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How would an agricultural world be desertified? I have a community of farmers, and the environment is working against them but they are making it work with nitrates (got the idea from Disney Zorro episode The Newcomers). An exploitive corporation sets up in the same area and does something that provides employment to half the community, but hurts the land. I am thinking mining, but don't know enough to know if that could contribute to desertification in the span of a generation or two, or if one kind of mining would be worse than another.

If mining would have that effect, could you give me an overview of why? If there's something exploitive that would work better for facilitating desertification, please let me know.

the articles I found only talked about over-planting, poor irrigation practices, deforestation, and overgrazing. But if the farmers are being responsible, and a mining operation sets up shop next door, how will that mining operation hurt the farmers? Will there be runoffs or toxins or something?

They have Star-Wars level technology which I realize is broad, but I'm ok with anything reasonable.

edit: how do I close this question and credit multiple people? I've gotten useful answers from several responders.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome Jillian. Please take our tour and read-up in the help center for guidance as to our ways. You'll find that there are issues with your question: 1) We don't deal with questions regarding third-party works of fiction. 2) This seems to be a story-based, fishing-for-ideas type question which is also off-topic. We like clear focussed questions regarding the construction aspects of worlds and ecosystems - magic-systems, geology, physics etc.. Enjoy the site. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ If by Palpatine etc. you are referring to George Lucas's Star Wars, that is a purposely shallow fairy tale for young chidren. It was never intended to be a self-consistent world. You are overthinking it. (For example, there is no description of a system of costs and prices; we don't know, and don't care, about how much it costs to ship a tonne of stuff from WhateverPlanetA to WhateverPlanetB: and because of this we cannot say anything about "important physical and cultural resources". For another example, we have no idea what L. Skywalker's folks are actually doing in that desert.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ @EveninginGethsemane --- 1) Looks the OP is writing a fan fiction set in an alternate universe (a timeline different than the canonical one). It's a little convoluted, but I'd argue that such a question as this isn't asking about the SW universe per se with the goal of understanding the SW universe; rather she's asking about the SW universe in order to understand the fictional world she's creating for her fictions. This is parallel to asking a question about the real world for a work of historical fiction or alternate history. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ Too many questions, some opinion based, some about actions of character, third party world and fishing for ideas: a lot of issues with this post. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ That's a hell of an edit... There are several agriculture-related causes of desertification easily googled, how were they insufficient? $\endgroup$
    – rek
    Commented Apr 3, 2022 at 4:22

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I see two main options. Both can be useful to your story.

First one is obvious - strip mining. You literally take away the top layer of the soil, and, if you dont care about the nature, just throw it away with the empty ore. It was and still is popular, because how cheap it is. No need to dig deep, add ventilation, pump ground water, care about tunnels reinforcement. This provides as much desert-looking area as they can mine. It wont be a desert strictly speaking - rain will still be present. But it will look like desert for decades to come.

Second one is less obvious, but more destructive. Water is often used in mining to help extract the minerals from the mined ore, or even directly from the ground beneath. This water is then treated to extract valuable minerals. But this water will still contain a lot of other, less valuable minerals. Proper handling of this water is expensive. But it is very cheap to just dump this water into the ground, or nearby river. This leads to a massive scale destruction of nature, orders of magnitude larger than just the area that was actually mined. But unlike first option, some life will probably adapt to live in such an environment. This type of damage also much more dependant on height map - where will the water flow. And unlike first case that can be restored in a few years if needs be, this damage is extremely hard to fix. Because of how mixed the minerals are with the soil, especially heavy elements like the arsenic. And this damage wont go away for centuries. If you want desert-looking area in particular - consider potash-rich minerals, or minerals that are extracted with potash. Or salt. Those will kill most plants. If you want area that looks fine, but deadly for humans, consider heavy metals. Those will keep plants and small animals alive, but will cause serious harm to people and large animals and predators in general.

Mercury polluted lots of gold digging areas. Mercury was used as a solvent to take gold out of the ore, and then mercury was boiled away, and escaped as gas.

Pretty much any mining that mines something not so common, and uses solvent is deadly to the nature around it.

Safe mining could include iron, coal, sand, gravel, alumina, clay, stone salt, limestone. Unless it is a strip mining - they often are good for stip mining.

Toxic to humans but no desertification, so plants will mostly be alive, but large animals wont be, could include mining of gold though amalgam, rare earth minerals, oil, tarsand, arsenic gases from copper smelting.

Mining that causes desertification, that is, most plants are dead, usually through leaching or evaporating or fracture, includes lithium, potash, sea salt, uranium, copper, nickel, gold through leaching, copper leaching

You can find most examples of these methods implemented in Africa and Asia. Pick the one that you find sufficiently destructive to the nature and\or toxic to humans.

All mining can be devastating to the nature around it. Be it strip mining for common elements, toxic water or gases from extraction of rare materials, or just dumped or evaporating ponds of waste material from a bit less common materials. All that you have to do is to reduce control, and let the market do its thing - cheaper mining is almost always more destructive.

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Over-farming and deforestation

In the epilogue of Guns, Germs and Steel, the author examines why the Fertile Crescent became a less prosperous region after its head start as the cradle of civilisation. As he points out, the formerly fertile area is now mostly desert due to excessive farming and deforestation.

In the case of the Fertile Crescent, the low rainfall was just sufficient to maintain the forests, but not once humans started logging them at a rate greater than they could regenerate. This holds true for the vegetation in any ecosystem - harvest faster than the plants can regrow and without the roots of plants to hold the soil together there will be a self-reinforcing cycle of plant loss leading to soil loss leading to desertification. Any scientifically literate farmer worth their salt will know the risks and take steps to allow regrowth, but a short-sighted businessman looking to get rich now who does not care about the future generations may initiate unsustainable practices.

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Energy production

The corporation that sets up shop and poisons the land is in the business of selling energy.

If the farming is successful, the community will grow, and their energy needs will grow. Energy companies will regard this as an emerging market.

Some methods of producing energy are harmful to the surrounding environment. Some methods can be made harmless if the company is willing to take the proper precautions, but those precautions always cut into profits, and so a company will only take those precautions if someone puts a gun to the CEO's head; a community of farmers is likely to be poor, and is unlikely to make effective use of its bargaining power, and as a consequence the energy company will literally dictate the terms of the arrangement to maximize its own benefit and externalize all costs.

What things might the energy company do that will harm the environment?

  • divert water entering the region for its own purposes
  • fracking
  • heavy construction (with no cleanup upon completion)
  • improper disposal of hazardous waste
  • change the local laws such that unsustainable short-term growth is incentivized at the expense of medium-term sustainability
  • corrupt the local government in order to protect itself from the legal consequences of its actions, with the unintentional consequence of also disrupting the community's commonsense sustainable land-management practices
  • move more of its staff to the location than can be supported by the available resources

All these items, and countless more like them, flow from just a handful of premises:

  • the long-term sustainability of this near-desert ecosystem requires careful, deliberate management
  • a powerful third party whose welfare does not depend upon this local ecosystem will have no compunction about fatally destabilizing it, so long as the third party can extract at least one dollar more than it cost them to set up shop
  • the locals will refuse to recognize the third party as a predator, and if they ever do reach consensus about fighting that predator, it will be too late and the measures they take will be inadequate to the task
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Farm the wrong crops. Both the US and USSR (in the 30s and 60s, respectively), managed to create huge deserts by growing crops that were wrong for former grassy plains. Google the Dust Bowl for details. Cotton is a well known destroyer of marginal soils and IIRC was to blame for the Dust Bowl; I think the Russians tried intensive wheat farming on even worse soil.

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