Farming the Desert – How To Turn The Desert Green


Taj Agro – All kinds of foods – Sep 12, 2020

Farming the Desert – How To Turn The Desert Green

For once there is some good news from Africa. Farmers are reclaiming the desert, turning the barren wastelands of the Sahel region on the Sahara’s southern edge into green, productive farmland.

Satellite images taken this year and 20 years ago show that the desert is in retreat thanks to a resurgence of trees. They are mainly ana trees (Faidherbia albida), a type of acacia. Wherever the trees grow, farming can resume.

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.

The results have been staggering, says Chris Reij of the Free University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who presented the results at the From Desert to Oasis symposium in Niamey, Niger, last month. In areas where 20 years ago there was barely a tree, there are now between 50 and 100 per hectare. The change is particularly striking in the previously barren Zinder region to the south.

“Where 20 years ago there was barely a tree, there are now 50 to 100 per hectare. Production of cereals has soared”
Trees create a virtuous circle of benefits. Leaves and fruits provide food, fodder and organic matter to fortify the soil. 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.

Coupled with simple measures such as ditches and holes to catch scarce rainwater and save it for irrigation, the programmes 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.

“The spiral of degradation has been reversed,” says Reij. “Since the middle of the 1980s, at least 250,000 hectares of strongly degraded land have been rehabilitated.” Production of cereals such as millet and sorghum have soared by between 20 and 85 per cent since 1984 as a result, Reij says, and vegetable production has quadrupled.

Growing desertification caused by climate change is eating into agricultural land across the world, threatening the communities depending on crops to survive. In Mali, an initiative is trying to turn deserts green again.

The “Great Green Wall” Didn’t Stop Desertification, but it Evolved Into Something That Might

The Sahel spans 3,360 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, a belt stretching across the southern edge of the Sahara. Rainfall is low, from four to 24 inches per year, and droughts are frequent. Climate change means greater extremes of rainfall as the population skyrockets in the region, one of the poorest in the world. Food security is an urgent concern. By 2050, the population could leap to 340 million, up from 30 million in 1950 and 135 million today.

Reij, now based in Amsterdam, began working in the Sahel when the soil literally was blowing away during dust storms. After years away, Reij returned to Niger and Burkina Faso in the summer of 2004. He was stunned by what he saw, green where there had been nothing but tan, denuded land. He quickly secured funding for the first of several studies looking at farming in villages throughout Burkina Faso and Niger.

For help, he called on another veteran of Africa, Gray Tappan, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey’s West Africa Land Use and Land Cover Trends Project. Flying over villages and then driving from one to the other, Tappan says they were “charmed” by what they saw. On the ground, they couldn’t see villages from a distance because there was too much vegetation.

Over two years traveling through Burkina Faso and Niger, they uncovered a remarkable metamorphosis. Hundreds of thousands of farmers had embraced ingenious modifications of traditional agriculture practices, transforming large swaths into productive land, improving food and fuel production for about 3 million people.

“This regreening went on under our radar, everyone’s radar, because we weren’t using detailed enough satellite imagery. We were looking at general land use patterns, but we couldn’t see the trees,” Tappan says. “When we began to do aerial photography and field surveys, then we realized, boy, there is something very, very special going on here. These landscapes are really being transformed.”

Yacouba Sawadogo, the African farmer who stopped the desert

Reforestation and soil conservation. This is how Yacouba Sawadogo, a simple farmer, and his family solved the desertification crisis in his village.

Threats to the forest haven’t stopped hope

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