Agroforestry Revolution in Sahel

Reading my posts on Sahel a couple of years ago, I was espousing integrationof crops and trees little ground knowledge. It turns out that what common sense suggested had become common sensefor the locals and the whole Sahel is passingthrough an environmental revolution that is jumping productivity.

It could be more orderly andsurely will become so as better trees are in fact one day introduced and someform of row culture is established.

Note the comment on zaiholes.  These can also be improved withbiochar and I suspect that the three sisters used here in conjunction withbiochar making would also hugely increase soil productivity.

As literacy rises andexperimentation prospers, we will see the Sahelturn into a fully restored biome quit able to support huge populations.

Obviously the individual landunits are small and we will see industrial methods more in keeping with theorient where the farmer gets a power assist fitting his scale of operation.

The Great Green Wall: African Farmers Beat Back Drought and ClimateChange with Trees

A quiet, green miracle has been growing in the Sahel

By Mark Hertsgaard  | January 28,2011 | 37

 SAHEL SOLUTION: Allowing treesto grow and shade fields has helped boost yields for farmers across the Sahel--outlined in blue on this map--a possibleadaptation to climate change.

Image: Map by Robert Simmon, based on GIMMS vegetation data and WorldWildlife Fund ecoregions data. Courtesy of NASA

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Mark Hertsgaard's book,Hot: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth.

Yacouba Sawadogo was not sure how old he was. With a hatchet slung overhis shoulder, he strode through the woods and fields of his farm with an easygrace. But up close his beard was gray, and it turned out he hadgreat-grandchildren, so he had to be at least sixty and perhaps closer toseventy years old. That means he was born well before 1960, the year thecountry now known as Burkina Fasogained independence from France,which explains why he was never taught to read and write.

Nor did he learn French. He spoke his tribal language, Mòoré, in adeep, unhurried rumble, occasionally punctuating sentences with a brief grunt.Yet despite his illiteracy, Yacouba Sawadogo is a pioneer of the tree-basedapproach to farming that has transformed the western Sahelover the last twenty years.

"Climate change is a subject I have something to say about,"said Sawadogo, who unlike most local farmers had some understanding of theterm. Wearing a brown cotton gown, he sat beneath acacia and zizyphus treesthat shaded a pen holding guinea fowl. Two cows dozed at his feet; bleats ofgoats floated through the still late-afternoon air. His farm in northern Burkina Fasowas large by local standards—fifty acres—and had been in his family forgenerations. The rest of his family abandoned it after the terrible droughts ofthe 1980s, when a 20 percent decline in annual rainfall slashed food productionthroughout the Sahel, turned vast stretches ofsavanna into desert, and caused millions of deaths by hunger. For Sawadogo,leaving the farm was unthinkable. "My father is buried here," he saidsimply. In his mind, the droughts of the 1980s marked the beginning of climatechange, and he may be right: scientists are still analyzing when man-madeclimate change began, some dating its onset to the mid-twentieth century. Inany case, Sawadogo said he had been adapting to a hotter, drier climate fortwenty years now.

"In the drought years, people found themselves in such a terriblesituation they had to think in new ways," said Sawadogo, who pridedhimself on being an innovator. For example, it was a long-standing practiceamong local farmers to dig what they called zai—shallow pits that collected andconcentrated scarce rainfall onto the roots of crops. Sawadogo increased thesize of his zai in hopes of capturing more rainfall. But his most importantinnovation, he said, was to add manure to the zai during the dry season, apractice his peers derided as wasteful.

Sawadogo's experiments proved out: crop yields duly increased. But themost important result was one he hadn't anticipated: trees began to sprout amidhis rows of millet and sorghum, thanks to seeds contained in the manure. As onegrowing season followed another, it became apparent that the trees—now a fewfeet high—were further increasing his yields of millet and sorghum while alsorestoring the degraded soil's vitality. "Since I began this technique ofrehabilitating degraded land, my family has enjoyed food security in good yearsand bad," Sawadogo told me.

