Action needed now to tackle the causes of desertification

THESSALONIKI – Experts are calling for plans and measures to tackle the encroaching desertification – or the transformation of arable or habitable land into desert – threatening many parts of Greece. Greek specialists have traveled to sub-Saharan Africa to study this phenomenon, which is evolving more rapidly there. Experts say Greece must do something about the problem here now because once climate changes or destructive land use spawn desertification, reversing the damage takes a lot of time and money. But in many cases, experts say, the damage is irreversible. Complex phenomenon Desertification is a complex phenomenon caused by a number of factors, including climate changes, overgrazing and overbuilding. In Greece, parts of Crete, the Aegean islands and Thessaly have already been affected. «It is no exaggeration to say that the destruction of forests and of the natural environment in the Mediterranean is the price we have paid for the development of Western civilization, as all the first great cultures developed in this area by over-exploiting its natural resources,» wrote Athanassios Hatzistathis, a professor in the forestry and natural environment department of the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, in a recent paper on the topic. In his paper, which he co-authored with assistant professor Ioannis Ispikoudis, Hatzistathis claimed that «severe erosion and subsequent desertification result from the destruction of the forests. Erosion transports an estimated 750 cubic meters per square kilometer of material from the mountains to the sea. And about 30 percent of the earth’s surface is believed to be one step away from desertification caused by erosion.» Hatzistathis said at a recent environmental conference, where he presented his paper, that Greece, like other Mediterranean countries, had begun the process of reforestation to try to reverse the desertification of the earth and to restore already-damaged ecosystems. The first significant reforestation in Greece was carried out in 1930 by local communities around cities and villages, such as Seih Sou in Thessaloniki. By 1950, the pace of reforestation had picked up. Greek communities wanted to manage timber-producing mountain land that tended to have problems with water retention or flooding. Later, the reforestation was intended to impart communal benefits such as soil protection, better air quality and more natural recreational sites. But in recent years, land-grabbers have seized large tracts of reforested land. Attica is a prime example. Ispikoudis said a lot has changed in reforestation methods. But what has not changed, he said, is the need to protect from land-grabbers areas that have been reforested after fire damage. Earlier research has shown that less than 3 percent of Greek woodlands that have been burnt have been systematically reforested. No money is available for such redevelopment because there is a prevailing notion that nature can regenerate on its own. Yet after every fire, experts note the need for measures to protect the soil from rain and floods – which is what happened recently in the case of woodlands on the outskirts of Attica and Thessaloniki. Reforestation hasn’t worked in Greece when foreign plants are used, which is a problem, since only only 25 percent of the plants in Greek nurseries are native varieties. It has also failed where the soil is shallow, infertile and damaged by repeated fires and overgrazing, and on land that is dry for more than 60 successive days in summer. Soil depth is a significant factor in successful reforestation because it stores water from rainy winters.