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As a simplistic statement one might hypothesize that levels of proximity to the phenomena in space and time might influence both the awareness and evaluation of the significance of the phenomena by any observers. From the farmer whose staple food crop has just blown away to the government official in the metropolitan office reading the report of the event, there is a spectrum not only of space and time which might influence the perceptions of the event, but also a spectrum of psychological stress-perhaps typified by a shrug, one of despair at the prospect of starvation, the other of resignation at another item for the In-Tray. In a sense the spatial scale is a scale of relevance to livelihood -from "fundamental" for the farmer to "incidental" for the official. The "distance decay" in this context might then be expected to be of levels of concern, from the highest and closest to the event in space, to the lowest and most remote. Given a hierarchy of government from the local level through to regional and national levels, one might hypothesize that each level might in its turn reflect a different level of (perhaps diminishing} concern. Yet the studies suggest that in fact the levels of concern as measured by activity and expressed opinions show a reverse curve: the local farmers seem to be less concerned than the remoter officials. This finding has been supported by a recent review of perception of soil erosion which noted that soil loss is often characterised by differing perceptions of the problem held by resource managers operating at different levels. It is high on the priority lists of central government officials and environmental scientists in most developing countries as well as being a priority target for international action. However, for many of those closest to the problem, particularly in the primary agricultural sector, awareness of the magnitude of the problem is complicated by several factors. [Porter and Islam 1978, 20]

Part of the differences not only between the perceptions but between the expected and actual levels of concern may rest in the second aspect-the temporal scale.

In terms of the general characteristics of natural hazards, desertification is a pervasive rather than an intensive stress event. That is, its impact is cumulative over a period which may be measured in years rather than, as a flood or hurricane, in hours or minutes (Kates 1979). This slow onset is further spread widely over space so that there are few unaffected areas which might serve as "controls" to indicate prior conditions. In such a situation, to be close to the event in space may prevent an accurate assessment of the changes taking place-only a time-lapse camera or an annual visitor with a good memory would spot the trends.

Given recognition of the phenomena at a point in time, however, reaction to that recognition itself takes time to materialize. The experience from natural hazards studies shows that while emergency action to cope with the immediate impact is often commendably swift, with impressive volumes of food, clothing, and materials for shelter moved long distances in short times, this action is implicitly aimed at an assumed short-term disruption of the status quo ante. In the case of the Sahel Drought, the famines of 1968-74 brought rapid international emergency aid which, despite criticisms, undoubtedly saved human lives; but the local resource management systems were being manipulated before, during, and after the famines in ways which did not promise long-term mitigation of the desertification process (Glantz 1976; Wade 1974).

The need to change the human resource use system is slow to be recognized and even when a suitable alternative is provided, its implementation may take so long that it is overtaken by events. Those events might be within the natural event system, such as climatic fluctuations, or in human activity, such as socio-economic or political fluctuations, which further affect the viability of resource use in the area. The story of the fortunes of farming reconstruction following the "dust bowls" on the Great Plains of the United States and the Mallee of southern Australia provides evidence of such changing contemporary environments which complicated and in some cases negated prior defensive strategies against desertification. The president of the Soil Conservation Society of America neatly summed up the problem to the United States National Conference on Soil Conservation Policies in November 1979: "As we solved the problems of the thirties, the forties were upon us. As we solved the problems of the forties, the fifties were upon us and so on. Now as we begin to solve the problems of the seventies, the eighties are upon us" (Moldenhauer 1979). He went on to argue that such a time lag could no longer be tolerated, that to succeed in the fight for soil conservation "we must be on the leading edge instead of the trailing edge or somewhere in the middle." The process of translating the perceptions into realities needs to be significantly speeded up.


Perception of the environment reflects not only the scales of the events and their oberverst relationship to them, but also the variety of motives implicit in attitudes to the environment. In simplistic terms, there would seem to be a spectrum of motives from those concerned solely with an individual's desires and benefits to those concerned with the desires and benefits of all members of society-from the "private" to the "public" ends of the spectrum. Thus a potential variety of motives can be hypothesized and classified according to scope (in terms of clientele served) from individual to group, institutional, and governmental. The variety of perceivers of desertification noted above provides examples of motives along this spectrum.

