Last year, Alex wrote a piece about the importance of climate foresight for subsistence farmers in drought-prone areas like the Sahel. Desertification and rainfall variation, along with the resulting loss of topsoil and land productivity, pose a tremendous threat to those already living at the edge of survival on arid farmland. At the same time, significant population growth places added stress on scarce food sources and unpredictable crop yields.
But in the face of these unpromising odds, Niger has in fact become more green in the last few decades, with more than 7.4 million formerly barren acres of the countryside now covered in trees, a feat "achieved largely without relying on the large-scale planting of trees or other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification, the process by which soil loses its fertility."
Geoff Manaugh covered this citizen-driven restoration about four months ago when the New Scientist mentioned the unexpected green resurgence. Given that we've just been handed proof of human accountability in causing climate change, it's a timely moment to learn that humans are also ameliorating dire regional conditions, essentially establishing an emergency preparedness plan even without the advantages of high-tech foresight methods.
Today, the success in growing new trees suggests that the harm to much of the Sahel may not have been permanent, but a temporary loss of fertility. The evidence, scientists say, demonstrates how relatively small changes in human behavior can transform the regional ecology, restoring its biodiversity and productivity.
It's hard to trust the words "temporary" and "permanent" in the context of absolutely unpredictable planetary shifts, but the idea that people can heal as well as harm offers a seed of hope. The farmers simply chose to start tending to saplings in the cultivation of their land, allowing them to grow amongst the staple sorghum, millet, peanuts and beans instead of clearing them. The resulting benefits for rural farmers touch every facet of life. Not only do the trees provide additional nutrition sources, they fix and fertilize soil, hold moisture in the ground, and create the possibility of extra income.
Ibrahim Idy, a farmer in Dahirou, a village in the Zinder region, has 20 baobab trees in his fields. Selling the leaves and fruit brings him about $300 a year in additional income. He has used that money to buy a motorized pump to draw water from his well to irrigate his cabbage and lettuce fields. His neighbors, who have fewer baobabs, use their children to draw water and dig and direct the mud channels that send water coursing to the beds. While their children work the fields, Mr. Idy’s children attend school.[...]
In the village of Koloma Baba, in the Tahoua region just south of the desert’s edge, a group of widows have reclaimed fields once thought forever barren. The women dig small pits in plots of land as hard as asphalt. They place a shovelful of manure in the pits, then wait for rain. The pits help the water and manure stay in the soil and regenerate its fertility, said [forestry expert] Dr. [Mahamane] Larwanou. Over time, with careful tending, the land can regain its ability to produce crops. In this manner, more than 600,000 acres of land have been reclaimed, according to researchers.
It's been predicted in the past that the Sahel could potentially benefit from the effects of climate change, as they may result in more rainfall for the desert region. But in a land of harsh extremes -- and given the precariously thin cushion people have between subsistence and starvation -- it's far better insurance for farmers to build their own barriers now against future climate extremes than to rely on weather predictions. In the process their quality of life stands to be higher, and Niger much greener.
It's nice to see some coverage on this topic, especially following the New York Times piece today.
However, I have two important corrections to the article:
1) The Sahel region (and Niger, in particular) has been getting greener for the last few years, not the last few decades as stated in this article. The last drought period run from 1969 to the late 1990s, and started to reverse in the early 2000s. This is a natural fluctuation in the climate of the Sahel, most scientists believe, and it will probably go back and forth again and again in the future.
2) Projections of human-induced global warming are *not* thought to increase rainfall in the Sahel. Most of the models show that the frequency of drought in this region of Africa will increase, not decrease -- although the climate models are not especially good in this part of the world.
From the NYT article, "17 children by 3 wives". Birth control, anyone?
The land might be able to support the increase in population in the good times, but the trees aren't going to help much when (not if) the next 20 - 30 year drought arrives.
One thing I pull from this article is the possibility that the farmers are multiplying the positive effects of their efforts by promoting synergies between different crops and plants. "The farmers simply chose to start tending to saplings in the cultivation of their land, allowing them to grow amongst the staple sorghum, millet, peanuts and beans instead of clearing them"...
This reminds me of the strategy of planting in densely interdependent 'guilds' espoused by Permaculture. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Permaculture was developed amidst the arid environments of Australia... a template for our global future?
Not only are resources (water, fertilizer) used more effectively, but the ability of some plants to help others along is promoted as well. There are lessons for human cultures and subcultures in this also. Good stuff!
Great comment about linking this to the larger idea of permaculture. It would be fantastic to see a series of WC articles about permaculture sometime down the road, I think. (Unless it's been covered already and I missed it?)
At the risk of drifting off-topic, I was surprised not to find Permaculture in the Index of the WC guide. No complete guide would be complete without some incompleteness, though. :)