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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

A Quiet Desert Storm

March 9, 2012

A home-grown strategy to hold onto water, battle climate change, and cope with scorching heat is turning vast tracts of sub-Saharan Africa green.

By Mark Hertsgaard

Stories that sound too good to be true usually are;  an honest journalist learns that pretty early in his or her career. But every so often there is an exception. The exception I’m about to describe is from Africa, which makes it doubly welcome. For Africa is not only the continent where our species was born; it is also the continent climate change will hit the hardest.

Part of what makes Africa so vulnerable is that it is already one of the hottest, driest places on earth. The most famous desert in the world, the Sahara, occupies the northern third of the continent. Below that is the Sahel, a strip of savanna that stretches like a belt across the width of the African landmass, separating the Sahara and Sahel from the rainforests to the south.

The day I entered Mali, in May 2009, its famed traveler’s destination of Timbuktu ranked as the hottest city in the world at 114°F (45°C). I spent that night about a hundred miles to the south, on the Plateau Dogon, a rocky, sun-baked area known for its ancient cliff-side burial sites. The lodgings were very basic, a cross between campsite and budget hotel. I was assigned to a square concrete room with a cot, a mosquito net, and a fan that didn’t work. An outdoor shower offered a brief trickle of water that was still hot from having sat in a tub on the roof all day. As I lay down to sleep, there was not even a whisper of breeze. I tossed and turned all night, unable to drop off despite my exhaustion.

Friends later assured me, back in the comfort of the United States, that the relentless heat bothered Sahel natives less because “they are used to it.” There is some truth in that, though not as much as outsiders often think.

People in the Sahel may be more accustomed to heat, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from it. A couple of days later in Burkina Faso, I got to know a schoolteacher named Tirouda Sectard. Tirouda looked about thirty, and he was luckier than most. He moonlighted as a radio producer, and that gave him occasional access to a studio—more of a closet, really—that had to be air-conditioned to protect the equipment. We collaborated on a radio story one day, and afterward I asked him how local people survived the heat, confessing that it sometimes left me all but unable to function.

“The same for us,” he replied. “The same for us. It is too hot.” Air conditioning helped, he said, but of course most locals had no access to it. “Most people suffer,” he said. A pained look came over his face. “It is very bad for the old people,” he added. “Old people die every day when it’s this hot. The heat is too much for them.”

Yet temperatures in Africa are expected to rise substantially in the years ahead and droughts worsen. According to a 2009 study coauthored by Marshall Burke, a professor at Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment, six countries in the western Sahel—Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Chad—will face temperatures by 2050 that are “hotter than any year in historical experience.” How peasants on the Plateau Dogon and other sun-baked areas in the western Sahel will manage this extra heat is difficult to fathom.

A second reason Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change is that it is the poorest continent on earth. Africa has the world’s largest proportion of very poor people (those earning a dollar a day or less) and its largest proportion of chronically hungry people. Most African governments are also poor, so their capacity to adapt is quite limited. The southern African nation of Malawi lacked a working barometer when a New York Times reporter visited in 2007—no surprise, since the total budget for the government weather service was a mere $160,000 a year.

So when I first heard about the phenomenon that drew me to the western Sahel—that thousands of farmers were deliberately and fairly successfully adapting to climate change, despite not knowing the term—you can see why it sounded too good to be true. I had to go see for myself.

Reporting on climate change is often a cheerless task, but in the western Sahel I observed a quiet green miracle that convinced me that all is not lost. Using simple techniques that cost them nothing, millions of small farmers throughout the region have begun protecting themselves against the scorching heat and withering drought of climate change. Their methods amount to a poor man’s version of organic farming: fortifying soil with manure rather than chemical fertilizer, growing different crops on the same piece of land (known as intercropping), relying on natural predators to counter pests rather than applying pesticides. In the process, farmers in the western Sahel have rehabilitated millions of acres of degraded savanna that was on the verge of becoming desert, thus increasing the amount of land available to grow food. The transformation is so stark and pervasive that it is visible from outer space, courtesy of satellite images recorded by the U.S. government. Food yields have risen substantially; malnutrition has decreased. To be sure, the western Sahel remains a severely impoverished place where population growth is much too high and education and employment possibilities are scarce. And it is an open question how long these adaptation methods will remain effective if the outside world doesn’t reverse global warming soon; every form of adaptation has its limits. But if some of the poorest farmers in the world can achieve so much, it suggests the rest of us can do even more. And talk about sounding too good to be true: the greening of the Sahel also points to a partial solution to the mitigation half of the climate challenge—to the need to slash the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. For the moment, suffice it to say that farmers in the western Sahel have achieved their remarkable success by deploying a secret weapon often overlooked in wealthier places: trees. Not planting trees. Growing them.

