From: Ben Blanchard, Reuters
Published June 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Women's Help Vital in Slowing Spread of Deserts

BEIJING — Women, who make up about 70 percent of rural workers worldwide, are key to turning back the spread of deserts, the head of the United Nations' main agency on rural poverty said on Wednesday.

Desertification and land degradation threatens the livelihoods of over one billion people in more than 100 countries and causes annual economic losses of $6.5 billion, according to the U.N.

And it is women who must be bought into the fight against the spreading sands, Lennart Bage, president of the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development, told Reuters in an interview.

"Women are very often at the frontline of fighting desertification, or managing land degradation, because very often, in many parts of the world, women are the farmers," he said, sitting in the U.N.'s Beijing offices.

"Women are crucial, as very often they are the ones responsible for the family for getting fuel wood, water and for tending the fields," Bage added.

"They often know a lot about resource management."

With spreading deserts making it harder to eke out a living on the land, many men are leaving for urban areas, leaving their families behind and women to confront worsening soil and climatic conditions.

"You have migration taking place, and in many societies the men migrate. So they leave the household and they send back money, but to keep the fields growing and livestock tended to, it's very often left to women and children," Bage said.

About 70 percent of the fund's projects are located in marginal areas, often being affected by desertification. Over the last 23 years, they have pumped in $3.5 billion to help dry and desertified regions from China to Mauritania.

Yet in many African countries, women are denied land ownership and do not even have the right to plant trees or build sand control measures.

They also often farm the worst, most marginal land. And it is hard for them to get collateral for bank loans to improve their land.

"We have a policy and a goal to include a gender dimension in all the projects we're involved in. It is key," said Bage, a Swedish national with more than 25 years in international development.

And aid must be directed in a culturally appropriate way, taking into account local conditions, especially the role women play in society, he said.

"The disregard for local knowledge and local commitment ... is one of the main reasons for the failure of so much well intentioned aid."

But desertification is still a problem that has not been beaten.

"In some areas we're winning, but in some areas we're losing," he said. "You can't be complacent about it. It's certainly a losing battle in some of the poorest parts of the world."

Source: Reuters

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