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Q&A: Sustainable Land Management Specialist Chris Reij Discusses Re-greening in Africa

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.

What is re-greening?

Re-greening is about farmers who have decided to protect and manage trees that regenerate spontaneously on their farms. None of these trees have been planted—they emerge spontaneously because there is a seed bank in the soil or there’s a root system underground that’s still alive.

So why are farmers protecting these trees rather than clearing fields, as many farmers do?

More trees on farmers’ fields means wind speed is reduced and local temperatures are decreased a little bit. An increasing number of trees in fields helps to restore soil fertility, and some produce fodder for livestock as well as fuel wood and other useful products and services. Trees produce a lot of good things for farmers, which explains why farmers in Africa’s drylands are increasingly interested in increasing the number of trees on farms.

What are some of the other benefits?

There is a considerable impact on food security. Professor Yamba Boubacar of the University of Niamey in Niger and a colleague did a quick study at the end of last year to look at the relationship between on-farm tree densities and food security. Niger was affected by drought and crop pests last year and has a cereal crop deficit in 2012 of 500,000 to 600,000 tons. The researchers found that a district with a high population density and high on-farm tree density produced a surplus of almost 14,000 tons of grain last year.

In 2005, I spoke to farmers in a village that had a lot of trees. That was also a famine year. The farmers in this village said not a single child in their village died because of famine because they were able to prune and cut trees and sell them on the market. With that money, they could buy expensive cereals. So although the year was harsh, they were able to make both ends meet.

<p>Chris Reij is a Sustainable Land Management Specialist at the Free University Amsterdam and a Senior Fellow at WRI.</p>

Chris Reij is a Sustainable Land Management Specialist at the Free University Amsterdam and a Senior Fellow at WRI.

Where is re-greening happening?

We have all kinds of success stories—the biggest is in Niger, where farmers have protected and managed 5 million hectares with trees. We are talking about 200 million new trees since 1985.

It’s also happening in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, and in some areas of Senegal. Gray Tappan of the US Geological Survey used high-resolution satellite images to look at farmer-managed re-greening in Mali’s Seno Plains and concluded that it’s about 500,000 hectares.

There are many smaller and bigger examples of farmers who have begun to protect and manage on-farm trees. The reason why they do it is because to them, it is the lowest-cost way of intensifying agriculture and diversifying rural production systems. They don’t have to go to the market to buy external inputs. They don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers or transport large volumes of manure or compost. And they can rely on a broader range of products and sources of income and reduce their dependence on a single, rain-fed annual crop. They have basically integrated agriculture, forestry, and livestock.

<p>Faidherbia trees improve soil fertility and produce fodder for livestock. Photo credit: Chris Reij</p>

Faidherbia trees improve soil fertility and produce fodder for livestock. Photo credit: Chris Reij

How can re-greening be expanded and scaled-up?

There are various pathways for scaling-up. One of the fundamental ways is creating a grassroots movement, where farmers learn from other farmers. Let’s put farmers on a bus and bring them to farmers who have re-greened, and let them exchange experiences. If you or I were to tell farmers this is a good technique, farmers would be skeptical. But when they hear it from farmers working under similar conditions who have achieved good results, then the message gets across. A second way is to use local radio stations, and give the floor to farmers who have already done it. They present their experiences to other farmers by using the radio.

It’s important to create a grassroots movement, but that’s not enough. You also need to work on national agriculture policy and forest legislation so that these policies stimulate farmers by removing barriers and increasing the incentives to invest in natural resources in general and trees in particular. Bottom-up should meet top-down, but there are many ways that lead to Rome. There’s a whole package you can use to try to promote the horizontal spreading of re-greening.

You facilitate the African Re-greening Initiatives, which began in 2009. What is this project, and how does it help expand re-greening?

The African Re-greening Initiatives’ basic approach is, let’s identify successes with re-greening and expand the scale of these successes. It organizes farmer study visits. Besides that, it brings local, regional, and national policymakers to areas where farmers have already done the re-greening in order to influence their thinking and get farmer re-greening on their radar screens.

For example, our partners in Mali organized competitions around re-greening. The last two years, 860 farmers registered themselves as being the best agro-forestry farmer in that particular region. A technical committee visited the fields of each of those farmers to see what they had done, and every single farmer received a prize. The prize was a piece of cloth with an imprint that said “Re-greening the Sahel.” Now many farmers wearing the same piece of cloth recognize each other as being part of the same movement.

What are some of the problems you experience in trying to expand re-greening?

One of the problems is that it’s all quite low-cost. In looking back on where success was achieved and how, it did not require sustained, expensive inputs from donor agencies and reliance on direct intervention by governments; rather, farmers themselves provided the main source of innovation and investment. Yet, donor agencies and national governments seem to be more interested in high-cost projects. The total cost of facilitating and supporting the scaling up of re-greening may still be significant, but we aren’t talking about hundreds of millions of dollars—with tens of millions we can make a contribution to increased food security in Africa’s drylands. Another constraint is if you look at ministries, the Ministry of Environment tends to be more preoccupied with natural forest, and the Ministry of Agriculture tends to be mainly preoccupied with cereal crops. So on-farm trees tend to fall a little bit between two chairs. But whether or not there will be more success is whether village communities will invest in it. So getting the message across to village communities is vital. And there are still a lot of other issues.

Why is it imperative that more re-greening happens soon?

In the drylands of Africa, a perfect storm is brewing. In many African countries, farmers no longer know how to plan their agricultural calendar because rainfall has become so unpredictable. Climate change is happening, soil fertility is being depleted , crop yields are in many areas are falling or not increasing as before, and the population is doubling in the next 20 years. How are we going to reconcile that? If we delay action, the problems are only going to become a lot bigger. We have an opportunity now. So let’s grab it.

Visit the African Re-greening Initiatives website to learn more about re-greening in the Sahel. You can also tune into PBS NewsHour today, July 12th, to watch a special segment about farmer-managed re-greening in Niger.

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