Re-Greening the Sahel

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The Re-Greening technique is simple, low-cost and entirely managed by the farmers who till their lands. Rather than planting new trees, this technique proposes simply to protect those trees that naturally grow on the farms. Simple as it sounds, it has meant a massive change for farmers who were used to clear their lands of all shrubs, trees, trunks, roots and leaves every year before planting. The knowledge that all these organic matters feed nutrients into the soil had been lost decades ago when the idea of ‘efficient agriculture’ was brought to West Africa, separating farm lands from forests. The ‘clean’ farm lands – devoid of trees and leaves – were most vulnerable to the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, and their soil fertility continued to decline as Niger’s climate is getting hotter and drier.

Re-Greening has reclaimed almost barren land and has increased soil fertility wherever it is practised. As the trees are protected and are allowed to grow on the farm lands, they provide shade, their leaves turn into manure and even their roots and the termites that work underground have a positive effect as they make the ground porous enough for rain water to enter, thus raising ground water levels and preventing the precious top soil to be flushed away when the rains set in.

Farmers in Niger have grown more than 2 million trees in this way, a success that goes beyond the already substantial achievements of the Nobel-prize winning Green Belt movement in Kenya, but which has remained largely unreported. Experts calculate that every tree protected and managed by Niger farmers through Re-Greening produces an annual value of at least 1 Euro in the form of leaves for food, fodder, fire wood, construction wood, medicine, manure etc. Although not counted in Niger’s GDP, this is putting 200 million Euros into the pockets of Niger farmers every year.

Other countries in West Africa and Asia are practicing Re-Greening as well, but it seems that Niger tops the global list in terms of hectares and farmers’ participation. In some villages, firewood markets have been launched because research showed that there was enough surplus wood from the Re-Greening efforts to sustain its sale. This success has not come without challenges, and it has taken long years to get to 5 million hectares of re-greened farmland, as is the current estimate.

In Nigeria, just a few kilometres south of re-greened farmlands in Niger, the traditional practice of separating farmlands from forest areas still obtains. Satellite pictures of the area make Niger farmlands look green as they are dotted with trees, while Nigerian farms looks empty, appearing brown and burnt by the heat. These areas are separated by as little as 20km, with only the border in-between, but where people on both sides of the border grow the same crops, eat the same food and speak the same languages.

The Nigeria Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation invited a group of Nigerian government officials, academics and civil society representatives on a visit to southern Niger to learn about Re-Greening. The study tour was made possible by the invitation and collaboration with Abasse Tougiani of the National Agricultural Research Institute of Niger (INRAN), Chris Reij, who has followed and supported the Re-Greening efforts at the Centre for International Cooperation at the Free University Amsterdam, and Chinwe Ifejika-Speranza of the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern.

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