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A group of Africa's driest nations will set up commissions to develop training programmes and promote research on desertification, water and agriculture.

The plans were approved at a conference of the 23-member Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN-SAD) in Tripoli, Libya on 1-2 June.

The CEN-SAD commissions will set up networks of specialists to share information between member states and draw-up plans to monitor and tackle the degradation of arid land.

Delegates at the meeting also approved plans for implementing the North Africa Green Belt Project — which aims to halt the spread of deserts by planting trees in a five-kilometre wide belt stretching from Mauritania in West Africa to Djibouti in the East

Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the project would include digging wells to make use of the underground water supplies for farming. Egypt's Desert Research Center will provide technical support.

Michel Malagnoux, a forestry officer with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, says that since the 1970s there have been various efforts to plant green belts in CEN-SAD countries, but most were small in scale.

In 2005 the African Union proposed planting trees to form a 'Green Wall for the Sahara', which will be discussed at a forthcoming ministerial meeting.

Svetla Rousseva, soil erosion researcher at Pushkarov Institute of Soil Science in Bulgaria, says the North Africa Green Belt Project will be "a good point to start combating desertification in Africa and will soon become an excellent example for the entire world".

"Soil cannot be conserved through sporadic efforts or short-term projects; what it needs are long-term programmes backed by sound land-use policies and strategies to catalyse their development," says Rousseva.

Agricultural engineer Ahmed Rebai, of the Centre of Biotechnology of Sfax, Tunisia welcomes the initiatives, but says words must be backed with action.

"From my experience in many technical committees, things are much easier to say than do, particularly when a lot of money is needed," he told SciDev.Net.