A land without trees is like a People without hope
“5 million hectares in the Niger desert has been transformed into a lush landscape, where trees flourish, crops prosper and livestock thrives!” dr.Abasse Tougiane exclaims enthusiastically. “This is an area larger than the Netherlands!” We are present at the lecture about the successful initiative to regreen Niger, given by Abasse and his colleague Toudou Adam at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The room is almost completely full; obviously not only officials of Foreign Affairs, but also scientists, delegates from NGO’s and representatives from the private sector are interested in the subject. The question on everyone’s mind is: ‘how can this be so successful where an initiative such as the Great Green Wall so sadly failed?
Dr. Abasse and prof. Toudou work at the 'Centre Régional d'Enseignement Spécialisé en Agriculture' (CRESA) in Niger, which is a government affiliated scientific and agricultural institute. Since the early 90s they have been devoting themselves to implementing and researching a traditional farming technique that has been re-introduced by farmers in Niger. The idea was to use this traditional method, which was later named ‘Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration’ (FMNR), to push back the encroaching desert in Niger.
Self-initiative is rewarded
In the past it has always been common for farmers in Niger to use young tree shoots to feed their livestock or burn them for kindle wood. Trees are inedible, so there was no point in growing them on plots and common lands. Over time, the soil became more and more dry, barren and infertile. As a result a few farmers decided to change tack. They started protecting the young trees on their land from cattle and other threats to give them a chance to grow. Full-grown trees provided shade and windbreaks for annual crops and livestock, the leaves provided nutrients for the soil and served as feed for the animals. Additionally, the new vegetation helped increase ground water. Trees produce perennial products, fruits, nuts, leaves, wood – for various purposes: medicinal, firewood, timber for own use and for sale etc. The successes of these pioneers inspired many other farmers to adopt these agro-forestry techniques.
Great Green Wall
Of course, there have been countless re-greening efforts throughout the years in attempts to revitalise desert areas. The most ambitious of these plans was The Great Green Wall. This plan, initiated by the African Union, aimed at creating an entirely green strip from the East to West of Africa crossing through the driest areas. “One of the principal reasons that the project failed was because of a choice to planting of foreign tree species, i.e. trees which were not at all accustomed to the drought and conditions of the desert”, says Dr. Abasse. “And this is the heart of the matter. By using ‘FMNR we make use, instead, of the ‘forest’ of already existing roots and seeds that lays beneath the soil. The only thing one has to do is to cherish and protect the vegetation sprouting from it and take good care of it after it has grown.”
Sustainable solutions for the future
This specific project came forth through a collaboration between CRESA and Both ENDS in cooperation with WRI, and has been supported by the Turing Foundation for the past 5 years. Research was conducted, farmers were trained and special village committees were formed so that every voice could be heard and local people have a stake in these institutions. Because this method has been proven to be so successful and could even provide a solution to the growing ecological and food crisis in African Sahel, it is about time that these promising results from Niger are brought to the attention of Dutch policy makers. “At FMNR the farmers and the land users are the starting point”, says Karin van Boxtel from Both ENDS, who is involved in the project and organised the lecture. “The farmers themselves are in control, they decide how the communal land is managed and used.”
Participation and ‘ownership’
This is another reason why this approach differs so greatly from initiatives such as The Great Green Wall, which was constructed top-down by people out of touch from the local realities, without including the local population. “People will eagerly take on the responsibility of creating their own success, however in order to do so they must first be given this responsibility”, says Karin. “It is therefore very important that the Dutch food security and climate policies give their special attention to this promising re-greening technique, where farmers are really in control of their livelihoods.” During his presentation dr. Abasse presents a photo depicting a beautiful lush landscape in Niger. “This land was infertile in 1990, and look at it now. There are trees and plants, and it has become entirely green.” He concludes his lecture with saying: “A land without trees is like a People without hope.”
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