Farmers in the western Sahel haveachieved a remarkable success by deploying a secret weapon often overlooked inwealthier places: trees. Not planting trees. Growing them. Chris Reij, a Dutchenvironmental specialist at VU University Amsterdam who has worked onagricultural issues in the Sahel for thirty years, and other scientists whohave studied the technique say that mixing trees and crops—a practice they havenamed "farmer-managed natural regeneration," or FMNR, and that isknown generally as agro-forestry—brings a range of benefits. The trees' shadeand bulk offer crops relief from the overwhelming heat and gusting winds."In the past, farmers sometimes had to sow their fields three, four, orfive times because wind-blown sand would cover or destroy seedlings," saidReij, a silver-haired Dutchman with the zeal of a missionary. "With treesto buffer the wind and anchor the soil, farmers need sow only once."

Leaves serve other purposes. After they fall to the ground, they act asmulch, boosting soil fertility; they also provide fodder for livestock in aseason when little other food is available. In emergencies, people too can eatthe leaves to avoid starvation.

The improved planting pits developed by Sawadogo and other simplewater-harvesting techniques have enabled more water to infiltrate the soil.Amazingly, underground water tables that plummeted after the droughts of the1980s had now begun recharging. "In the 1980s, water tables on the CentralPlateau of Burkina Fasowere falling by an average of one meter a year," Reij said. "SinceFMNR and the water-harvesting techniques began to take hold in the late 1980s,water tables in many villages have risen by at least five meters, despite agrowing population."

Some analysts attributed the rise in water tables to an increase inrainfall that occurred beginning in 1994, Reij added, "but that doesn'tmake sense—the water tables began rising well before that." Studies havedocumented the same phenomenon in some villages in Niger, where extensivewater-harvesting measures helped raise water tables by fifteen meters betweenthe early 1990s and 2005.

Over time, Sawadogo grew more and more enamored of trees, until now hisland looked less like a farm than a forest, albeit a forest composed of treesthat, to my Californiaeyes, often looked rather thin and patchy. Trees can be harvested—theirbranches pruned and sold—and then they grow back, and their benefits for thesoil make it easier for additional trees to grow. "The more trees youhave, the more you get," Sawadogo explained. Wood is the main energysource in rural Africa, and as his tree cover expanded, Sawadogo sold wood forcooking, furniture making, and construction, thus increasing and diversifyinghis income—a key adaptation tactic. Trees, he says, are also a source ofnatural medicines, no small advantage in an area where modern health care isscarce and expensive.

"I think trees are at least a partial answer to climate change,and I've tried to share this information with others," Sawadogo added."My conviction, based on personal experience, is that trees are likelungs. If we do not protect them, and increase their numbers, it will be theend of the world."

The largest environmental transformation in Africa

Sawadogo was not an anomaly. In Mali, the practice of growing treesamid rows of cropland seemed to be everywhere. A bone-jarring three hour drivefrom the Burkina Faso borderbrought us to the village of Sokoura. By globalstandards, Sokoura was very poor. Houses were made of sticks covered by mud.There was no electricity or running water.

Children wore dirty, torn clothes, and more than a few were naked,their distended bellies hinting at insufficient diets. When one of our team letan empty plastic bottle fall to the ground, kids wrestled for it as if it weregold. Yet to hear locals tell it, life was improving in Sokoura.

It was a five-minute walk from the village to the land of Omar Guindo.Missing a front tooth and wearing a black smock over green slacks, Guindo saidthat ten years ago he began taking advice from SahelEco, a Malian NGO that promotes agro-forestry. Now, Guindo's land was dottedwith trees, one every five meters or so. Most were young, with such spindlybranches that they resembled bushes more than trees, but there were also a fewspecimens with trunks the width of fire hydrants. We sat beneath a large treeknown as the "Apple of the Sahel," whosetwigs sported inch-long thorns. The soil was sandy in both color andconsistency—not a farmer's ideal—but water availability and crop yields hadincreased substantially. "Before, this field couldn't fill even onegranary," he said. "Now, it fills one granary and half ofanother"—roughly a 50 percent increase in production.

