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Reclaiming the Desert

This article was written by Geoff Manaugh in October 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

In this year of deserts and desertification, there is finally "good news from Africa," New Scientist reports. "Farmers are reclaiming the desert, turning the barren wastelands of the Sahel region on the Sahara's southern edge into green, productive farmland."

And they're doing it with trees:

Tree planting has led to the re-greening of as much as 3 million hectares of land in Niger, enabling some 250,000 hectares to be farmed again. The land became barren in the 1970s and early 1980s through poor management and felling of trees for firewood, but since the mid-1980s farmers in parts of Niger have been protecting them instead of chopping them down.

According to one researcher quoted by New Scientist: "The results have been staggering."

This success stems from what the magazine calls a "virtuous circle of benefits" between trees and their surrounding landscapes. "Leaves and fruits provide food, fodder and organic matter to fortify the soil," for instance. "More livestock means more manure, which further enriches the soil enabling crops to be grown, and spreads tree seeds so new trees grow. The trees also provide shelter for crops and help prevent soil erosion. In times of drought, firewood can be sold and food purchased to tide families over."

Further, pro-tree land use policies – including better rainwater management practices – "are helping communities in Niger re-establish control over their fate, simultaneously halting the march of the desert and helping to prevent famines like the one that hit Niger in July 2005."

Trees: The Anti-Desert is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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