the Greek islands, occupations in the primary sector have been declining steadily since 1961, with only a few upturns in recent years. The agricultural employment rate fell from 40.8% in 1970 to 15.8% in 2002. Over this period the tertiary sector, especially tourism, increased in importance.

The local economy of Lesvos is based on agriculture with emphasis on olive oil production and cattle rearing for dairy products. There is also a distillery industry making ouzo. Other products include wheat, vegetables and fruits crops, various fish and shellfish. Within Greece, Lesvos is the 6th largest olive oil producer providing 6% of total national production in 2003 and the 8th largest cheese producer, with 3% of national production.

Lesvos produces 1% of national GDP and 2.1% of the total national agricultural production. In 2001 agriculture provided 15% of the island's GDP, falling from 18% in 1997. From 1985-95 there was a 6% decline in the primary sector's percentage of the Gross Regional Product.

Since 1960, an effort to break dependence on the cultivation of olive trees has been made because unstable production has led to failing populations. Instead, the focus had turned to tourism and the immediate need to develop infrastructure (hotels, roads and transport) set against a background of modernization that has become more evident since Greece's accession to the EU. Today the tertiary sector is prominent while factors such as small plot sizes, restricted natural resources, ageing population and low competitiveness of agricultural products (due to high production and transportation costs), suppress the growth of the primary sector.

Farmers' income is declining and depends increasingly on state subsidies and community funds which, following revision of the CAP and the enlargement of the EU, will eventually be reduced. In a farm survey conducted during the execution of the DESERTLINKS project it was shown that the decline of farmers' income is the most important factor in land use decision making. The prices of the main products (olive oil, meat, and milk) do not follow the general trends of the market, thus reducing the income. In many cases the prices of products such as olive oil decreased, while the cost of living increased. Labour, fertilizers, pesticides and fuel costs have increased significantly without any parallel increase in the prices of products. Since farm size is small, farmers hire other people's land to increase their land area and to supplement their income. Under such conditions olive groves have been abandoned and converted to natural areas.

The increase in tourist numbers in the last few decades has greatly affected the economy of the island and land use especially in the lowlands such as the Kalloni plain, Eressos plain, Mythimna plain and Vatera, or other areas close to national parks or important recreation areas such as Sigri or Plomari. Furthermore tourism development has also largely influenced land value in some parts of the island, affecting a significant part of urban land for rental. The main land use changes that occurred due to these processes were expansion of annual agricultural crops (vegetables) and extension of urban areas into agricultural or natural areas.

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g Overview of how the indicators inter-relate
Authors: Giovanni Quaranta, Rosanna Salvia, Monica Caggiano <quaranta@unibas.it>

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