For 25 years Yacouba Sawadogo, a small-scale farmer in Mali, has been working to stop the process of desertification in the Sahel region of western Africa. During the 1970s and 1980s the Sahel, a semi-arid area along the southern edge of the Sahara desert that stretches from Senegal’s Atlantic coast to the Ethiopian highlands, experienced severe droughts that left the land baron.
For years farmers have been adapting numerous innovations to re-green the Sahel. (Photo credit: W4RA)
The program, which lasts through 2012, partners with Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam and the Africa Regreening Initiative to increase the means of communication between farmers. With only 5.7 percent of the population in Africa having internet access, the program helps provide web based and mobile phone based communication technology to small scale farmers in the Sahel.
In this week’s episode, research intern Graham Salinger discusses the natural regeneration methods being used in the Sahel region of Africa to bring back indigenous trees and improve the livelihoods of traditional farmers.
In the Sahel—a semi-arid area along the southern edge of the Sahara desert that stretches from Senegal’s Atlantic coast to the Ethiopian highlands—drought persisted from the late 1960s to the 1990s. The region has experienced repeated bouts of famine since the 1960’s, and once productive croplands have given way to desert. But in the face of adversity, some farming communities across the Sahel have been reviving traditional land management practices to reverse desertification. Among these practices is planting native, food-producing, and drought-resistant trees and shrubs in and around crop fields to improve soil fertility and moisture and reduce erosion.
A girl harvests Aizen in Niger. (Photo credit: Eden Foundation)
Aizen (Boscia senegalensis) is one of the native edible species that has the potential to make conditions more bearable in the Sahel, a region rife with poverty and coping with rapid population growth and increased incidence of drought as a result of climate change. Aizen can handle extreme drought and heat. The shrub naturally occurs in poor, rocky, hardened, and barren soils on slopes, sand dunes, and cracking clay plains. It can withstand intense direct sunlight year-round, offering slight shade relief to surrounding plants—including crops—that otherwise could not bear the exposure. These qualities make it ideal for use in farmer-led re-greening practices to reverse desertification.
In the twenty-first century, large scale tree-planting and reforestation programs have become popular in Africa. After all, trees provide many social and environmental benefits and also give tree-planters an immediate and tangible sense of achievement. The benefits of trees are especially important for the farmers who rely on trees for services such as enhanced soil fertility through nitrogen fixing properties, combating erosion, firewood and increased biodiversity. But are all reforestation programs created equal?
ARI is unique in its mission because the program places the management and responsibility of re-greening—the practice of protecting and managing natural regeneration of woody species—in the hands of farmers who work the land. (Photo credit: Chris Reij)
Inspired by the re-greening of 500 million hectares of land initiated by farmers in Niger, ARI has worked since 2007 to create a re-greening movement across the Sahel. Programs in Burkina Faso and Mali in 2009 were the first ARI endeavors. In 2010, ARI began expanding into Ethiopia and into areas of Niger not yet exposed to the ongoing re-greening occurring in other parts of the country. In the ARI January 2011 progress report, Reij wrote; “The goal of all involved in ARI is to reduce rural poverty by re-greening millions of hectares in Africa’s drylands as quickly as possible. Experience in Niger shows that it is possible if large numbers of farmers protect and manage natural regeneration of woody species on-farm. This produces multiple benefits at minimum cost.” (more…)
Check out our new weekly diary series on the UK’s Telegraph. This week’s post features our innovation on halting the desertification of the Sahel. Check it out to learn how the Mauritanian government is creating long-term barriers to protect both the vegetation and infrastructure of its capital city, Nouakchott.
For centuries, farmers in the Sahel—a band of land that crosses Africa at the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert—used rotational tree farming to provide year-round harvests and a consistent source of food, fuel, and fertilizer. But severe droughts and rapid population growth in the 1970s and 80s significantly degraded the Sahel’s farmland, leading to the loss of many indigenous tree species and leaving the soil barren and eroded. With the loss of the trees went the knowledge, traditions, and practices that had kept the region fertile for hundreds of years.
To save the land as well as local livelihoods, many traditional management practices are now being revived. One inexpensive method of farming that helps to restore the Sahel’s degraded land is so-called Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) (see also Millions Fed: “Re-Greening the Sahel: Farmer-led Innovation in Burkina Faso and Niger”). By pruning shoots that periodically and naturally sprout from below-ground root webs, farmers can promote forest growth and take advantage of a naturally occurring source of fuel, food, or animal fodder.
The trees produce fruit rich in nutrients and help to restore the soil by releasing nitrogen and protecting the ground from erosion by wind and rain. The cultivated but naturally occurring forest also creates a local source of firewood and mulch, reducing the time spent in gathering fuel for cooking meals and cleaning households (see Reducing the Things They Carry). The practice also cuts down on deforestation as the trees that are used for fuel are replaced with seedlings and tended by farmers.
“Farmer-managed natural regeneration is a fairly simple technique, but it produces multiple benefits,” explained Chris Reij, a natural resources management specialist with the Center for International Cooperation (and advisor to the Nourishing the Planet Project), at an Oxfam-hosted panel on locally driven agriculture innovations in Washington, D.C., last October. “Sometimes planting trees make sense, but in terms of costs and long-time success, in many cases it makes more sense to use natural regeneration.”
As important as the technique itself is, even more important is making sure that farmers in the Sahel know about it. When farmers learn how they can benefit from the practice, they are quick to adopt it, improving their own livelihoods and food security while regenerating local forests. Reij attributes the overwhelming success of FMNR in Niger—where many villages have 10–20 times more trees than 20 years ago—to the reduced central-government presence in rural areas. With the government distracted by political conflict, forest management now belongs almost completely to the local farmers who benefit from FMNR the most. (See also Aid Groups, Farmers Collaborate to Re-Green Sahel.)
To ensure that even more farmers know about FMNR and its benefits, the Web Alliance for the Re-Greening in Africa (W4RA), a joint project between African Re-Greening Initiatives (ARI), the Web Foundation, and VU Amsterdam, is helping to create web-based information exchanges between farmers. Meanwhile, the organization SahelEco has initiated two projects, Trees Outside the Forest and the Re-Greening the Sahel Initiative, to encourage policymakers, farmers’ organizations, and government leaders throughout the region to provide the support and legislation needed to put the responsibility of managing trees on agricultural land into the hands of farmers.