This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Contents - Previous - Next

I. Review of progress on supportive investigations and research projects (and discussions on future priorities)

A review of progress on nine supportive investigations and UNU research projects formed the focus of this session.

Working Group A discussed three preliminary reports. That by R. Cordes dealt with Development Schemes and Projects in the Rural-Nomadic Regions of the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman. It was indicated that the advent of oil revenues had led to the collapse of traditional nomadic and oasis livelihoods, but the viability of the new economic life seemed equally insubstantial. Recycling of all revenues into the hands of the local populace had created the present short-term prosperity, but had merely given an illusion of economic development. The fact that a social and political crisis had so far been avoided was due to two main factors: the successful organization of new settlements, providing an acceptable level of services and amenities, and the use of oil revenues to purchase the political loyalty of the tribesmen, a practice that may backfire should the oil resources become depleted. Despite superficial economic change, it appears that the basic socio-political structures remain essentially unaltered.

M. M. Khogali's report on Nomadic Sedentarization in the Sudan and Neighbouring Countries noted current disagreement concerning the advisability of settling nomads. Whereas politicians accept the notion as desirable, sociologists and other scholars are less certain. The author claimed that nomadic pastoralists are not always guilty of degrading the environment, and that settled peoples frequently create more havoc with their domestic animals, especially within 30 km of the larger settlements. Cattle constitute an investment both for nomadic and settled communities, and there is frequent exchange of services and products between them, as there is of population. The spontaneous settlement of nomadic groups is increasing, and accordingly there is a requirement for proper planning before such settlement, to cope with the increase in the settled population. Nomadic sedentarization is seldom accompanied by a rapid transition to permanent cultivation, and for this reason the best approach is first to settle those family members not directly engaged in herding, whilst the males continue to practice a modified form of the traditional rotational grazing.

H.-U. Thimm reported on his Socio-economic Assessment of Development Projects in the Sudan, since published by the United Nations University in its Natural Resources Programme (NRP) Technical Series. He noted that Sudan's agricultural future in its arid and semi-arid regions depended in the long run on a careful mixture of land use, including mechanized rain-fed farming, intensive irrigated crop production, permanent range-management systems, and flexible nomadic use of pasture lands. All previous attempts to develop these techniques had brought both expected and unexpected problems -environmental, economic, and social. The experiences of a country deeply concerned about desert encroachment, equitable economic development, and social justice, as well as about its role as a future "bread-basket" of the Middle East and parts of Africa, might hold the key for understanding and improving the management of arid lands wherever similar conditions allowed comparable approaches.

The various forms of project organization in the Sudan showed a definite bias towards the use of scheme authorities for the implementation of planned activities, and some of those authorities showed a better performance than others. His study would try to include observations of project experiences to assist in answering the question as to which organizational model to choose in order to reach projected results under given environmental and human constraints. The degree of involvement of the local people and their motivation to participate in the project would certainly be a major criterion in answering this question and in proposing improvements in organization.

Dr. Thimm had assessed eight development projects in the arid and semi-arid Sudan, involving rain-fed farming, irrigated cropping, and livestock raising, from the viewpoints of permanence of cultivation, organizational effectiveness, social acceptance, and economic viability. His assessment had identified four common problems opposing the successful implementation of developmental projects in the Sudan. First, cultivation was rarely perceived as permanent, particularly by entrepreneurial developers; rather, it took the form of short-term exploitation, and attempts to turn the new cultivators into permanent farmers had generally had little success. Second, the projects commonly suffered from organizational shortcomings, such as remoteness and poor infrastructures, which led to supply bottlenecks, and from poor-quality staff and rapid staff transfers which hampered continuity of operation. Third, the projects were generally lacking in social acceptance because the local people had rarely been consulted and hence commonly failed to "identify" with the objectives of the scheme. Lastly, the projects had commonly failed to meet the test of economic feasibility, economic returns having always been overestimated in the projects examined.

Of these four problems only one, permanence of cultivation, seemed to be a purely arid land question, whilst the remaining three were also apparent in many non-arid land projects. On the other hand, experience showed clearly that solving the problem of permanence in the use of arid land resources did not remove organizational problems (administrative, infrastructural, logistic, staff quality, etc.) nor economic issues (low yields, high costs, great risks, budgetary restrictions, marketing problems, price policy, etc.). These problems and issues are an inherent part of the aridity of the Sudan, as well as of the general state of development of the country. The possession of large areas of arid land certainly makes development more difficult than in regions of more temperate climate, but areas with higher rainfall have a number of other problems which can make the development process as difficult as in arid areas. This can be observed by comparing northern and southern Sudan and their relative states of development.