If the range of motives is set against the scale of perception of desertification or the scale of resource management, a matrix of the perception of environmental resources can be created (Table 6.2). While the precise location of the various perceivers or resource managers within the matrix is open to debate, the general pattern has some logic and, for those perceivers identified in the case studies, is supported by the available evidence. Thus each of the boxes in the matrix represents an area where a specific range of motives and attitudes might be expected, and while some overlap might occur, in theory each box accommodates different motives and attitudes.

These differences might be expected from such a matrix at one point of time, but over a period of time the nature of the differences might change, the overlaps of interests advance or recede, as particular philosophies or climates of opinion come into vogue. Such fluctuations in attitudes to resource use from the ninteenth to the twentieth centuries have been shown to have relevance for the history of desertification in the United States and Australia. In particular these have affected the perceptions of the role of governments in general resource management and help explain the current official concern for national resources and the need for official policies on their management.


Prior research has provided a range of hypotheses for human adjustments to natural hazards (Appendix 6.1) and the four studies suggest that some of these hypotheses seem to be valid also for human adjustments to desertification.

As with hazardous locations, occupation of areas threatened by desertification is justified on various grounds. Superior economic opportunities attracted settlers to the Great Plains of the United States, to the flood plains and dry-farming areas of the River Murray Valley in Australia, and to the wooded interfluves of the Dry Zone in Sri Lanka. In most cases the opportunities were from farming, in some cases even from speculation in land itself. The lack of alternatives or significant reserves and short-term time horizons also seem to have been relevant factors.

Drawing upon prior sociological research the natural hazards studies identified three types of societal attitudes to the relationship between the physical environments and their human inhabitants. Interpreting the sociological argument, Burton and Kates (1964) identified the attitude as Man under Nature, Man with Nature, and Man over Nature. Respectively, these would represent first, a fatalistic acceptance of events, with no recognition of any human ability to influence their sequence or character; second, a recognition of the need to do certain things, seen to be complementary to the natural processes and phenomena, in order to maximize the potential of the environment; and third, the belief that mere exercise of human ingenuity and skills would bring solutions to any environmental problem. Depending upon the attitude held, so might the beliefs and actions of the resource managers vary; thereby the success, indeed even the possibility, of any manipulation of the environment to control the desertification process would vary accordingly.

TABLE 6.2. Matrix of the Perception of Resource Management


Scale of Resource Management

Local Regional National International




- not affected
- indirectly affected *  
- directly affected *  
- interest groups (lobbies) *   *  


- type of industry (e.g., farmers entrepreneurs)
- motives affected by size ownership, location, etc. of management  


- religious organizations  
- welfare agencies
Red Cross, Red Crescent, Salvatior Army, etc.
- pure or applied?
-expertise, climatology,economics, geography, history, hydrology soil science
  * *  


- executive  
- legislative
- judiciary
- administrative * * *  

Source: Modified after Burton 1971
Key: * Evidence provided in these four studies.

Translated into Hypothesis B in Appendix 6.1 these types would approximate the responses as follows:

Man under Nature = folk response
Man over Nature = modern technological response
Man with Nature = comprehensive response

For most researchers and officials in all sites the response to desertification seemed to reflect Man over Nature attitudes with the associated belief in the ultimate solution to the problem through the application of science and modern technology. For the majority of farmers in the developed countries of the United States and Australia a similar attitude seemed to dominate, and for the majority of Sri Lankan farmers a somewhat fatalistic Man under Nature view seemed most common. Yet as noted in the discussion above of the farmers as a group of perceivers, such a simplistic division hides a complex of attitudes. Thus technologically oriented farmers still exhibit despair and psychological stress in the face of environmental hazards such as drought and see their future livelihood influenced by externals such as chance and their religious beliefs as well as their technological skills. At the other end of the spectrum subsistence farmers in Sri Lanka accept available technology if they consider it useful.

Variation in perception of desertification seemed to reflect the magnitude and frequency of experience of it. Individual attitudes to risk-taking, the age of respondents, and level of education also seemed to be associated with some of the variations, and the short time-horizon of most farm decision-making affected farmers' percept) ons as a whole.

Community perceptions seemed to reflect the local importance of desertification and in part media coverage, but the picture was obscured by evidence of rural-urban conflicts of interests which coloured reactions to desertification.

