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HOW NATURAL REGENERATION & FARMING ARE STOPPING DESERTIFICATION

Salima Mahamoudou & Will Anderson | June 16, 2020 | 3 min read

How Natural Regeneration & Farming are Stopping Desertification

When people in North America and Europe think about trees, they often picture lush, wet forests full of tall, green trees. And when they hear about the global deforestation crisis, they immediately turn to beautiful threatened areas like the Amazonand Indonesia’s tropical forests.

What if we told you that there is another beautiful landscape that trees can transform? And what if we told you it was right South of the sprawling Sahara Desert? 

The Sahel, an expanse of drylands ranging from Senegal to Eritrea, is home to 135 million people and millions of hectares of dry forests. People living in the Sahel grapple with some of the most severe crises in the world, from severe water scarcity to violent insurgencies and food insecurity.

Decades of economic instability, coupled with exponential population growth and the increasingly small size of farms, is putting pressure on the land, water, and one of the region’s key resources: trees. In most areas of the Sahel, people have cut down the trees that lined their farms and protected their villages to collect wood so that they can cook their food and heat their homes. To find these vital resources, local people trek hundreds of miles every week to provide basic necessities for their families.

But in other areas of the Sahel, we have witnessed the transformation of this arid landscape. There, surprisingly, more people means more trees and greener landscapes. In fact, the Sahel may seem dry and unproductive to some eyes, especially those that picture tropical forests when they hear the words “reforestation” and “land restoration.” But a farmer-led movement in the Sahelian countries has been re-greening the land and transforming over 5 million hectares of degraded croplands in Niger alone since the 1980s. And the crucial twist? It was done without planting any new trees. So, how are they doing it?

Natural Regeneration

In the Sahel’s hot and dry climate, planting trees to build artificial forests where there never were forests is not the most effective solution. But sometimes, planting drought-resistant trees with a clear market value – which incentivizes people to care for and water vulnerable saplings – can bring new sources of income to communities. Neem trees, for example, produce a natural insecticide that entrepreneurs like Abdoul-Kader Lamine of Niger are producing for the market. He also engages local women-led cooperatives to protect the trees.

But the most effective solution is already lying in the ground – and it’s cost-effective. Farmers and herders are helping old trees whose roots are still alive in the hard soil sprout up and naturally regenerate. These trees, native to their area, improve water infiltration in the soil, provide shade for cattle and nutrients for crops, protect biodiversity, and reduce the surface temperature in the world’s hottest region. Most importantly, they are a major economic asset for people living in rural areas, boosting crop yields when grown on farms (agroforestry) and protecting grazing land.

Sparked by leaders like Burkinabe farmer Yacouba Sawadogo and supported by strong national policies that provide the right incentives, thousands of farmers are stepping up to teach their neighbors and relatives about the benefits of restoring their land. Thanks to radio broadcasts and meetings called by influential traditional leaders, what we call “farmer-managed natural regeneration” has caught on.

Stopping Desertification Through Farming

Photo Credit: Gray Tappan/USGS

Stopping Desertification Through Farming

But this movement hasn’t yet had the massive impact that countries in the Sahel need to reverse decades of degradation, food insecurity, and the expansion of the Sahara before it swallows up more land.

As part of AFR100, these countries have committed to restore more than 67 million hectares of land by 2030. That means that billions more trees will need to dot the Sahel.

Empowering farmers to take the lead and help the trees on their land naturally regenerate is the only path toward success. And countries, by building comprehensive strategies, measuring their progress, and creating the right incentives, can help this movement scale up its work.

Our partners at the World Resources Institute are working with entrepreneurs, governments, and community organizations to restore key landscapes in Cameroon and Niger. It’s their job to help them plan, restore, and measure their progress by advocating for a more inclusive and effective movement to restore land that recognizes the work that these farmers are achieving.

For some people in the Sahel, growing and protecting trees is life or death. Together, farmers and their allies can restore land – and hope.

Feeling inspired? Reach out to salima.mahamoudou@wri.org to learn more.

Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most

Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most

As the need for reforestation is global and ever-changing, we feature where trees are most needed now. Today, we're raising funds to create community forest spaces across England. Learn more

With your help, we will:

  • Invite educational opportunities by engaging local schools
  • Create publicly accessible woodlands for community spaces
  • Increase forest connectivity for native biodiversity
  • England, in the United Kingdom, used to have abundant forest coverage, but changes in land use have caused significant deforestation. In addition to being critical to protecting the climate, forests also build community. This reforestation project will be a highly engaging, community-led initiative to create educational opportunities, volunteer planting events, and public spaces so that everyone, including the most marginalized communities, can enjoy England's native flora and fauna.Thank you so much for your support of healthy forests! 🌲
  • These more than one million trees will make a significant climate impact, sequestering carbon and creating climate resilience by mitigating flooding and the effects of pollution. This project supports increased access to public woodland, especially for communities in need, with opportunities for community engagement and improved public health. Organizations like Forest School and Woodland Outreach will be able to integrate the project with school education to get children out in nature.
  • A personalized tree certificate (see gallery) to say thanks for your donation. We'll also send you updates about this project, so you can track the impact your trees are having on the community and environment.
  • Our partner has chosen native trees that will bring the greatest overall benefit to the area. This includes the following: Pedunculate/Common Oak, Downy Birch, Hazel, Hawthorn, Small-leaved lime, Rowan, Silver Birch, Common Alder, Aspen, Goat Willow, Field Maple, Hornbeam, Beech, Blackthorn and tens more.

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