‘Over the past three decades hundreds of thousands of farmers in Burkina Faso and Niger, on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, have transformed large swathes of the region’s arid landscape into productive agricultural land, improving food security for about three million people. Once-denuded landscapes are now home to abundant trees, crops, and livestock.'
Sahelian farmers, driven to desperation by the great droughts of the early 1970s and the 1980s, have ingeniously modified traditional agroforestry, water and soil management practices to restore the fertility of their land. In Niger, farmers have developed innovative ways to regenerate and multiply valuable trees whose roots already lay under their land. This ‘farmer-managed natural regeneration’ (FMNR) was first pioneered by outside actors but was spread rapidly by farmers once they observed its success. Changes to forestry laws and reforms of government structures that enable greater decentralization and local control of natural resources have also been significant enablers of change.
In Burkina Faso, local farmers – of whom the 78-year-old Yacouba Sawadogo, winner of a Right Livelihood Award in 2018 (considered ‘the Alternative Nobel Prizes), is perhaps the most famous – experimented with zaï, which are planting pits containing manure to retain moisture and nutrients, and with stone bunds known as diguettes to hold back rainwater and allow it to soak into the soil. Farmers like Sawadogo deliberately set about leading the spread of successful techniques to their neighbours and then further afield, by creating farmer-to-farmer spaces, schools and networks, supported in their efforts by a wide range of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The results have been improved food security for some three million people; increases in household gross incomes, by an average of 18– 24%; the reversal of environmental degradation and desertification across some 6m hectares of land (an area three times the size of Wales); and around 200m new trees being grown, with a production value of over $260m. Improvements in nutrition may, in turn, help build resilience to future health pandemics.
Climatically, the changes have meant decreased soil erosion, reduced wind speed, decreases in local temperatures and increases in rainfall, along with greater biodiversity. There is also some evidence that such techniques can reduce conflict locally, both through the process itself – i.e. the negotiations between potentially competing groups that successful agroecology entails – and as a result of increasing the size of the ‘resource cake’ available to all.
Agroecology (see Box 1) in the Sahel has thus become well-known for both its multiple benefits and the ways it has spread, which have been characterized as farmer-to-farmer, people-to-people, bottom-up development, working with nature – which is contrasted with misguided, damaging, top-down, ‘experts know best’ engineering approaches to the environment and human development. Agroecological thinking is a continually evolving, living and flexible system, in contrast with stereotypical ‘project’ thinking, which is short-term, time-constrained and inflexible. This is not, however, to discount the potential positive role of other new technological advances in helping feed the world’s population.
Box 1: Agroecology
Agroecology is both a science and a set of principles. It was created by the convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology. The core principles include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.
A meta-analysis of 143 studies of soil and water conservation measures (SWCM) in Burkina Faso concludes:
‘It can therefore be concluded that the introduction of SWCM in Burkina Faso has improved agricultural productivity and food security, economic security, groundwater tables, tree regeneration, and biodiversity. It has also been efficient in reducing migration and poverty in the Sahel, especially in areas with a larger proportion of farmers and herders. These measures should be extended to other countries of sub-Saharan Africa with a similar physiographic and socioeconomic situation, such as Niger and Mali, since they have proven to be workable initiatives to improve food security and crop yield while conserving the natural vegetation and establishing a more resilient climate change adaptation and mitigation means of agriculture. Additionally, the involvement of the local farmers makes them rely on their own resources and see the government and other agencies as secondary support. It is therefore essential for project organizers to recognize the importance of building on experience and improving on local soil and water conservation (SWC) measures by promoting simple and low-cost technologies. The strengthening and reorganization of institutions is also necessary to help promote and oversee the successful implementation of SWCM.’
What farmers have achieved in 30 years across the Sahel, one of the most fragile zones on the planet, has been described as ‘the greatest agroecological success story in Africa, and perhaps anywhere’. 6 It demonstrates how environmental health is the basis of sustainable development, food security and poverty reduction; without fertile soil, no life is possible.
