Saturday, 3 March 2007

From Little Acorns Forests Grow

Flying across Africa is an awesome experience for many reasons but one of the most amazing is looking down on the vast expanses of desert. But it can also be depressing: the deserts are, well, deserted. Deforested and dry.

Reminds me of a line in a song "Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing." And, by the same token, where the heck are all the trees. In the simplest terms deforestation throughout the world has led to low rainfall, soil erosion and crop failure as we are all too well aware.

In Africa the problem has historically been that wood has been (and often still is) needed for fuel and shelter. We are not talking here of the recent - shocking and unnecessarily - wide-spread deforestation that occurs in some areas of South America or the Far East in pursuit of roads and ranches.

Everyone is aware of the long term problem of deforestation in Africa and there have been - and currently are – many worthy initiatives to plant trees and many to improve irrigation: the best of these give the power to the local population by showing them 'how to'.

There have been success stories of course but, considering that an enormous amount of money has been spent on tree planting, projects to date have been disappointing. Very often the newly planted trees don't flourish and often they die: in some areas the trees are the property of the government and farmers are not rewarded for looking after them.

But - without any large global initiative, without masses of money - some farmers in Niger have halted the encroachment of desert, have encouraged tree growth and are succeeding with their crops. They are showing the world how to do it the low-tech way.

Quite simply, instead of clearing their lands of naturally occurring young saplings when they plant their crops, they have left them to grow. After many years these indigenous saplings have grown into trees and provide shelter for the crops and, as their roots anchor the soil, erosion has reduced dramatically.

The farmers now consider these trees theirs and nurture them; the mature trees provide them with additional income from seeds or fruit and as such are more valuable as a crop than as firewood.

In addition they are planting ground cover between crops – either inter-cropping or sowing 'green manures' – both of which combat soil erosion and reduce water evaporation. Additionally, the fallen leaves and manures add organic matter to the soil which helps retain moisture and increases soil fertility.

And they are using inexpensive, simple, irrigation methods to help it all along. Low and behold, for a fraction of the cost of major tree planting initiatives, these farmers have succeeded in greening their environment and reducing poverty.

This is not to say that we shouldn't encourage tree planting wherever we can, but it does show that when farmers are empowered - when they can see and get the benefit of crops and income for themselves - they are the best innovators and custodians of their land. From little acorns forests grow.


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