In Niger, farmers have turned no less than 5 million ha. of the Southern Sahelian provinces Maradi and Niger green. They protected and assisted spontaneous regeneration of trees in and around their agricultural fields. Between January 12th and 20th, Both ENDS colleague Marie José accompanied Chris Reij (CIS, VU University Amsterdam) to the south of Niger, to find out how farmers were able to regreen at such a large scale, and how their experiences can benefit other villages in the Sahel. Both ENDS, VU-CIS and the Centre Régional d’Enseignement Spécialisé en Agriculture (CRESA) have a joint project to spread the approach to the region of Dogondoutchi.
The technique of protecting spontanious regeneration of trees, or "Assisted Natural Regeneration” (or Régénération Naturelle Assistée, RNA), is not difficult; it requires some knowledge of trees and the seed store and root systems in the soil from which trees can regenerate. When preparing the field for the one harvest a year, the farmer prunes the regeneration in a certain way (“tailer”). All farmers in Niger who learn about the benefits of trees on their fields are ready to protect them. When we stopped at random on the roadside to ask farmers about their experiences with trees on their croplands, they told us without exception that the yields increase when the tree density is higher. It is also a very low-cost technique of producing extra fodder, while enriching the soils, enhancing food security, diversifying income opportunities and creating a natural buffer to local resilience in times of drought.
The more difficult aspect of the RNA approach is the management aspect in a society where farmers, sedentary cattle keepers, and nomadic herders belonging to different tribes have to live together. In order for the young trees not to be eaten by cattle, the cattle owners must know about the protective measures, and keep the trees safe from cattle. Cattle owners cutting leafy branches from the trees as fodder must do this in a manner that does not damage the tree, and preferably in consultation with the farmer owning the land. The farmers benefit from the presence of cattle as well, since their manure fertilises the land and contains additional seeds. This way cattle takes care of spreading seeds and diversifying tree populations. Therefore, as part of spreading the RNA approach, CRESA and their local NGO partners help set up management committees in the 46 villages in the Dogondoutchi province they work with. The village head, farmers, cattle owners, men and women are represented in these committees, and the committee is able to oversee all regreening efforts in the village, and mediate in case of conflict. The heads of the nomadic tribes are involved in dialogues at the level of the districts or departments, though they are more difficult to reach and involve.
Passing through the village of Batodi, situated on what used to be a bare plateau, it becomes very clear why farmers are so positive towards trees on their fields: after 20 years of soil improvement and RNA, the village is now surrounded by a park landscape, and the water table has risen 14 meters locally. The village has 10 vegetable gardens and a fruit orchard in development, something incredible for such a dry area. Both ENDS will continue to apply itself for spreading the RNA approach in Niger and elsewhere, as it could possibly be the most effective, low-cost and home-grown restoration option for dryland regions all over the world.