The ensuing discussion led to a suggestion that training programmes at the Institute of Environmental Studies ~ I ES) at the University of Khartoum should give close attention to the need to improve project planning in the areas of social acceptance, administrative organization, and economic feasibility.

Deliberations by Working Group B centred on resource-use systems and their management strategies. In his report on Management Strategies for Non-urban Drylonds: Preliminary Principles, Douglas L. Johnson pointed out that it is commonly asserted that there exists sufficient technological wisdom to manage rural drylands. What is lacking, in this view, is the ability to identify and overcome obstacles to the application of existing knowledge. It is assumed that, as soon as these stumbling blocks are properly identified, they can be readily removed and appropriate practices introduced in their place. Where difficulties in doing so are encountered, a presumed backward and tradition-bound constituency is frequently made the scapegoat for lack of interest in adopting improved techniques and management. The monotonous regularity with which projects fail to reach their objectives then can be explained by reference to inability to circumvent existing obstacles, rather than to inadequacies in technological design or management strategy.

It is likely that this assumption is at least partially false, and that "modern" technology and management may themselves foster environmental degradation and retard development. Appropriate in their own socio-economic contexts, they may be quite unsuited to the situations in which they are being applied elsewhere. This is almost always certain to be the case when the local social system, with its means of production and distribution, is viewed as the repository of egregious error without vestige of redeeming merit. For with such an attitude, it is difficult to develop plans, projects, and interventions that articulate well with local reality.

Arguing for the paramount importance of the indigenous resource-use system and its objectives in the management of drylands does not imply that each land-use system is unique, or that general principles are undefinable. At least seven basic principles can be recognized as being broadly applicable.

1. Recognize the broad linkages between the components of ecosystems. Put another way, it is necessary to identify gainers and losers in any change affecting drylands. This makes it essential to plan in a comprehensive regional framework, rather than through a sectoral approach. Only in this way can one ensure that gains made by irrigation agriculture, for example, do not take place at the expense of pastoralists, through loss of seasonal pastures.

2. Base development on the existing productive system, its technology and practitioners. Management and inputs closely linked to that base offer the best prospect for substantial impacts on local standards of living. Efforts to transfer large-scale production systems founded on alien objectives have seldom achieved their intended results. In the process, substantial indigenous skill and management expertise have been truncated or lost, where they might have provided the basis for evolution and development When most management systems flounder due to inadequately trained personnel, it is short-sighted to promote development in a way that squanders and ignores potential local contributors.

3. Cultural-ecological units should form the strategic base of all management plans. It should be a guiding concept that the group using the resource should be in charge of its management. The unit being managed should be large enough to encompass the full range of resources essential to group survival, taking into account seasonal migration, areas of overlapping interest with other groups, and so on. Little control can be exerted over resources that are removed from management by the immediate intended beneficiaries, and the most rapid and irreversible degradation is to be expected in consequence.

4. Subsistence crops rather than cash crops are the paramount concern of the bulk of dryland peoples. These subsistence needs must receive first priority in management programmes. At all times the central focus should be placed upon people and their livelihood support, rather than for example on groundnuts or cattle. The latter are at best a means to improved livelihood, not ends in themselves.

5. Opportunistic, rather than conservative, strategies should be pursued in dryland management. These would emphasize maximizing production during higher rainfall periods, while endeavouring to reduce losses to a minimum during droughts. Gains made during periods of surplus would be stored against anticipated deficits. Conservative strategies, in contrast, while having the benefits of limiting ecological disturbance and of sustaining yield despite environmental conditions, have the overriding defect of producing less for human sustenance than might otherwise be available.

6. Plan for the inevitable drought during beneficent periods. This can be done by devising strategies that make available emergency supplies in types and locations suited to each livelihood system. With pastoralists, for example, this might involve fodder reserves and emergency wells along major migration corridors that would enable herds to flee drought afflicted districts.

7. Encourage the most efficient water-use management that is technically feasible, financially supportable, and socially acceptable. Under this criterion, for example, overhead-sprinkler irrigation would become a marginal technique in most drylands. Closed environment agriculture, trickle irrigation, or dryland-adapted fruit trees would all be preferable technologies if acceptable from a socio-economic standpoint. Where resources for such activities exist, industry and tourism represent relatively small water-consumers compared with agriculture, and should be encouraged.

Sensitivity and flexibility are required in the application of these principles. But beginning with the objectives and skills of the local communities, their subsistence needs and livelihood opportunities provide a base upon which appropriate dryland management plans can most readily be constructed.