Yacouba Sawadogo was not sure how old he was. With a hatchet slung over his shoulder, he strode through the woods and fields of his farm with an easy grace. But up close his beard was gray, and it turned out he had great-grandchildren, so he had to be at least sixty and perhaps closer to seventy years old. That means he was born well before 1960, the year the country now known as Burkina Faso gained independence from France, which explains why he was never taught to read and write. Nor did he learn French. He spoke his tribal language, Mòoré, in a deep, unhurried rumble, occasionally punctuating sentences with a brief grunt. Yet despite his illiteracy, Yacouba Sawadogo is a pioneer of the tree-based approach to farming that has transformed the western Sahel over the last twenty years.

“Climate change is a subject I have something to say about,” said Sawadogo, who unlike most local farmers had some understanding of the term. Wearing a brown cotton gown, he sat beneath acacia and zizyphus trees that shaded a pen holding guinea fowl. Two cows dozed at his feet; bleats of goats floated through the still late-afternoon air. His farm in northern Burkina Faso was large by local standards—fifty acres—and had been in his family for generations. The rest of his family abandoned it after the terrible droughts of the 1980s, when a 20 percent decline in annual rainfall slashed food production throughout the Sahel, turned vast stretches of savanna into desert, and caused millions of deaths by hunger. For Sawadogo, leaving the farm was unthinkable. “My father is buried here,” he said simply. In his mind, the droughts of the 1980s marked the beginning of climate change, and he may be right: scientists are still analyzing when man-made climate change began, some dating its onset to the mid-twentieth century. In any case, Sawadogo said he had been adapting to a hotter, drier climate for twenty years now.

“In the drought years, people found themselves in such a terrible situation they had to think in new ways,” said Sawadogo, who prided himself on being an innovator. For example, it was a long-standing practice among local farmers to dig what they called zai—shallow pits that collected and concentrated scarce rainfall onto the roots of crops. Sawadogo increased the size of his zai in hopes of capturing more rainfall. But his most important innovation, he said, was to add manure to the zai during the dry season, a practice his peers derided as wasteful.

Sawadogo’s experiments proved out: crop yields duly increased. But the most important result was one he hadn’t anticipated: trees began to sprout amid his rows of millet and sorghum, thanks to seeds contained in the manure. As one growing season followed another, it became apparent that the trees—now a few feet high—were further increasing his yields of millet and sorghum while also restoring the degraded soil’s vitality. “Since I began this technique of rehabilitating degraded land, my family has enjoyed food security in good years and bad,” Sawadogo told me.

Aerial photographs of southern Zinder, Niger, show the increase in on-farm trees. Photos by Gray Tappan, US Geological Survey, EROS Center

Chris Reij [a Dutch environmental specialist at VU University Amsterdam] and other scientists who have studied the technique say that mixing trees and crops—a practice they have named “farmer-managed natural regeneration,” or FMNR, and that is known generally as agro-forestry—brings a range of benefits. The trees’ shade and bulk offer crops relief from the overwhelming heat and gusting winds. “In the past, farmers sometimes had to sow their fields three, four, or five times because wind-blown sand would cover or destroy seedlings,” said Reij, a silver-haired Dutchman with the zeal of a missionary. “With trees to buffer the wind and anchor the soil, farmers need sow only once.” Leaves serve other purposes. After they fall to the ground, they act as mulch, boosting soil fertility; they also provide fodder for livestock in a season when little other food is available. In emergencies, people too can eat the leaves to avoid starvation.

The improved planting pits developed by Sawadogo and other simple water-harvesting techniques have enabled more water to infiltrate the soil. Amazingly, underground water tables that plummeted after the droughts of the 1980s had now begun recharging. “In the 1980s, water tables on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso were falling by an average of one meter a year,” Reij said. “Since FMNR and the water-harvesting techniques began to take hold in the late 1980s, water tables in many villages have risen by at least five meters, despite a growing population.” Some analysts attributed the rise in water tables to an increase in rainfall that occurred beginning in 1994, Reij added, “but that doesn’t make sense—the water tables began rising well before that.” Studies have documented the same phenomenon in some villages in Niger, where extensive water-harvesting measures helped raise water tables by fifteen meters between the early 1990s and 2005.