Lessons for the Future

The studies have shown the complexity of the perceptions of desertification and how those complexities appear to have influenced human reactions to the phenomena. We must now try to abstract the lessons for human reactions in the future.

If we accept the perception of the officials and researchers that desertification is a serious environmental hazard to contemporary societies in the areas studied, how can future attempts to mitigate the hazard benefit from the findings of these four studies? Finally, are such findings of any wider relevance?

Listed below are the findings in two groups. First are those items relating to policy issues on the mitigation of desertification, attempting to answer the questions of who should carry out the mitigation measures, what they should be, and how they should be carried out. Second are those items relating to questions on which further research is needed.

Policy Issues


While it might be argued that it is in the interests of any society that the who/e society combat desertification, the evidence shows that concern for, and action to combat, desertification is limited. For the majority of farmers, who are at the "front line" of any defense against desertification, the problem either does not exist, or can be tolerated without the need for special action, or is swamped by other more pressing problems. If desertification is to be combatted, therefore, the task seems to fall upon governments to provide the means and the incentives for the social response-to convince the farmers that desertification is a problem, the combatting of which will be in their own as well as the society's interests.


In any attempt to draw up measures to mitigate the impact of desertification, policy makers need to recognize that desertification means different things to different people. This is partly a semantic problem posed by the fact that the process involves the interplay between natural systems and human activity, and partly a result of the inherent variety of legitimate human interests in any resource management situation.

Policy-makers therefore will have to recognize that the researchers' interpretations of desertification will vary. There will be conflicts of interests between resource managers from officials to farmers which may reflect relative proximity to the problem in space and time, or the relevance of the impact of the problem to individual livelihood, or their philosophical stance on resource management in general. Whatever, therefore, the final policy decisions on mitigation measures are, it is likely that some interests will be adversely affected by them.


As the resource managers whose activity most immediately affects and is affected by desertification, the famers' view of desertification needs to be understood by policy makers. Such views are dominated by the immediate and short-term needs to provide a livelihood from the land and its produce, whether as a subsistence or commercial operator. Desertification is only one of many problems affecting farmers' livelihoods and seems to be usually low on their priorities.

Because of their fundamental concern to gain a livelihood from the land this year their decision-making may result in actions which will affect adversely their livelihood {by increasing the impact of desertification) in the years to come. Some of these decisions will have such obvious results as the shortening of chena return times in Sri Lanka. Other less obvious but potentially equally disastrous results would come from the amalgamation of Mallee properties for economies of scale to a point where the sheer size of the property prevents effective soil conservation measures.

Finally, the policy-makers need to recognize that because farmers' management decisions are made in a context which is not the same as that for official decision-making, not only are the decisions apparently based upon the concept of "bounded rationality" (White 1974, 189) but they may not appear to the officials to be based upon any apparent rationality at all. The role of folklore and tradition, and the belief in supernatural interference in human affairs and the role of chance in the outcomes of decision-making need to be recognized as significant factors in farmers' management strategies in both the "developed" countries of Australia and the United States and the "developing" country of Sri Lanka. The ability to drive a tractor does not necessarily destroy a belief in God.


a) Coordinating the effort

Previous criticism of uncoordinated official policies on mitigation of desertification has been supported in these studies. Baker's concern for the "administrative trap" (Baker 19761 and Ball's plea for coordinated national and international policies (Ball 1975) can be echoed here. The problems posed by desertification inherently overlap official sectors or departments of government; as a result not only the researchers but also the officials "speak with many tongues." At any one time different policies are being supported by different government departments in Australia, Sri Lanka, and the United States. To meet the complex impact of desertification, interdisciplinary research efforts and interdepartmentally coordinated official policies are needed.

b) Influencing the farmers

The most difficult task facing the policy-makers is to convince the farmers of the value of the policy and the direct benefits it will bring them. Unless the policy provides visible incentives to over-ride the competing problems facing the farmers, i.e., provides means of improving their material well-being and meeting their social goals, its success will be in doubt. In designing the policies the traditional, often justifiable, conservatism of the farmers, their healthy scepticism of "outsiders" who try to tell them how to do their job, and the limited material means of innovation at their disposal need to kept in mind.