Brian Spooner reported on his project on Ecological Approaches to Human-Use Systems in Arid Lands stating that these approaches are problematical because they imply oversimplification of social and cultural processes insofar as they seek to explain them by reference to ecological factors or in terms of ecological concepts. The basic issues are: Given that ecological conditions constrain human activity, what generalization can be made about human reactions (i.e., adaptation) to these constraints? And given that such reactions are initially individual, what social and cultural generalizations can be made?

Broadly speaking, there have been two types of approach. Firstly, the applied sciences have developed branches of ecological study that specialize in particular human production systems. Range ecology serves as a good example of these, and is typical in that it is concerned not with analysis of the associated social system but with the production technology in the narrow sense. Secondly, ecological approaches have been developed in the social sciences, especially in social anthropology. These approaches have been based on insufficient ecological understanding and at the same time have been inadequate sociologically because they have failed to account for socio-cultural and historical variation.

These approaches have been surveyed in a number of publications (e.g., Bennett, 1976). Briefly, once they recovered from their escape from a naive determinism in the early part of this century, they pursued a cautious materialism under the term "cultural ecology" which, though not without significant results at the time, was deficient in its neglect of the effects of human activity on the natural environment. Great advances were made in the 1960s with the introduction of an ecosystem approach and of other biological concepts into cultural study. However, this approach was unable to comprehend the range of social and cultural factors that we know to be relevant to the interaction of human activity and natural processes. A degree of balance was given to the debate by the demonstration that the basic theoretical problems in human or anthropological ecology were also seen as problems in natural ecology (Vayda and McCay, 1975). The most important of these were in the definition of units of study and assumption of equilibrium in one form or another.

It gradually became clear that an ecological model cannot fully comprehend social and cultural processes any more than a social or a cultural model can comprehend ecological processes. This clarification was facilitated by the formulation in the Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB, 1974) of the position that ecosystems and human-use systems should not be expected to be co-terminous, and by the arguments ( in Bennett, 1976) that (1) as society becomes more complex and more global, social resources take precedence over natural resources in individual decisions ("the ecological transition"); and that 12) research in human ecology requires a yardstick, and the only acceptable yardstick is public policy. His report would spell out some of these problems in greater detail and argue for a solution through productive give-and-take dialogue between ecologists and social scientists.

In his report on Ecological Implications of Land Use in Arid Africa, D. F. Owen referred to the nature of grassland environments and their consequent management needs. He pointed out that grasslands as biological phenomena are geologically young. and that the existing herbivore species may well have assisted in determining their later evolution. One question calling for study is whether grasslands should be considered as climax communities without consideration of constant grazing pressure, a question which is particularly relevant to discussions about desertification. Most grasslands show evidence of multiple grazing and multiple cropping, and in order to determine whether such diversity is a necessary condition for their survival there is a need for basic research into possible co-evolution of the grasslands and their populations of grazing animals. There is also a need to study grassland management for the maintenance of balance between annual and perennial pasture components, and with it the question of whether one is more desirable than the other for the stability and resilience of the ecosystems. Another aspect of this question is the maintenance of crop-herd diversity in traditional resource-use systems. Does this represent a risk-reduction management strategy? Do we know enough about the range of appropriate mixes? If such diversity represents a successful ecological and human-survival strategy, why do planners apparently consistently move to reduce it?

The discussion that followed focused on the centrality of human systems in arid lands management. Some concern was expressed about the use of different terms such as human-use system, cultural~ecological system, and natural-resource-use system, since each seemed to describe the same phenomena. Did these merely constitute differences of terminology, or did they express fundamental contrasts in objectives? Some clarification of disciplinary perspectives was an essential prelude to any general theory of management. Above all, there was a need to do more than pay lip-service to the need to consider the human factor in desertification studies. There is often a lack of congruence between human activities and ecological processes, and the social and cultural processes should be seen to be very specific in their own right, and as requiring special attention from the initial stages of development planning. However, it was admitted that principles establishing the role of social systems in planning for dryland development still await elaboration.

The scale factor was recognized as being extremely important. Questions as to whether small-scale or large-scale systems are preferable, and for what livelihoods, remain undecided, as does the issue of whether management units and natural ecological units should necessarily be congruent. In addition, there is a continuing uncertainty about criteria for the evaluation of management of the drylands. Also unresolved are questions of the human carrying-capacity of drylands, of the degree of out-migration of population which may be necessary or desirable to prevent environmental deterioration, of the range of options available to local groups in the allocation of labour resources, and as to who should make the decisions on such questions.

