Disastrous droughts crippled Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali in the early 1970s and more severely in the early 1980s. More than 100,000 people died.
"The soil dried up. Everything dried up. All the trees died,"; said Yacouba Savadogo, a sorghum and millet farmer from the village of Gourma in Burkina Faso, at an Oxfam-hosted event in Washington, D.C. "When the soil dries up, there's no more trees and no more rain."
Dry conditions and a locust outbreak hit West Africa again in 2005, and millions of people suffered from malnutrition. But an effort in Niger to boost tree vegetation-known as the "re-greening of the Sahel"-improved soil quality and
provided nourishment for livestock, helping to avert an even larger food crisis.
"In the Sahel, over the past 30 years, food crises have been more localized and less frequent," said Issa Martin Bikienga, deputy executive secretary of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel.
In Niger, many small farmers turned to timber harvesting during the major droughts as a way to raise money for their families. As a result, trees covered only 1.5 percent of the country in 1975. Since then, a combination of tree plantations and an agroforestry technique known as "farmer-managed natural regeneration" have allowed tree cover to increase to more than 4 percent as of 2005 - some 4.8 million hectares in total, according to recent satellite studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
"The trees we see now are young, 10-15 years old," said Gray Tappan, a USGS geographer. "Month by month, year by year, the trees are growing. The amount of wood is growing on a trajectory that, in 20-30 years, there will be 5-10 times more woody biomass in the system than there is today."
Typical reforestation programs transplant local or non-native tree species to barren patches of land, and one-quarter to one-half of the saplings often die in the process. "Farmer-managed natural regeneration" instead requires that farmers nurture tree roots and stems to encourage tree growth among row crops. The trees in turn provide nitrogen for the soil as well as a sustainable supply of wood fuel.
"Farmer-managed natural regeneration is a fairly simple technique, but it produces multiple benefits," said Chris Reij, a natural resources management specialist with the Center for International Cooperation. "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."
Industrialized nations agreed this year to spend $20 billion during the next three years on food security projects across the developing world that improve small farmers' access to seeds, training, and markets. Methods that combine traditional agricultural techniques, such as natural regeneration, with modern technologies are more likely to become a larger component of the food security initiatives, development experts said.
"We've learned that many aspects in increasing food production and productivity are dependent on traditional knowledge," said Franklin Moore, deputy assistant administrator for Africa and global food security coordinator with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "We look at technology to provide food security, but we often overlook some things humans came to understand hundreds of years ago, which can lead to a modern rebirth of a green revolution."
The roots of this agroforestry approach begin with farmers such as Savadogo. In 1979, Savadogo resurrected traditional agriculture practices that place rows of stones around farm perimeters to slow precipitation runoff. With support from Oxfam, he dug foot-deep holes and filled them with compost, knowing this would attract termites that dig channels through the soil and help rainwater penetrate beneath his crops.
"The Oxfam-funded agroforestry program spread activities started by Yacouba to hundreds of villages," said Mathieu Ouedraogo, director of the Niger-based African Re-greening Initiative. "Burkina Faso has become a lab of agro-soil science."
But natural regeneration techniques have been more widely adopted in Niger, due largely to a 2004 law that allows farmers to manage trees on their land, according to local researchers.
"The driver for the situation was a policy change. It made a tree property that belongs to landowners," said Mahamane Larwanou, senior program officer with the African Forest Forum. "They consider trees like their cow or sheep-a valuable animal that needs protection."
Reij, however, said the policy was not the main reason for the revegetation efforts. "A change in policy doesn't always filter down to farmers," he said.
Instead, government instability-military coups overthrew two administrations during the 1990s-reduced the central government's presence in rural Niger and allowed farmers to manage their forests as they deemed appropriate, Reij argued.
Regardless of its rationale, aid organizations agree that the technique has worked, and they are now searching for financial support to expand its use.
"The desert will rejoice," Ouedraogo said. "It will take time, but we all can help contribute to it."
This piece originally appeared on Worldwatch Institute.
Photo Credit: Wendkuni via Flickr, Creative Commons License
I think the headline meant to read "Aid Groups, Farmers Collaborate," but I agree the posted version is more eye-catching . . . ; >)