Ultimately it is the farmers who will decide whether desertification is controlled. They alone have the numbers and the skills for the combat. But they must be convinced of the need for the battle, and while official policies must provide sufficient incentives, it will be the work of agricultural extension officers to explain the incentives and the defensive strategies. Such officers have a difficult and often lonely task.

c) Achieving the goals

Implementation of policies takes time, and any strategy to mitigate desertification must recognize the temporal as well as spatial context of the action. The fundamental question is whether the policy can be carried out before any change in political orientation of the government may be anticipated. Unless the policy represents a consensus political view, a policy which is projected beyond the next expected change of government on the past record is not likely to be successful.

It is therefore logical to argue that the policy on mitigation of desertification which is finally adopted on a national or regional scale cannot be isolated from the national political situation and national policies on resource management. Such policies will decide the basic context of action on desertification, whether it be by economic incentives injected into a relatively free market situation, by prohibitive decrees backed by police powers, by moral exhortation based upon social peer-group pressures, or by some combination of these or other policies. Whichever policy is adopted however, there is no doubt that it will reflect the nature of the problem as perceived by the decision-makers.

d) A basic strategy

In summary the results of the four studies, backed up by the prior work on perception of natural hazards, suggest a basic strategy for policy-makers faced by the increasing threat of desertification. Listed as a simple sequence of actions the strategy is:

1 ) Identify the "interested parties," i.e., those people and institutions who are affected directly or indirectly by desertification.

2) Identify the nature or image of desertification held by each of the parties.

3) Identify the most favoured solution for each party, possibly by creating a scenario of impacts of, and reactions to, desertification in each case.

4) Identify the compromise solution from these scenarios which most closely fits the goals of the policy-makers.

Research Questions


While studies exist of the process of decision-making at various levels in society there are still gaps both in basic information and in comprehensive reviews of the available literature. Despite the obvious importance of the farmers, the literature on how they make decisions is still surprisingly scanty. The "bounded rationality" concept offers useful clues but we need an equivalent concept to help understand the apparently irrational decisions. We need to know more about the constraints upon the bureaucracies and the researchers; where to expect biases and special pleading; when to question the data; and whom to look to for innovations and leadership.


There is no doubt that a variety of images of desertification exists, but many of these images need to be refined so that their characteristics help policy-makers understand the views of the various perceivers. Of particular relevance is the need to understand the views of the local community -in the context of the four studies this means basically but not exclusively the views of the farmers-as expressed through their responses to structured and unstructured interviews, poetry and folk song, as well as their actual resource management. Once identified we need to know more about how such images influence actual behaviour and what the linkages are between them.


The problems of defining desertification have compounded the difficulties in measuring its impact. From the two aspects noted in these studies, soil erosion and salinity, it is apparent that there is still considerable scope to refine the measurement of their impact on society. There are some estimates of the general societal cost but until the farmer can be shown convincingly that the annual loss of soil or increase in soil salinity produces an annual cost in cash terms which is significant enough to affect his livelihood he will continue to be unimpressed by moral exhortations to conserve a supposedly dwindling resource.

The impact of desertification, however, is not merely physical or economic. There are significant psychological and social stresses also, which up to now have been inadequately studied. The measurement of these stresses needs attention and one possible method might be a variant of Holmes and Rahe's "social readjustment rating scale" which attempts to rank disaster-induced stresses from an individual to community level (Foster 1976). Adaptation of such a scale might well illustrate a curve of relative concern about desertification across the spectrum of resource managers.

Desertification takes many forms and has wide-reaching effects upon society, whether at local, regional, national, or global scales. It would appear from these four studies and some previous complementary research, particularly in human adjustment to natural hazards, that human perceptions have influenced the problem and that a fuller understanding of the processes involved in those perceptions may help mitigate the impact of desertification in the future.

