As Sahara grows, Africa’s land and people suffer

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Planet Earth is changing in many perilous ways. One of the most damaging shifts is desertification, which is essentially the expansion of barren desert climates. Nowhere is this desolation a more serious crisis than in the Sahel region of Africa, the latitudinal zone where the Sahara Desert gradually transitions to the tropical climates of the continent’s middle third.

Deadly effects. Desertification has uprooted multitudes of rural peasants from their native homelands in the Sahel as they frantically try to evade starvation. The land they once depended on is no longer agriculturally productive, and their farm animals — a source of nourishment and a highly valuable economic currency — are dying at an alarming rate. Fetching usable water, typically the task of women, is now immensely time consuming, because adequate sources are fewer and farther away. Estimates report that 40 billion work hours are consumed annually by this activity alone, continent-wide.

All of this has instigated mass migration from the rural Sahel into sprawling urban slums. They are largely made up of overcrowded squatter settlements with almost no formal housing, infrastructure, sanitation systems, or immediate access to clean water. Many lethal infectious diseases are intensely epidemic in these areas. And of course, as with all shantytowns everywhere, residents live in constant fear that the government may destroy their homes at any moment in periodic “slum clearing” efforts. Furthermore, those forced to leave their homeland or die are not eligible for United Nations help, because such refugees are not defined as “fleeing persecution.”

Climate-warming degradation of farmland and natural resources has been at the root of many bloody conflicts. For example, war and genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan is presented as being the result of ethnic antagonisms. But the most fundamental cause is the social and economic turmoil that arose decades ago through a prolonged drought directly linked to desertification.

Ethnic antagonism came to dominate the conflict only gradually as water and other resources became extremely scarce, poverty and starvation intensified, and many people were forced to migrate between regions. After a military coup in Khartoum in 1989, the right-wing Arab nationalist government of Omar al-Bashir imposed brutal apartheid campaigns and ethnic cleansing against the indigenous agrarian Black population of Darfur.

Causes of desertification. European colonial plunder of Africa’s natural resources ushered in the era of capitalism on the African continent. Severe abuse of the land, its peoples, and their labor left irrevocable scars. Following the overthrow of European colonialism, newly independent countries collapsed in a storm of corruption, civil war, poverty and harsh intervention by former European colonialists. To this day, those same colonial powers’ militaries and corporations invade African countries to leach resources and sell war materiel. The United States, a newer colonial force, does the same.

The International Monetary Fund, dominated by Europe and the U.S., has imposed neoliberal “structural adjustment” programs that aggressively privatize and deregulate poor economies, and forces loans on governments that they will never be able to repay.

The Sahel has been further ravaged by disastrous climatic and environmental factors. First of all, transatlantic drift of pollution from North America has reduced oceanic evaporation and therefore rainfall, and in turn, aquifers have dried up. And there are very few existing rivers to dam any more. Most fundamentally, general global warming and climate change has severely affected the ecology, soil stability, and viability of agriculture and livestock in the Sahel. The evaporation of groundwater due to rising temperatures has been particularly damaging.

In addition to these climatic factors, overcultivation has taken a dire toll. Economically destitute farmers with nothing to sell, bullied by dictators bribed to do the bidding of global imperialists, have planted more crops than could actually grow. This uses up scarce groundwater and further disrupts the soil. Desertification thus perpetuates a tragic cycle of extreme scarcity and starvation, which induces desperate attempts to grow crops, which further harm the soil.

What is to be done? Urgent national and international intervention can be pressed in defense of struggling Africans and their right to life and a future.

For example, as the major capitalist moguls meet in Davos, Switzerland, among their first agenda topics should be reversing their predatory profit operations in Africa and giving massive funding to provide the people of the Sahel the resources they need to survive. The Davos powers could order the IMF not to loan money, but to give it.

Generous, immediate aid without conditions is needed to fund Africa’s political, social and environmental fightback. It is time for a massive effort by activists from China to the U.S. to protest and expose their countries’ military and profiteering destruction in Africa.

The United States should open the borders to Africa’s climate displacement refugees. So should the other imperialist countries, such as the European nations that currently shut out and repress refugees. Since 2000, about 30,000 African migrants have died trying to enter Europe “illegally.”

Instead of extracting oil and mining precious minerals from Africa for obscene profit, energy companies must be ordered by their own governments to pay for repair of environmental damage and development of massive land restoration programs.

It is up to workers of the world, especially those of us in imperialist countries whose pollution and imperialist dominance continue to savagely harm Africa in the first place, to demand that our governments do what is right, and expose them when they don’t!

The criminal destruction of the Sahel’s environment leading to mass upheaval and starvation is a most damning indictment of this cruel system.

Sam Rubin is a special education teacher in the Bay Area. He studied Human Geography at U.C. Berkeley. Send feedback to

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