This is the definition of desertification in new Brazilian Law number 13,153, which entered into force last July 31, 2015, and establishes the National Policy to Combat Desertification and Mitigate the Effects of Drought: "Desertification is land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors and vectors, including climatic variations and human activities” [our emphasis].
The new Brazilian Law number 13,153 also tells the difference between factors and vectors of desertification. So, according to this law, factors of desertification are the original natural conditions that make the most fragile environments susceptible to degradation processes. Otherwise, vectors of desertification are forces that act both on society and the environment, including direct human interferences on them and also human actions that worsen natural disasters.
So, even though the main purpose of new Law number 13,153 is to establish mechanisms to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought in Brazil, this law also introduces concepts, especially this one about the "vectors of desertification", that will very probably be invoked to punish individuals, companies or other legal entities for environmental damages related to desertification. Not only because of Law number 13,153, but also because of some other laws already adopted in local, state and federal government in Brazil to guarantee sustainable development.
For instance, Brazilian Law number 10.228, enacted in May 2001, required public officials to identify desertified lands in all national territory and farmers had to draw up environmental management plans and use technology capable of interrupting the degradation processes and recovering the land.
UNCCD (see below) had also already included "human activities" in the concept of desertification. It was ratified by Brazilian Parliament ("The National Congress") by Legislative Decree number 28, enacted in June 1997 and received Presidential Assent in Decree number 2.741, enacted in August 1998. So, UNCCD was promulgated into Brazilian Law since then.
The Brazilian National Constitution of 1988 indicates in Article 225, under Chapter VI ("Environment") in Title VIII ("The Social Order") that:
All have the right to an ecologically balanced environment which is an asset of common use and essential to a healthy quality of life, and both the Government and the community shall have the duty to defend and preserve it for present and future generations.” [our emphasis]
And in paragraph 3 of the Article 225, Constitution determines:
Procedures and activities considered as harmful to the environment shall subject the offenders, be they individuals or legal entities, to penal and administrative sanctions, without prejudice to the obligation to repair the damages caused.” [our emphasis]
As a matter of fact, desertiﬁcation does not refer to the expansion of existing deserts. It is happening in dryland ecosystems covering about one third of the world’s land area. Inappropriate land use or over-exploitation of such extremely vulnerable areas can lead to desertification, in the definition of “desertification” given above, as land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, characterized by reduction or loss of biodiversity or biological productivity or complexity in agriculture lands. And when human actions violate formalized laws, this turns desertification into an environmental legal problem.
This means environmental compliance is crucial for good achivements, notably in agricultural activities and large projects that currently are or may come to be located or developed in Brazil’s Desertification Prone Areas (“Areas Susceptible to Desertification” is the most used terminology in Brazil). And it is relevant to highlight that the legal concept of "Areas Susceptible to Desertification" include the vulnerable territories to the desertification processes, obviously, but also their surroundings.
Besides, desertification is a social economic problem that affects all levels of society, mainly poor people, as it is very much related to diminishing productivity of the land.
This all explains why, earlier in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, desertification was mentioned as one of the three greatest challenges to sustainable development, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
The “United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa” (UNCCD, already mentioned above) came into force in December 1996 (Brazil joined in June 1997), and it is noticed that Parties to the Convention were
mindful that desertification and drought affect sustainable development through their interrelationships with important social problems such as poverty, poor health and nutrition, lack of food security, and those arising from migration, displacement of persons and demographic dynamics."
The new Brazilian Law number 13,153 is also about the mitigation of the effects of drought, as I said before. So, in Article 3 of Law number 13,153 we can see the objectives of the National Policy to Combat Desertification and Mitigate the Effects of Drought, which have been set to:
- prevent and combat desertification and recover degrading land in all national territory;
- prevent, adapt and mitigate the effects of drought in all national territory;
- establish mechanisms of protection, preservation, conservation and recovery of natural resources;
- integrate sustainability into production and use of water resources and also into production and use of water extraction, water storage and water conduction infrastructure with actions to prevent, adapt and combat desertification and land degradation;
- estimulate scientific and technological researches;
- explore mechanisms to foment researches and increase knowledge about the process of desertification and about drought events in Brazil, as well as about degraded land recovery;
- promote water, energy, food and environment security in Areas Susceptible to Desertification;
- promote social environmental education for those involved in combat to desertification;
- coordinate and promote interinstitutional actions with partnership of civil society organizations on the theme;
- foment environmental sustainability of production, including ecoagriculture, silviculture and agroforestry systems, with local product diversification and beneficiation;
- improve the conditions of life of the population affected by processes of desertification and drought events;
- support and foment social and environmental sustainable development in Areas Susceptible to Desertification;
- support social and environmental sustainable irrigation systems in lands proper for activities, by taking into consideration processes of salinization, alkalizing and degradation of soil;
- promote water extraction, water storage and water conduction infrastructure, irrigated agriculture, efficient use and reuse of water in agriculture and forestry in Areas Susceptible to Desertification;" [our emphasis]
Obviously, there has already been in Brazil some initiatives concerning combat to desertification, such as, just for example, the National Action Program PAN-Brasil (in English), which was featured in 2004, and those of The National Institute for the Semi-Arid (in English) and, also, some others initiatives concerning the mitigation of the effects of drought, like the ones carried out by The Ministry of National Integration (homepage in Portuguese).
Those are just examples. The big point is now there is this important law establishing a National Policy for these subjects and this legal framework must be implemented in practice. And this surely will have some influence on agriculture activities and environmental permitting of large projects. Also, the new law is expected to foment new investments on scientific and technological researches to bring up tools towards sustainable development, in a more optimistic point of view. Lastly, the new law can generate infrastructure contracts and revenue.
This new law also allows the Brazilian Federal Administration (Executive Branch) to establish the National Committee for Combating Desertification.
Law number 13,153 doesn't apply only to Brazilian federal government, but also to state and local governments, even though with some limitations.
If you have some legal or technical information to share with us about laws, policies and programs to combat desertification and/or mitigate effects of droughts in your country, please leave a comment.
The views here are the personal views of Professor Thiago D’Ávila and do NOT necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.