Over time, Sawadogo grew more and more enamored of trees, until now his land looked less like a farm than a forest, albeit a forest composed of trees that, to my California eyes, often looked rather thin and patchy. Trees can be harvested—their branches pruned and sold—and then they grow back, and their benefits for the soil make it easier for additional trees to grow. “The more trees you have, the more you get,” Sawadogo explained. Wood is the main energy source in rural Africa, and as his tree cover expanded, Sawadogo sold wood for cooking, furniture making, and construction, thus increasing and diversifying his income—a key adaptation tactic. Trees, he says, are also a source of natural medicines, no small advantage in an area where modern health care is scarce and expensive.

“I think trees are at least a partial answer to climate change, and I’ve tried to share this information with others,” Sawadogo added. “I’ve used my motorbike to visit about a hundred villages, and others have come to visit me and learn. I must say, I’m very proud these ideas are spreading.” In November 2009 Sawadogo flew to Amsterdam and Washington, D.C., to address conferences on climate change, food security, and poverty. His message was the same one he gave me: “My conviction, based on personal experience, is that trees are like lungs. If we do not protect them, and increase their numbers, it will be the end of the world.”

Sawadogo was not an anomaly. In Mali, the practice of growing trees amid rows of cropland seemed to be everywhere. A bone-jarring, three-hour drive from the Burkina Faso border brought us to the village of Sokoura. By global standards, Sokoura was very poor. Houses were made of sticks covered by mud. There was no electricity or running water. Children wore dirty, torn clothes, and more than a few were naked, their distended bellies hinting at insufficient diets. When one of our team let an empty plastic bottle fall to the ground, kids wrestled for it as if it were gold. Yet to hear locals tell it, life was improving in Sokoura.

It was a five-minute walk from the village to the land of Omar Guindo. Missing a front tooth and wearing a black smock over green slacks, Guindo said that ten years ago he began taking advice from Sahel Eco, a Malian NGO that promotes agro-forestry. Now, Guindo’s land was dotted with trees, one every five meters or so. Most were young, with such spindly branches that they resembled bushes more than trees, but there were also a few specimens with trunks the width of fire hydrants. We sat beneath a large tree known as the “Apple of the Sahel,” whose twigs sported inch-long thorns. The soil was sandy in both color and consistency—not a farmer’s ideal—but water availability and crop yields had increased substantially. “Before, this field couldn’t fill even one granary,” he said. “Now, it fills one granary and half of another”—roughly a 50 percent increase in production.

Back in the village, we examined the granaries, which were built by layering mud over stick frames. Oblong in shape, the structures had sides that were six feet wide and fifteen feet tall. A notched tree trunk served as a ladder to an opening near the top. Reij was the first to climb, serenaded by jovial laughter from the crowd below; it was not often these villagers got to see a white man make a spectacle of himself. Reij played to the crowd, joking about being too clumsy to manage such a steep ladder and asking one of the grannies to help him. After inspecting all four granaries, the Dutchman descended, turned to me, and exclaimed, “This is thrilling.” Pointing to the closest granary, he said, “This one still has a little millet in it. The next one is more than half full, the third is totally full, and the last is a third full. What that means is, this farmer has tremendous food security. It is now May. Harvest will be in November. So he has plenty to last his family until then and even some in reserve.”

As word of such successes travels, FMNR has spread throughout the region, according to Salif Ali, a neighboring farmer. “Twenty years ago, after the drought, our situation here was quite desperate, but now we live much better,” he said. “Before, most families had only one granary each. Now, they have three or four, though the land they cultivate has not increased. And we have more livestock as well.”

After extolling the many benefits trees have provided—shade, livestock fodder, drought protection, firewood, even the return of hares and other small wildlife—Salif was asked by one member of our group, almost in disbelief, “Can we find anyone around here who doesn’t practice this type of agro-forestry?”

“Good luck,” he replied. “Nowadays, everyone does it this way.”

Perhaps I should re-emphasize here that these farmers were not planting these trees, as Nobel Prize–winning activist Wangari Maathai has promoted in Kenya. Planting trees is much too expensive and risky for poor farmers, Reij said, adding, “Studies in the western Sahel have found that 80 percent of planted trees die within a year or two.” By contrast, trees that sprout naturally are native species and more resilient. And, of course, such trees cost the farmers nothing.

