UNEP Website GEO Home Page
Alternative Benefits And Uses Of Deserts

Deserts have not only supported and continue to support a variety of livelihoods; they have contributed extensively to global culture, traditional and modern (Figure 2.7). Three of the world's major religions had their origins in the deserts of West Asia (Mares 1999). Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three "religions of the book", grew out of the profound religious experiences of desert cultures. All three religions are monotheistic, and today have enormous geopolitical influence extending far beyond their area of origin.

On a totally different level, today's culture and perspectives on deserts are greatly influenced by movies made in natural desert landscapes where the harsh habitat is usually portrayed as hostile to the presence of people (Ocampo 1999). A common theme of these films is isolation in a vast, arid landscape with its climatic extremes, scenic contrasts and limited supply of water. As a result, in the United States and to a lesser extent in Australia, the desert environment, combined with efforts to overcome its trials and tribulations, has become symbolic of national character.

Partly fuelled by landscapes and challenges depicted in movies, deserts have become favoured destinations for tourism and outdoor recreation. However, tourism, if it includes pilgrimage, is nothing new in deserts, and is a strong driver of change. Small-scale pilgrimage has a long history and is a common modern practice in deserts (Marx 1977), but by far the most important pilgrimage in the deserts today is the Hajj to Mecca and Medina. The Hajj now attracts some four million pilgrims, in just one month of each year. It is certain to achieve yet more change, not only in Saudi Arabia, where it already generates much income and fast urban growth, but also by bringing Muslims together from the largely Islamic deserts of the Old World.

In a different sphere, camping, hiking, fishing and hunting are all popular in deserts among those seeking sunshine, warm weather, unusual landscapes and interesting plants and animals. For the same reasons, however, and encouraged by sparse vegetation cover, off-road vehicle use is also very popular in deserts (Lacher 1999). Use of dune buggies, dirt bikes, quad bikes and ordinary 4x4 vehicles produces noise, disturbs wildlife and destroys the soil surface and vegetation. Disruption of soil surface can lead to increased wind and water erosion, loss of organic material and compaction of soil which reduces water infiltration. Archaeological sites are particularly prone to destruction. On the gypsum plains of the coastal Namib desert, the rich lichen cover is eliminated by a single passage of an off-road vehicle and tracks remain visible for decades if not centuries (Seely 2004). Gypsum plains and nearby dunes, including nesting sites of the endangered Damara Tern, are damaged every year during the "festive season" when hundreds of quad bikes descend on the small coastal desert resort of Swakopmund. The potential and ongoing impacts of off-road vehicles have led or are leading to increased management of public desert lands at many locations worldwide, although unclear jurisdictions and fear of revenue loss curtail many efforts (Figure 2.8).

The conservation of desert areas has had a chequered history and faces an unsure future. Deserts are often viewed as wastelands, uninteresting and useful for little more than perhaps prospecting and mining or military testing. In Namibia, the proclamation of the Namib-Naukluft Park had its origins in the colonial era when the Germans wanted to constrain the British to a small section of the coast at Walvis Bay. Decades of neglect followed as conservation efforts focused on areas where the expected big mammals of Africa are more common. Meanwhile, diamond, uranium and copper mines together with extensive prospecting and army activity left their indelible mark on the desert landscape. In the past several decades, the emphasis has shifted and Sossus Vlei, an ephemeral river terminating amongst the 300m high dunes of the Namib sand sea, is the second most visited tourism destination in the country. Transboundary parks, being negotiated with Angola and South Africa and occupying most of Namibia's coast, could mean varying degrees of conservation for the entire coastal Namib desert.

In North America, Joshua Tree National Park, 80 per cent of which is designated as wilderness area, contains portions of the Mojave and the Colorado deserts. Three main vegetation zones support diverse fauna (Braun 1999). Established in 1936 as a national monument, it was declared a national park in 1994. Death Valley is perhaps the most famous desert park in the United States (Hulett and Charles 1999a), with its name alone evoking visions of desolation and harsh landscapes. Nevertheless, it is a popular tourism destination with its historical and archaeological connections, endemic fish species, extremes of aridity interspersed with occasional massive flooding, geological diversity and striking landscapes. Major protected areas have been proclaimed in Australia, Mongolia and Oman and other desert countries of the world. They may focus on the landscape and biota, for example Joshua Tree National Park, the cultural relevance of the desert area, for example Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai or Ayers Rock in Australia, or its seasonal support to pastoralists, for example in the Gobi Desert. Conservation of desert landscapes is expected to increase and, with growing use of environmental assessments and general environmental awareness, to be in greater harmony with ongoing extractive and currently destructive uses.

Conservation of deserts has gone hand-in-hand with desert tourism. Desert movies, desert books and other awareness-raising media have contributed to the tourism drive. However, desert tourism can be seen on a continuum with desert recreation and the mix is not always a happy one. Nevertheless, tourism is growing and expected to be the main means of generating income in many desert areas of the world. In Namibia and South Africa, communitybased tourism is a rapidly growing sector involving people who were formerly struggling to make a living from the arid landscape (NACSO 2004). The potential for tourism growth, in terms of quality of experience and number of attractions and people experiencing these options, is huge.

Since the early days of the last century, if not before, desert research has held a special attraction for those who are interested in subjects ranging from geology to biology and from culture to religion all related to the extremes of desert environments. Some of the research efforts were small, one-person efforts, such as those of Felix Santschi who is identified as introducing to the scientific world sensory ecology based on his work with desert ants and ant navigation in Tunisia in the 1940s (Wehner 1990). Another was P.A. Buxton who first drew attention to the paradox of animal coloration in deserts and of so many black rather than the expected white beetles in the Palestinian desert (Buxton 1923). Large international research programmes, on the other hand, such as the International Biological Programme (IBP; 1966-1974) left a legacy in its multidisciplinary approach (Hulett and Charles 1999b).

Using a different, localised approach, Deep Canyon on the western edge of the Colorado Desert is associated with the University of California, Riverside located in the P.L. Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. It receives a variety of visiting scientists and students and, in addition to research, addresses conservation issues of the surrounding environment such as the fate of the fringe-toed lizard. Another desert centre established by one visionary biologist, the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre, is located in Namibia within the driest part of the coastal Namib Desert in the Namib-Naukluft Park.

People have lived in deserts for millennia, as hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists and pastoralists, and some people continue to do so today. But other people now live in urban developments situated in deserts, or enjoy deserts temporarily for tourism or recreation. Yet others are extracting profits from mining or other non-renewable resources. Deserts are a large and probably growing environment globally and their future will be best supported if it is based on a thorough understanding of their structure and function, and the influence of people's activities in the past, present and future.

© UNEP 2006