This case study shows how innovation and shared learning processes developed by farmers, facilitated by INGOs and also by government policy and action, can address key structural causes of poverty, catalyse horizontal scaling and contribute to poverty reduction.
But environmental health cannot be renewed and sustained just because it is a good thing. This case study shows that people’s willingness to invest energy and resources is increased or decreased depending on how far economic and political systems help or hinder those efforts. A key insight is that environmental and political trends are interdependent and act upon each other, influencing each other’s form and trajectory; as one study observes: ‘Woodland decline only reinforced centralization of power and local economic decline, and regreening sped power decentralization and local economic revival.’
The poorest people – who are extremely vulnerable – have the most to gain from regreening, but it is still unlikely to be enough to make them food-secure in severe droughts through their own production or the ability to earn cash to buy food. Therefore, enhanced environmental sustainability needs to be matched by enhanced social protection and by markets that work for all and exploration of other inclusive solutions Building some of the structures used in soil and water conservation techniques, notably zaï and stone diguettes, requires considerable labour, which can increase workloads for women. They also require money for transport, and so relatively better-off farmers are better placed to implement these techniques (in turn employing local labour). However, women may benefit greatly in the longer term due to increased food production and better access to fuel, fodder and water.
Sustainable land management specialist Chris Reij, a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI), argues that now (2020) the time is ripe for an enormous expansion: heightened concerns about the intersecting climate and food crises at global, regional and national levels mean that there are political incentives for national governments and international donors to focus on agroecology, understand its multiple poverty, environmental and climatic benefits (both for climate change mitigation and for adaptation) and therefore scale it up massively.
As regreening has progressed, and as climate and environmental concerns have increased everywhere, farmers and civil society organizations (CSOs) in other Sahelian countries have joined in (in Senegal, Mali, Ghana and elsewhere). Governments in the region and donor governments have – to some extent – been inspired to change policies to assist agroecological approaches.
Notably, the Government of Niger has made an ambitious pledge to restore 3.2m hectares of degraded land by 20309 (266,000 hectares per year), and so it needs strategies to make that happen: the learning from this case study indicates that large-scale agroecology, especially FMNR, is the best way to do it. Other governments in the Sahel have made similar ambitious policy commitments as part of a multi-government project to restore forests across 100m hectares by 2030 called the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, or AFR100. This was launched in 2015 by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the World Bank, the WRI and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The even more ambitious Bonn Challenge target is to restore 350m hectares of forest worldwide by 2030. Importantly, FMNR and other agroecological approaches are also influencing the ‘Great Green Wall of Africa’ initiative by Sahelian governments. This grandiose vision, which all governments in the Sahel have bought into, is increasingly being modified from its original concept as a vast (new) tree-planting scheme commanded from above to something more varied and appropriate and therefore more likely to succeed. Building upon existing successes in natural regeneration, it could resemble a green mosaic more than a green wall. Yacouba Sawadogo’s Right Livelihood Award in 2018 gave further impetus to this. Internationally, FMNR has spread beyond the Sahel to over two dozen countries, from Haiti to Indonesia.
However, there are many challenges that could stymie regreening initiatives and even reverse progress so far, including impacts from the climate crisis, population growth, changing social structures, land grabs and competition for land, and increasing conflicts, which are spilling dangerously across borders.
Much more needs to be done by all parties to achieve the AFR100 vision and make agroecological approaches and regeneration of vegetation the core of the landscape restoration process and not just an add-on.
Drawing on experience to date, Reij has suggested a six-step ‘scalable techniques and scaling strategy’ for national governments and international donors. These six steps are:
To identify and analyse existing regreening successes;
Build a grassroots movement for regreening and mobilize partner organizations;
Address policy and legal issues and improve enabling conditions for regreening;
Develop and implement a communication strategy;
Develop or strengthen agroforestry value chains;
Expand research activities.