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Regreening the Sahel


Chris Reij

Facilitator, African Re-greening Initiatives, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

Something surprising has been found to be happening in the Sahel. Recent studies on long-term trends in agriculture and environment in Niger’s densely populated Maradi and Zinder Regions show that local farmers have greened some five million hectares, simply by protecting and managing the natural regeneration of trees and bushes on their land — producing the largest scale environmental transformation in the Sahel, possibly in Africa. This process began around 1985, but — although some researchers had noticed that farmers in some villages had increased the number of trees, no one had come to grips with the scale of the re-greening until 2006. Then the use of high resolution satellite images, combined with field visits, allowed researchers to work out what was happening.

Over the last two decades, farmers in Niger have grown 200 million new trees on their cultivated fields. Where farmers had only 2 or 3 trees per hectare 20 years ago, they now have 40, 60 or even over 100. Remarkably, they did not plant them, but protected and managed trees and bushes which regenerated spontaneously from underground root systems or from seeds remaining in the topsoil. They thus achieved almost 20 times more than all tree planting projects in Niger over the same period combined; though these planted about 65 million trees, an average of only about 20 per cent survived. The farmers, moreover, did this at a very low cost, since protecting and managing natural regeneration does not require establishing tree nurseries or transporting seedlings to planting sites.

What triggered this re-greening? The Sahelian droughts and environmental crisis of the 1970s and 1980s put many farmers with their backs against the wall. They had to fight land degradation or migrate. A nongovernmental organisation catalysed the process by offering farmers food aid during two drought years in the mid-1980s in exchange for protecting natural regeneration, and farmers quickly realised the bene- fits of re-greening. A survey of about 400 farmers showed that:

  • Trees reduce wind speed, and thus young crops are no longer destroyed by windblown sand; as a result, farmers now only need to plant crops once, instead of having to try three or four times, as they did 20 years ago;

  • Some tree species produce fodder, allowing farmers to increase the number of their livestock;

  • Instead of being burned as fuel, like 20 years ago, all dung is used on the cultivated fields, helping to maintain and improve soil fertility;

  • Farmers are aware that some species, notably Faidherbia albida, improve soil fertility by fixing nitrogen from the air (depending on density and age, they can fix 80 to 90 kilogrammes per hectare);

  • Women now only have to spend 0.5 hours a day collecting firewood compared to 2.5 hours 20 years ago;

  • Trees contribute to food security even if crops fail, for they produce edible leaves and fruit;

  • During drought years, poor farmers literally can survive by pruning trees and selling the wood to buy food;

  • Conflicts between herders and farmers have decreased by about 80 per cent as the land has been re-greened: since the resource pie has grown, there is more to share.

A report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that new agroforestry systems on the re-greened five million hectares produces an extra 500,000 tons of cereals a year, feeding an additional 2.5 million people. The trees, moreover, are capital assets, which help increase aggregate agricultural production and thus help reduce rural poverty. The annual production value of the new trees is at least around 200 million euros, which all goes to the farmers, in the form of produce, if not cash.

This process of re-greening by farmers is not confined to parts of Niger. Many new agroforestry systems, big and small, can be found in the Sahel. Farmers in Mali’s Seno Plains — between the Plateau Dogon and the Burkina Faso border — for example, have protected and managed trees on 450,000 hectares of their land. About 90 per cent of the trees are less than 20 years old. Similarly farmers in Senegal’s Kaffrine region, who visited the re-greening in Niger, began to protect and manage natural regeneration on their return. Their re-greening covers about 30,000 hectares and it is spreading like wildfire.

The African Re-greening Initiative (ARI) which aims to expand the scale of such successes, currently operates in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger and is now planning to expand to other African countries. Its strategy includes organizing farmer-to-farmer study visits, developing national policy dialogues around agricultural policies and forestry legislation, and mobilizing the attention of national and international media to re-greening.

Developing agroforestry increases aggregate production and creates more drought-resilient farming systems. It is the only major low cost option for intensifying agriculture open to small-scale farmers in Africa with limited financial and resource capital. Experience shows that they will invest in trees on their land if they perceive that they own them. For, as farmers in Tigray, Ethiopia, say: “trees are our backbone”.

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