Niger’s re-greening revolution

In just 20 years, tens of thousands of farmers in southern Niger have re-greened around 5 million hectares of once degraded farmland and significantly improved their livelihoods. A new booklet by the World Agroforestry Centre explains how this has been achieved and the challenges that remain in research and scaling-up the practice which has brought about a re-greening revolution.

The Quiet Revolution: How Niger’s farmers are re-greening the parklands of the Sahel details the transformation which has occurred through farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). This is the twelfth booklet in the Centre’s Trees for Change series profiling agroforestry success stories across the developing world.

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country’s population has grown to 17 million from around 2 million in 1950. Three quarters of the country is desert and its people have suffered from severe droughts and widespread malnutrition in recent decades.

Rich forested areas once occurred in the country but demand for firewood and wood products by an increasing population has led to deforestation. Large tree-planting programmes led by the government have failed, possibly due to a combination of ill-defined rights over trees and little involvement from local communities.

The booklet tells the stories of how farmers in Niger, such as Ali Miko from Dan Saga, have benefited from FMNR. He says families now have more wood to sell, women spend less time gathering firewood, there is more fodder for livestock, household incomes have risen and almost every family owns a cart. Ali Neino says most farmers used to get yields of around 150kg of millet per hectare but now they get over 500kg without the need for mineral fertilizers. Rabi Saadou explains that trees now protect the soil from wind, making sowing crops easier, and they also provide her with wood that she can use for cooking or sell.

The transformation began when farmers noticed how migrant workers, who didn’t have time to clear their fields and left shoots that sprouted from underground roots, appeared to doing much better at sowing crops. The shoots were coming from remnants of an ancient forest that had been cleared during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Tony Rinaudo, who managed a development project in Maradi region, noticed the benefits of the dense network of living roots that existed under crop land. He encouraged farmers to prune and conserve regenerating trees. Word soon spread, and when the benefits became clear, extension agencies and NGOs began promoting the practice.

FMNR involves farmers choosing 5 or more of the strongest stems from stumps to retain on their land, sometimes allowing them to develop into full-size trees. They prune away the remainder of stems. The retained stems can be periodically harvested to provide firewood and timber. The species and density of trees vary from place to place.

Satellite imagery shows that approximately 5 million hectares of once degraded farmland now supports medium to high densities of tree cover in the Maradi and Zinder regions of southern Niger.

Anecdotal evidence from farmers suggests that the simple, low cost practice of FMNR has succeeded in increasing cereal yields. While this is backed up by some studies, scientists quoted in the new booklet say much more research is required if the practice is to be replicated elsewhere.

Besides greater cereal crop yields, the additional trees provide fuelwood and saleable wood, adding significantly to farmers’ incomes. Many, such as the baobab provide edible leaves and fruits; important during times of drought. Trees also provide fodder for livestock and nuts and fruit than can be processed into oil as well as being a source of traditional medicine.

A discussion paper by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) claims 1 hectare of FMNR can increase cereal yields by an average of 100kg. It calculates that FMNR contributes enough extra food to satisfy the needs of 2.5 million people. An economic assessment by the World Agroforestry Centre found that trees such as Faidherbia albida, which acts as a natural fertilizer, fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the soil through its roots, has helped to increase yields. Another study has shown that the tree can greatly increase the nitrogen content of soil and increase millet yields by up to 150 per cent.

Scientists are keen to know more about the optimum tree densities, pruning regimes and species which farmers can use to optimize their benefits. Also, how does the age distribution of trees affect soil health and crop yields, and how can natural regeneration be combined with the use of fertilizers to gain maximum yields? There is a need to better understand how FMNR affects soils, environmental services such as water retention, and the micro-climate.

The booklet notes that several challenges remain for the future. The gains made over recent years are threatened by rapid population growth. Farmers will need to increase their productivity and make their farms more resilient to climate change. To achieve productivity gains, FMNR may need to be integrated with micro-dosing using mineral fertilizers, better water harvesting techniques and the use of improved seeds.

Download the booklet: The Quiet Revolution: How Niger’s farmers are re-greening the parklands of the Sahel