Back in the village, we examined the granaries, which were built bylayering mud over stick frames. Oblong in shape, the structures had sides thatwere six feet wide and fifteen feet tall. A notched tree trunk served as aladder to an opening near the top. Reij was the first to climb, serenaded byjovial laughter from the crowd below; it was not often these villagers got tosee a white man make a spectacle of himself. Reij played to the crowd, jokingabout being too clumsy to manage such a steep ladder and asking one of thegrannies to help him. After inspecting all four granaries, the Dutchmandescended, turned to me, and exclaimed, "This is thrilling." Pointingto the closest granary, he said, "This one still has a little millet init. The next one is more than half full, the third is totally full, and thelast is a third full. What that means is, this farmer has tremendous foodsecurity. It is now May. Harvest will be in November. So he has plenty to lasthis family until then and even some in reserve."

As word of such successes travels, FMNR has spread throughout theregion, according to Salif Ali, a neighboring farmer. "Twenty years ago,after the drought, our situation here was quite desperate, but now we live muchbetter," he said. "Before, most families had only one granary each.Now, they have three or four, though the land they cultivate has not increased.And we have more livestock as well." After extolling the many benefitstrees have provided—shade, livestock fodder, drought protection, firewood, eventhe return of hares and other small wildlife—Salif was asked by one member ofour group, almost in disbelief, "Can we find anyone around here whodoesn't practice this type of agro-forestry?"

"Good luck," he replied. "Nowadays, everyone does itthis way."

These farmers were not planting these trees, as Nobel Prize–winningactivist Wangari Maathai has promoted in Kenya. Planting trees is much tooexpensive and risky for poor farmers, Reij said, adding, "Studies in thewestern Sahel have found that 80 percent ofplanted trees die within a year or two." By contrast, trees that sproutnaturally are native species and more resilient. And, of course, such treescost the farmers nothing.

Even naturally sprouting trees were off-limits to farmers until lawswere changed to recognize their property rights. Tree management wastraditionally part of normal agricultural practice here, Salif explained; itwas encouraged by the Barahogon, a voluntary association of farmers to whichboth Salif and his father belonged. But the practice was largely abandonedafter first colonial and later African governments declared that all treesbelonged to the state, a policy that gave officials the opportunity to selltimber rights to business people. Under this system, farmers were punished ifthey were caught cutting trees, so to avoid hassles they often uprootedseedlings as soon as they sprouted. In the early 1990s, a new Maliangovernment, mindful that forestry agency officials had been killed in somevillages by farmers furious about illegal burning of trees by forestry agents,passed a law giving farmers legal ownership of trees on their land (thoughfarmers did not hear about the law until NGOs mounted a campaign to inform themvia radio and word of mouth). Since then, FMNR has spread rapidly. Recently,farmers even shared their knowledge with officials visiting from Burkina Faso—twentymayors and provincial directors of agricultural and environmental agencies."They seemed astonished to hear our story and see the evidence,"Salif recalled. "They asked, 'Is this really possible?'"

Recognizing farmers' property rights was equally crucial in Niger,according to Tony Rinaudo, an Australian missionary and development worker whowas one of the original champions of FMNR. "The great thing about FMNR isthat it's free for farmers," Rinaudo told me. "They stop seeing treesas weeds and start seeing them as assets." But only if they're notpenalized for doing so. In Niger,said Rinaudo, FMNR had a hard time gaining traction until he and othersconvinced government officials to suspend enforcement of the regulationsagainst cutting trees. "Once farmers felt they owned the trees in theirfields, FMNR took off,"
Rinaudo recalled.

