The smart way to combat desertification

By Dennis Garrity

In re-greening the drylands of Africa, we should make use of trees that will provide multiple long-term benefits to poor farmers, writes Dennis Garrity, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre.

The importance of trees in combating desertification and mitigating the effects of drought was high on the agenda last week when organizations from the around the world gathered in Dakar, Senegal to observe the World Day to Combat Desertification.

Agroforestry has the potential to not only increase crop yields, but also to heal the land. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

For any re-greening effort to be successful, it must of course target desertification and drought, but also be geared towards ensuring food security and improving the livelihoods of people in the drylands who struggle every year to survive.

Drylands make up 40% of the world’s land area, cover more than 100 countries and are the basis for the livelihoods of 2 billion people.

As 2011 is the International Year of Forests it was fitting that the theme for this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification – celebrated on 17 June every year since 1995 – was Forests keep drylands working.

Take for example, the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative. This bold programme, backed by the African Union, is evolving into a massive effort to regreen the Sahelian countries that adjoin the desert through revegetation efforts that build on grassroots participatory approaches. All 11 Sahelian countries are participating, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. These include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania. It is believed this massive re-greening effort will halt desertification and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The Global Environment Facility has committed to more than 100 million dollars in support of the programme. The World Bank, FAO, UNEP, and other multilateral organizations are also engaged in complementary ways.

Significant investments will be required to regenerate such a vast degraded landscape. But what is just as important is how the investments are made. This is the perfect opportunity to promote the use of ‘working trees’; trees that are beneficial to farmers and their communities, and which provide sources of green fertilizer to build healthier soils and enhance crop production, trees that increase soil fertility by fixing nitrogen in their roots, and trees that provide more abundant fodder for livestock as well as fruits, medicines, timber and fuelwood.

Across Africa, we are already seeing tremendous results from Evergreen Agriculture – where trees are intercropped with annual food crop and livestock systems – in terms of higher food crop yields and the restoration of degraded soils.

In Niger alone, we have seen over 5 million hectares of farmland recently re-greened by agroforests that are covered predominantly by the fertilizer and fodder tree, Faidherbia albida. Farmers have been regenerating up to 160 trees per hectare on their millet and sorghum fields, and as a result their crop production and fodder supplies have been significantly enhanced.

During the 1st African Drylands Week (from 10 to 17 June 2011) convened in Dakar, Senegal immediately before the World Day to Combat Desertification, participants learned that there has been an amazing development in the Seno Plains of Mali during the past decade or so. Grassroots efforts have recently resulted in the generation of half a million hectares of medium to high density agroforests on the farms throughout this region. During a field trip in Senegal we witnessed the expansion of the agroforests there as well.

The excellent agroforest models that exist in Burkina Faso were also discussed during the week, including the agroforests of Ranawa that produce shea butter, which is an increasingly important ingredient in cosmetics in the international market.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is that the Ethiopian Government recently committed itself to the development of 15 million hectares of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration across the country, based on the excellent results that have been achieved by several successful pilot projects.

I am encouraged that the emerging vision for the Great Green Wall is all about agroforestry and how working trees such as those that are currently being regenerated by farmers throughout the region can be the fundamental basis to renew land health, and transform environments at both the farm and landscape levels.

We should note that the vision of the Great Green Wall is also a global vision; it is a vision of healthy land. And healthy land underpins the whole global concept of creating a Green Economy.

The Great Green Wall Initiative may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see trees bring multiple benefits while improving the productivity of the drylands on a massive scale. A double-story Evergreen Agriculture, of trees grown compatibly with crops, offers the potential for farmers to increase their food production and incomes, and at the same time better adapt to future climate variability.

The World Agroforestry Centre is committed to applying agroforestry science and practice with many partners to make the Great Green Wall a major success, through accelerating a regreening transformation that is already underway in the Sahelian countries.

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