June 16, 2020 3 min read

by Salima Mahamoudou and Will Anderson

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 Amazon and 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.

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 to learn more.


We plant trees on 4 continents around the world. Want to choose where yours are planted?

by Salima Mahamoudou and Will Anderson

World Resources Institute



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