The pattern has been the same throughout the western Sahel:FMNR has spread largely by itself, from farmer to farmer and village tovillage, as people see the results with their own eyes and move to adopt thepractice. Not until Gray Tappan of the U.S. Geological Survey compared aerialphotos from 1975 with satellite images of the same region in 2005 was itapparent just how widespread FMNR had become: one could discern the borderbetween Niger and Nigeria from outer space.

On the Niger side,where farmers were allowed to own trees and FMNR was commonplace, there wasabundant tree cover; but in Nigeria,the land was barren. Reij, Rinaudo, and other FMNR advocates were surprised bythe satellite evidence; they had had no idea so many farmers in so many placeshad grown so many trees.

"This is probably the largest positive environmentaltransformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all of Africa,"said Reij. Combining the satellite evidence with ground surveys and anecdotalevidence, Reij estimated that in Niger alone farmers had grown 200million trees and rehabilitated 12.5 million acres of land. "Many peoplebelieve the Sahel is nothing but doom andgloom, and I could tell lots of doom-and-gloom stories myself," he said."But many farmers in the Sahel are betteroff now than they were thirty years ago because of the agro-forestryinnovations they have made."

What makes FMNR so empowering—and sustainable—Reij added, is thatAfricans themselves own the technology, which is simply the knowledge thatnurturing trees alongside one's crops brings many benefits. "Before thistrip, I always thought about what external inputs were required to increasefood production," Gabriel Coulibaly said at a debriefing session after ourfact-finding expedition. Coulibaly, a Malian who worked as a consultant to theEuropean Union and other international organizations, added, "But now Isee that farmers can create solutions themselves, and that is what will makethose solutions sustainable. Farmers manage this technology, so no one can takeit away from them." After a string of similar comments from otheractivists—"The farmers understand why they are doing this, so they willdefend it," one said—Reij leaned over and, his eyes shining, whispered, "Theyhave been transformed into FMNR champions."

And FMNR's success does not depend on large donations from foreigngovernments or humanitarian groups—donations that often do not materialize orcan be withdrawn when money gets tight. This is one reason Reij sees FMNR assuperior to the Millennium Villages model promoted by Jeffrey Sachs, theeconomist who directs Columbia University's Earth Institute. The MillenniumVillages program focuses on twelve villages in various parts of Africa, providing them free of charge with what are saidto be the building blocks of development: modern seeds and fertilizer,boreholes for clean water, health clinics. "If you read their website,tears come to your eyes," said Reij. "It's beautiful, their vision ofending hunger in Africa. The problem is, itcan only work temporarily for a small number of selected villages. MillenniumVillages require continuing external inputs—not just fertilizer and othertechnology, but the money to pay for them—and that is not a sustainablesolution. It's hard to imagine the outside world providing free or subsidizedfertilizer and boreholes to every African village that needs them."

Outsiders do have a role to play, however. Overseas governments andNGOs can encourage the necessary policy changes by African governments, such asgranting farmers ownership of trees. And they can fund, at very low cost, thegrassroots information sharing that has spread FMNR so effectively in thewestern Sahel. Although farmers have done themost to alert peers to FMNR's benefits, crucial assistance has come from ahandful of activists like Reij and Rinaudo and NGOs such as Sahel- Eco andWorld Vision Australia. These advocates now hope to encourage the adoption ofFMNR in other African countries through an initiative called "Re-greeningthe Sahel," said Reij.

If humanity is to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable ofclimate change, we must pursue the best options available. FMNR certainly seemsto be one of them, at least for the poorest members of the human family. "Let'slook at what's already been achieved in Africaand build on that," urged Reij. "In the end, what happens in Africa will depend on what Africans do, so they must ownthe process. For our part, we must realize that farmers in Africaknow a lot, so there are things we can learn from them as well."

Reprinted by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Hot:Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard. Copyright © 2011by Mark Hertsgaard.

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