Three specific recommendations emerged that were relevant to the association between the United Nations University and the University of Khartoum, in addition to the general points raised. First, the terminology employed by the UN University in its publications and research reports should as far as possible be standardized with that used by other agencies and programmes. Second, the research and training programmes fostered by the UN University should pay special attention to the issue of the appropriate scales at which development projects, management systems, and traditional resource~users operate, and particularly to the issue of whether and how far management and ecological units should coincide. Third, in the development of their research and training programmes, the IES of the University of Khartoum and the Arid Lands Sub-programme of the UN University are urged to place particular emphasis on the central role of the human factor in desertification and in arid lands management.

Problems and opportunities for urban settlements and the role of desert research stations as agents for change were the main questions occupying Working Group C. Three reports were presented. [hat by R. U. Cooke and J. C.. Doornkamp on Assessment of Geomorphological Problems in Urban Areas of Drylands outlined a methodology for identifying salinity and floor hazards and other physical problems in urban areas in arid regions. The basis of the approach is geomorphological, and analysis at various scales allows for correspondence between the dimensions of the environmental features identified and the hierarchy of the planning administration. It was stressed that the city should not be considered in isolation. Solutions to its problems may create further problems for adjacent rural areas, and moreover city expansion does not normally take place into unused and unclaimed land. Finally, attention must be paid to development over the long term, and to the subsequent maintenance of the urban environment in good condition.

In his paper on Arid Zone Settlement-the Israeli Experience, A. Richmond stressed two salient aspects of this experience. First, the use of natural resources in Israel has been more deliberate, intensive, and in many respects more successful than in many other arid lands. Second, it has involved high capital inputs, raising the question as to the conditions under which technology developed there may be applicable elsewhere.

In his paper on Impact of an Arid Zone Research Station on Local Land-Use Problems, J. A. Mabbutt presented an assessment of the relationship of the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) at Jodhpur, India, to land-users in the neighbouring rural areas. Difficulties encountered here in transferring the results of the findings of research programmes to their potential users could provide useful lessons for similar institutions elsewhere. Among the problems noted was the difficulty of developing contacts between the Institute and the surrounding rural population. Nevertheless, local people have been involved in the formulation of land transformation plans by Institute scientists. Five project villages have been adopted for testing innovations, and the local farmers visit the Institute fairly regularly. However, the impact of the Institute on the traditional agrarian economy of Rajasthan has been minimal. The second problem is that the Institute is funded from and directed by the central government, whereas the application of its findings must be effected by extension services within the provincial administration. Another difficulty arises from the fact that the sights of scientists in this and other such centres are inclined to be set on targets defined by the international scientific community, rather than by local perspectives. Can people trained as scientists be expected to act successfully as propagandists within the local population? For the successful transmission of research results local innovators have to be identified, because they appear to be the most effective means of diffusion.

The main recommendation arising from Working Group C was that the IES might consider initiating, as part of its programmes, training for the investigation of hazards in urban environments using the methods employed by Cooke and Doornkamp.

The Plenary Session began with W. Mecklein reading a paper on The Crisis of Saharan Oases or "Challenge to Research." He described many challenging and serious problems of desertification and environmental degradation in Saharan oases, including salinization, sand-dune encroachment, diminution of water supplies, depopulation, and other social changes. The author stressed the need for further research on the monitoring of aquifers, control of salinization, and improvement of drainage, and for improved long-range planning of oasis settlements.

The discussions that followed focused on the need for more basic data on oasis environments. The Kharga Oasis in the New Valley in Egypt and oases in Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria were suggested as worthwhile research sites. The need to link such research with training in land management was emphasized, possibly at the I ES. It was stressed by several speakers that local conditions commonly vary over time, and that it was necessary to carry out research on a long-term basis. It was noted that soils in oases are frequently rich, giving great potential for successful agricultural development if other constraints can be removed. This potential for raising the incomes of the inhabitants of oases was seen as a justification for encouraging skilled elements in the local population to remain. Since the density of settlement in an oasis often approaches that in an urban area, the investigatory methods employed by Cooke and his colleagues may also have applications for the planned development of oases.

The attention of the UN University and of the IES was drawn to the desirability of identifying oasis settings to which UNU Fellows might be sent and from which they could be drawn, and to the possibility of collaboration with the Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB) in establishing a pilot research to investigate problems of socio-economic change in oasis environments.


Bennett, J. W. 1976. The Ecological Transition: Cultural Anthropology and Human Adaptation. Pergamon Press, New York.
MAB. 1974. Task Force on the Contribution of the Social Sciences to the MAB Programme. Final Report. UN ESCO-Programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB), Paris.

Vayda, A. P., and McCay, J. B. 1975. "New Directions in Ecology and Ecological Anthropology, Ann. Rev. Anthrop., 4., pp. 393-06.

Contents - Previous - Next