APPENDIX Original Hypotheses for Human Adjustments to Natural Hazards4

A. Human occupance of hazardous areas is justified by
occupants because of:
1 ) superior economic opportunity
2) lack of satisfying alternative opportunities
3) short-term time horizons
4) high ratios of reserves to potential losses

B. Human responses to natural hazards are of three types:

1) folk, or preindustrial type, involving behaviour in harmony with nature, flexibility, low capital, individual or small group action, and spatial variations

2) modern technological, or industrial type, involving more limited behaviour attempting to control nature, inflexibility, high capital, interlocking social organization, and spatial uniformity

3) comprehensive, or post-industrial type, involving aspects from both the other types

C. Variation in hazard perception results from a combination of:

1 ) hazard magnitude and frequency
2) personal experience
3) economic or local importance of hazard
4) personality factors of perceivers

D. Variation in hazard perception does not result from common socio-economic indicators (e.g., age, education, income)

E For individuals, the choice of adjustments is a function of:

1 ) hazard perception
2) perception of available choice of adjustments
3) command of technology
4) economic efficiency of alternatives
5) perceived linkages with other people

F. For individuals, estimating economic efficiency is related to:

1 ) perceived time horizon
2) ratio of reserves to expected losses
3) degree to which choice is required

G. For communities, choice of adjustment is a function of:

1 ) perception of hazard
2) choice
3) economic efficiency as influenced by the government (its stability and power structure)
uenced by the government (its stability and power structure)


Baker, R. 1976 The administrative trap. Ecologist 6(7):247-251.

Ball, N. 1975. The myth of the natural disaster. Ecologist 5(10): 368-37 1.

Burton, I. 1971. The social role of attitude and perception studies. In W. D. Sewell and 1. Burton, eds. Perceptions and attitudes in resources management. Dept. Energy, Mines and Resources, Ottawa.

-and Kates, R. W. 1964. The perception of natural hazards in resource management. Natural Resources J. 3:412441

-; Kates, R. W.; and White, G. F. 1978. The environment as hazard Oxford University Press, New York.

Chapell, J. E. 1970. Climatic change reconsidered: another look at "The Pulse of Asia." Geog. Review 60:347-373.

Dregne, H 1977. desertification; of arid lands. Econ. 53(4): 322-331 .

Foster, H. D. 1976. Assessing disaster magnitude: a social science approach. Professional Geographer 2813):241-247.

Glantz, M. H. 1976. The politics of natures disaster: the case of the Sahel drought Praeger, New York.

Grove, A. T. 1978. Geographical introduction to the Sahel. Geog. J. 144(3):407415.

Huntington, E. 1907. The pulse of Asia. Boston

Kates, R. W. 1979. The Australian experience: summary and prospect. In R. L. Heathcote and B. G. Thorn, eds. Natural hazards in Australia, pp. 511-520. Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

Kollmorgen, W., and Kolimorgen, J. 1973. Landscape meteorology in the Plains area. Annals Assocn. Amor. Geogrs. 63(4) :424-441.

Moldenhauer, W. C. 1979 Perspective: SCSA Viewpoint. An address to the National Conference on Soil Conservation Policies. See SCSA 1979.

Porter, P. and Islam. 1978. Report of the subgroup on environmental hazards and development. In Report of the IGU/MAB Workshop on perception of the environment, working paper no. 5, Environmental Perception Research, pp. 16-21. University of Toronto, Toronto.

Schlebecker, J. T. 1977. Farmers and bureaucrats: reflections on technological innovation in agriculture. Agric. List. 51 (4):641 -655.

Schneider, H. T. 1979. Obstacles to the extension of existing knowledge and technology to dry land problems in Mexico. Paper to Working Group on desertification; in and around Arid Lands, meeting at Tucson, Arizona, 3-12 January 1979.

SCSA. 1979. National Conference on Soil Conservation Policies brochure. Soil Conservation Society of America, Ankeny, Iowa.

Sheets, H., and Morris, R. 1976. Disaster in the desert. In M. H. Glantz, The politics of nature/ divester: the case of the Sahel drought. Praeger, New York.

Stebbing, E. P. 1935. The encroaching Sahara: the threat to the West African Colonies. Geog. J. 85:506-524.

US. 1970. One third of the nation's land: a report to the President and to the Congress by the Public Land Low Review Commission. US Govt. Print. Office, Washington, D.C.

Wade, N. 1974. Sahelian drought: no victory for western aid. Science 185:234-247.

WGDAL. 1976. problems in the development and conservation of desert and semidesert lands. 23rd I International Geographical Congress, Pre-Congress Symposium K26. Askhabad, USSR (Working Group on desertification; in and around Arid Lands).

White, G. F., ed. 1974. Natural hazards: local, national, globe/. Oxford University Press, New York.

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