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Nations affected by desertification must treat it as an agricultural and economic problem, instead of sidelining it as an environmental issue.

This was among the key messages delivered at an international conference held by the UN and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Geneva, Switzerland last week (11-12 April).

Desertification occurs when climatic factors and increasing human pressure — such as overgrazing and deforestation — degrade once-fertile land in dry regions. It can lead to hunger, poverty and mass migration of 'environmental refugees'.

"Land degradation affects people's lives and livelihoods, and as such it must be treated within the context of agriculture and its economic cost," says conference delegate Liliane Ortega, Switzerland's representative to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

Delegates also said that policymakers in developing nations often waste time and resources by abandoning tactics to combat desertification for new strategies before giving them chance to succeed.

According to Ortega, several speakers said that some developing countries, particularly in Africa, lack the political will to support rural development.

"If there is no political will in countries such as Mali and Niger to tackle rural development, including fighting land degradation, then there will be no solution," she told SciDev.Net.

She added that all other efforts, such as promoting partnerships with the West, would be ineffective if the affected countries do not consider desertification to be an important issue.

Almost one-quarter of the earth's surface and over a billion people are affected by desertification; in Africa, 325 million people are living "precariously" in arid zones.

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