Though Argentina is known for its fertile pampa humeda - a vast, moist, topsoil-rich plain - a new official survey says three-quarters of the breadbasket and beefy nation is arid and that large chunks are desertified each year.
The report says some 650,000 hectares (1.6 million acres) become desert or desert-like yearly. That phenomenon is worrisome not only from the environmental standpoint, but also because of the serious social and economic consequences.
More than 600,000 square kilometers (250,968 square miles) - an area larger than France - of Argentine territory have experienced moderate to serious erosion, alarming news for a country which uses 80 percent of its land for agriculture, ranching and forestry, according to the report.
Researchers and authorities are greatly concerned given that the loss of soil productivity damages already weak regional economies and forces inhabitants of rural areas and small villages to migrate to the large cities.
An estimated 30 percent of Argentina's 35 million inhabitants live in arid or semi-arid regions.
"It's a complex issue, not only because of the physical degradation of the soils, but also because of its implications for phenomena like poverty and migration," said Octavio Perez Pardo, Argentina's Environment Secretariat's director of Soil Conservation and the Struggle Against Desertification. The problem is magnified by the fact Argentina is the eighth-largest country in the world in terms of area. "Additionally, there is this perception that Argentina is a large, fertile and endless pampa, but that land represents just 25 percent of national territory. This perception works against us when it comes to raising consciousness," the official said.
Of Argentina's 24 provinces, 18 are affected by desertification.
In these arid and semi-arid regions, the percentages of homes whose basic needs are not being met is double the 33.5 percent national average.
Inadequate land distribution also gives rise to landless squatters who degrade soil, water and vegetation.
Desertification also spreads as Argentina's native forests are cut down. In the last century, the country's forested area was reduced by 70 percent; in other words, some 70 million hectares (172 million acres) of forest disappeared, mainly as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture.
Over the past six years, the Argentine government has been developing a desertification prevention program, which entails research and educational projects, early drought detection, consciousness-raising campaigns and the coordinating of policy between the national and local governments.
According to Argentine law, the provincial governments are responsible for managing the natural resources of their respective areas.
"The desert has a tendency to gobble up (more land). In provinces like Mendoza (in western Argentina) we see how it spreads over productive areas, resulting in economic and social problems," said Elsa Laurelli, the scientific coordinator of the recently formed official Desertification Laboratory. Deforestation, the halting of irrigation, lack of wind erosion protection, mining, overgrazing, and the overexploitation of cropland - especially during soy cultivation - all contribute to desertification, Laurelli said. "It's important to become aware of the damage taking place because reversing the situation could take years, and it is very difficult to recover the fields' fertility once they've dried up," Laurelli said.
But in the past four years, the Environmental Secretariat, in cooperation with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, has developed a successful $3 million sustainable farming project proving that soil degradation and desertification can be checked.
Forty percent of the 4,000 families from 170 communities throughout the country who joined the program have diversified production. In 44 percent of the cases, the quality of the soil improved, and 37 percent of the families increased their household incomes.