Recovering Niger

Niger’s small farmers are recovering land and
vegetation by protecting trees and planting crops and gardens differently. The
technique is producing positive environmental and economical
results.

Small farmers in Niger are recovering land and vegetation by protecting trees and planting crops and gardens differently, according to a New York Times report by Lydia Polgreen.

Rather than clearing trees, farmers in Niger have been planting around them and selling branches, bark and vegetation. The practice is providing income and creating more vegetation in this arid, hot, semi-desert landscape. The practices Polgreen reports on have been underway for at least twenty years. Satellite images taken of the area before the trees were protected and images taken in recent months reveal a marked increase in vegetation.

As Polgreen notes, this success is surprising because it is occurring in the most populous regions of the country where deforestation and desertification have been most advanced. Where communities take control over local resources and manage utilization for viability, they can improve the local economy and the environment.

If this is true in Niger, where rainfall is the primary source of water for crops and one dry season can bring disaster, it is likely to be valuable elsewhere. Niger is one of the poorest countries on the continent of Africa. If this low-cost, labor-intensive method could be replicable it might go a long way toward changing the environmental degradation that comes with burgeoning population growth. If it results in better economic conditions it will likely also lead to reduced family size as children live to maturity and parents no longer need as many hands to contribute to family survival.

I have been in some of the villages Polgreen reports from. The techniques are simple and economical. They include planting small sustainable gardens, using simple, hand-operated pumps for water–the water table is shallow and easily depleted– applying animal dung for fertilizer, planting and protecting nitrogen fixing trees that are resistant to drought.

In one region Polgreen visited, Zinder, Church World Service, the ecumenical relief and development organization, began agricultural projects such as this in the 1970’s. An infestation of mites threatened to destroy the date palm trees that provide fruit and hold soil in this thin, desert landscape. Ladybugs, the natural predator of date palm mites, were brought in by the thousands and re-established the balance necessary to save the palm trees.

But CWS recognized the need for additional changes and assisted small farmers, many of whom are women, to plant small gardens, use hand pumps and plow animal manure back into the soil. Twenty years later, according to Polgreen’s report, these simple techniques are producing positive results. If these low-cost, labor-intensive methods work in Niger they could be a model for other regions of sub-Saharan Africa, which frequently experience drought and whose people live at the edge of famine.

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