European Union leaders are wrestling in with a surge in “boat people,” tens of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean in dangerous boats in the hopes of finding a better life. While media reports have focused on the political crises spurring this migration, there's another driver—land degradation and food insecurity.
Almost half of the world’s original forests have been cleared or degraded. So naturally, most people think of the “forest restoration” movement as an effort to re-plant these lost trees.
But it’s time to see restoration as more than just the trees.
Experts recently said that 20 million people in Africa's Sahel will face hunger this year, requiring $2 billion in food aid. The question is: Can the Sahel cost-effectively and sustainably increase food production?
Innovative farmers are beginning to demonstrate how agroforestry and other relatively simple practices can significantly boost food production in Africa’s drylands. In fact, according to a new WRI working paper, improving land and water management on just 25 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s 300 million hectares of prime cropland would result in an additional 22 million tons of food. This strategy could go a long way towards sustainably feeding Africa—and the world.
If you want to know how to grow crops in the face of climate change, drought, and land degradation, ask Ousséni Kindo, Ousséni Zoromé, or Yacouba Sawadogo—three farmers in Burkina Faso’s Yatenga region.
Policy makers, researchers, and NGO representatives gathered earlier this year at a workshop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to discuss strategies on combating food insecurity and adapting to climate change. Attendees at the event—organized by the group Network for Participatory Approaches to Research and Planning (Réseau MARP Burkina)—heard from several of Burkina Faso’s farmers on how they produce food on degraded lands. The farmers and participants provided interesting insights into climate-smart agriculture methods—including how to scale up these practices throughout the nation.
President Obama is in Africa this week to discuss development, investment, health, and, notably, food security. The trip comes on the heels of the president’s groundbreaking announcement of a U.S. Climate Action Plan. So it’s a fitting time for Obama and other global leaders to take notice of a strategy that addresses both climate change and food security in Africa—re-greening.
Re-greening—a process where African farmers manage and protect trees that grow on their farms, rather than cutting them down—is already beginning to transform the continent’s drylands. Supporting and scaling up the low-tech process can not only increase crop yields in drought-prone regions, it can mitigate climate change and reduce rural poverty.
The History of Re-greening in Africa’s Drylands
Re-greening in Africa first garnered international attention back in 2007, when the New York Times published a front page article entitled “In Niger, Trees and Crops Help Turn Back the Desert.” Lydia Polgreen, who was the NYT’s West Africa bureau chief in those days, had visited Niger and reported “at least 7.4 million newly tree-covered acres.” The NYT article revealed that this large-scale re-greening was not due to expensive tree-planting projects, but was the result of farmers protecting and managing young trees that regenerated on their cultivated land.
This re-greening did not happen everywhere. It was observed in particular in dryland regions with high population densities. Life in dryland areas presents many challenges, and farmers and decision makers are continuously searching for ways to restore their resilience and agricultural productivity.
African farmers currently face a crisis. Droughts and unpredictable weather, in combination with decreasing soil fertility and pests, have caused crop failure on many of the continent’s drylands.
But there are solutions—namely, low-cost farmer innovations. Chris Reij, a Sustainable Land Management Specialist with Free University Amsterdam and a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute, is leading the charge in this area. Reij facilitates the “African Re-greening Initiatives,” a movement that supports collaboration among partners working at the local level to help African farmers adapt to climate change and develop productive, sustainable farming systems.
Reij has received much acclaim for helping develop innovative solutions to Africa’s forests and food crises. His work has been covered by The New Yorker, The Nation, and the New York Times, just to name a few. Today, July 12th, Reij will appear on PBS NewsHour.
I recently sat down with Reij to talk about one of the most promising trends in African agriculture: farmer-managed re-greening.