According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) some 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded over the past 50 years. With increasingly scarce land and water resources expected in the coming decades, as well as rising demand for food, farmers will need to find ways to produce more on the world’s remaining arable land. Without alternatives, expansion of agriculture can lead to deforestation and loss of other vital ecosystems that millions of people rely on for their livelihoods. But some innovative farmers are producing more food by using agriculture to rebuild ecosystems and turn degraded land into productive farms.
Some innovative farmers are producing more food by using agriculture to rebuild ecosystems and turn degraded land into productive farms. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Severe droughts and rapid population growth in the 1970s and 80s significantly degraded the farmland of the Sahel, a region of Africa running along the entire southern edge of the Sahara desert. Traditional management practices are now being revived to reverse the trend, including farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). By pruning shoots that periodically and naturally sprout from below-ground root webs in and around their fields, farmers promote the re-growth of trees. The trees reduce erosion, improve the ability of the soil to hold moisture, offer partial shade, and are a source of fuel, food, and animal fodder. The Web Alliance for the Re-Greening in Africa (W4RA) project is helping to create web-based information exchanges between farmers to promote awareness of FMNR. 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 to provide the support and legislation needed to put the responsibility of managing trees on agricultural land into the hands of farmers.
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.
This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!
Africa’s declining soil fertility has already caused yields to drop by 15 to 25 percent in six African countries, including Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Mali and Niger, according to Dr. Roland Bunch, Director of Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods at World Neighbors, in his chapter of State of the World 2011.
Agroforestry and inter-cropping are two practices that are helping to heal the soil. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Dr. Bunch suggests using green manure/cover crops, or living trees, bushes and vines, to improve soil health and avoid a potential famine. In Mali, the Dogon people have developed a multi-layered system, where they plant leguminous trees, such as acacias, and trim them annually to provide shade and fertilize their fields. Many Dogon farmers now have yields that are three times higher than the average yield of other Sahel areas with similar rainfall.
In other parts of the Sahel, farmers are reviving traditional management practices. Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is a process that involves pruning the stems of indigenous trees to cultivate and regrow trees. This revegetation is helping restore the area’s land: the trees release nitrogen into the soil and protect the soil from erosion.
Integrating trees with crops is part of an approach known as agroforestry. The World Agroforestry Centre is helping farmers use a combination of agroforestry and conservation farming methods, known as Evergreen Agriculture. Evergreen agriculture can help not only improve soil moisture and nutrients, but also reduce agricultural inputs–leguminous trees, for example, add nitrogen to soils naturally–and enhance food security. In Malawi, intercropping acacia trees with maize increased yields by up to 280 percent.
As world leaders gathered for the Millennium Development Goals summit at the UN headquarters in New York last week, there were also a number of important side events taking place. On Friday September 24, the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) hosted “The Global Dry Land Alliance- Partnering for Food Security” event, which launched a global alliance aimed at strengthening cooperation among dry land nations. The event provided a much-needed forum to discuss challenges specific to dry lands which account for 45 percent of the world’s land area.
The newly formed Global Dry Land Alliance will constitute 45 to 60 nations with arid or semi-arid environments. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollock)
The issue of food security in dry land areas is extremely crucial to the global fight against hunger—60 percent of the world’s food insecure population lives in dry lands and over 80 percent of the rural population in these areas are dependent on crop agriculture and livestock for both food and income. Dry land areas suffer from land loss due to erosion, salinity, desertification, disappearing vegetation cover, loss of biodiversity and increasing water scarcity.
In the Sahel, a band of land that crosses Africa at the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, 10 million people are threatened by food shortages. Furthermore, the Middle East, with 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 40 percent of the world’s cereal imports and experiences the highest level of water scarcity in the world. The recent food and financial crises have highlighted the need to support domestic agricultural systems in order to reduce vulnerability to volatile global markets. In regions where extreme weather threatens food supply, the answer is not short-term aid, but a global commitment to strengthening long-term food security.
According to Fahad al-Attiya, QNFSP Chairman, the newly formed Global Dry Land Alliance will constitute 45 to 60 nations with arid or semi-arid environments, including countries in the Middle East, Africa, the United States and India.
In 2008, Qatar launched its own national food security program after the country experienced high food price inflation. While national country-led programs such as QNFSP play a significant role in finding solutions to enhance domestic production, responsible foreign agricultural investments and regional partnerships in areas of trade, research and technology offer tremendous potential in securing global food systems. IFAD, for example, has invested over $3.5 billion to support agricultural and rural development in these areas. Between 2000-2007, the Mauritanian government, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization, launched the Rehabilitation and Extension of Nouakchott Green Belt Project to improve sand encroachment control and protect the infrastructure of its capital city, Nouakchott. This project stands as a model of success in halting desertification.
Sharing knowledge and expertise, however, is also important among farmers. Faced with harsh growing conditions, small-scale farmers in dry land areas are working to mitigate land degradation through innovative practices. Many of their approaches offer useful models for larger-scale efforts. In Niger, for example, farmers are restoring the Sahel’s degraded land through Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). By pruning shoots that periodically and naturally sprout from below-ground root webs, farmers promote forest growth. While FMNR is a simple technique, it produces multiple benefits. This practice has helped improve up to 5 million hectares of land and is also practiced in other countries including Chad, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. 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.
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.