Even naturally sprouting trees were off-limits to farmers until laws were changed to recognize their property rights. Tree management was traditionally part of normal agricultural practice here, Salif explained; it was encouraged by the Barahogon, a voluntary association of farmers to which both Salif and his father belonged. But the practice was largely abandoned after first colonial and later African governments declared that all trees belonged to the state, a policy that gave officials the opportunity to sell timber rights to business people. Under this system, farmers were punished if they were caught cutting trees, so to avoid hassles they often uprooted seedlings as soon as they sprouted. In the early 1990s, a new Malian government, mindful that forestry agency officials had been killed in some villages by farmers furious about illegal burning of trees by forestry agents, passed a law giving farmers legal ownership of trees on their land (though farmers did not hear about the law until NGOs mounted a campaign to inform them via radio and word of mouth). Since then, FMNR has spread rapidly. Recently, farmers even shared their knowledge with officials visiting from Burkina Faso—twenty mayors and provincial directors of agricultural and environmental agencies. “They seemed astonished to hear our story and see the evidence,” Salif recalled. “They asked, ‘Is this really possible?’”

Recognizing farmers’ property rights was equally crucial in Niger, according to Tony Rinaudo, an Australian missionary and development worker who was one of the original champions of FMNR. “The great thing about FMNR is that it’s free for farmers,” Rinaudo told me. “They stop seeing trees as weeds and start seeing them as assets.” But only if they’re not penalized for doing so. In Niger, said Rinaudo, FMNR had a hard time gaining traction until he and others convinced government officials to suspend enforcement of the regulations against cutting trees. “Once farmers felt they owned the trees in their fields, FMNR took off,” Rinaudo recalled.

The pattern has been the same throughout the western Sahel: FMNR has spread largely by itself, from farmer to farmer and village to village, as people see the results with their own eyes and move to adopt the practice. Not until Gray Tappan of the U.S. Geological Survey compared aerial photos from 1975 with satellite images of the same region in 2005 was it apparent just how widespread FMNR had become: one could discern the border between Niger and Nigeria from outer space. On the Niger side, where farmers were allowed to own trees and FMNR was commonplace, there was abundant tree cover; but in Nigeria, the land was barren. Reij, Rinaudo, and other FMNR advocates were surprised by the satellite evidence; they had had no idea so many farmers in so many places had grown so many trees.

“This is probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all of Africa,” said Reij. Combining the satellite evidence with ground surveys and anecdotal evidence, Reij estimated that in Niger alone farmers had grown 200 million trees and rehabilitated 12.5 million acres of land. “Many people believe the Sahel is nothing but doom and gloom, and I could tell lots of doom-and-gloom stories myself,” he said. “But many farmers in the Sahel are better off now than they were thirty years ago because of the agro-forestry innovations they
have made.”

What makes FMNR so empowering—and sustainable—Reij added, is that Africans themselves own the technology, which is simply the knowledge that nurturing trees alongside one’s crops brings many benefits. Thus FMNR’s success does not depend on large donations from foreign governments or humanitarian groups—donations that often do not materialize or can be withdrawn when money gets tight.

Outsiders do have a role to play, however. Overseas governments and NGOs can encourage the necessary policy changes by African governments, such as granting farmers ownership of trees. And they can fund, at very low cost, the grassroots information sharing that has spread FMNR so effectively in the western Sahel. Although farmers have done the most to alert peers to FMNR’s benefits, crucial assistance has come from a handful of activists like Reij and Rinaudo and NGOs such as Sahel-Eco and World Vision Australia. These advocates now hope to encourage the adoption of FMNR in other African countries through an initiative called “Re-greening the Sahel,” said Reij.

“Before this trip, I always thought about what external inputs were required to increase food production,” Gabriel Coulibaly said at a debriefing session after our fact-finding expedition. Coulibaly, a Malian who worked as a consultant to the European Union and other international organizations, added, “But now I see that farmers can create solutions themselves, and that is what will make those solutions sustainable. Farmers manage this technology, so no one can take it away from them.” ❧

Excerpted from HOT by Mark Hertsgaard. Copyright ©2011 by Mark Hertsgaard. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Illustration ©Edel Rodriguez