It's not too late to fix it: A response to Jeffery Gettleman's 'Loss of Fertile Land Fuels 'Looming Crisis' Across Africa


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By John Leary, Executive Director August 2017 Kaffrine, Senegal Many of our supporters were troubled by Jeffrey Gettleman’s recent New York Times article “Loss of Fertile Land Fuels ‘Looming Crisis’ Across Africa”. Gettleman succinctly describes the problem we face when he states:
  • “40 million Africans are trying to survive off land whose agricultural potential is declining” and most families own just an acre or two, sometimes even just “slivers.”
  • And even if we could figure out how to lift these subsistence farmers out of poverty, more wealth means “more energy, more water and usually more meat, all of which intensify the pressures on the environment.”
Our supporters know something that Gettleman may not; there is a very sustainable way of elevating subsistence farmers out of poverty without intensifying the pressures on the environment.   Our supporters also know why fertile lands are degrading due to the harsh and destructive farming and herding techniques that are oftentimes the only choices subsistence farmers and impoverished Africans have without a sustainable pathway out of poverty. The future is far from the apocalyptic picture Gettleman depicts if we actually execute on the answer to the question of “Why are fertile lands degrading?” Trees for the Future has known this answer for 28 years and we have been fighting for a sustainable Earth while lifting subsistence farmers out of poverty at the same time.  The average farmer across Africa owns 1-2 acres of land and spends much of the year punishing that small plot of land in many awful ways: clearing the land, burning brush, plowing topsoil, spreading chemicals like fertilizers and insecticides– which kill just about everything except for whatever cash crop they grow– and repeating this destructive cycle year upon year until the land’s fertility is destroyed. This leaves farmers with little hope for a future as they continue these practices without considering or knowing their long-term effects. The average livestock herder is even more destructive than the farmers. Gettleman points out that livestock trample the country-side, chewing plants almost indiscriminately and often biting them down to the root collar, ruining much hope of regenerating the plants. They trample vegetation and break young trees when they scratch against them. Often, under the blanket of night, herders chop branches from trees so that their animals can eat fresh leaves in the dry season. (Gettleman mentions the illegality of this practice, but it does not deter herders from doing it.) Even worse, they may burn large swaths of land to stimulate growth of new grass, without thinking or conscientiously knowing about the devastating effects the fire has on most of the rest of the prairie ecosystem, or their farmer neighbors. The combined effects of decades of destructive farming practices and harmful herding practices, the markets that support this activity partnered with the constant deluges, unpredictable storms, and heat waves cause further degradation across Africa. That’s why, as Gettleman writes, “Some parts of Kenya are now so overgrazed by cows and goats that all the grass roots have been eaten, leaving large stretches of bare earth.” That’s why millions of people are at risk of losing the very land their futures depend upon. I am here to say that there is just no rational reason for any of this suffering. To end hunger and poverty across Africa in a way that restores and revitalizes the landscapes for future generations, we created the Forest Garden Approach at Trees for the Future. The Forest Garden Approach is a four year, field-based training program designed for low-literate farmers that guides farmers through the process of protecting 1-2 acres at a time with green walls of trees. These trees diversify a family’s sources of income and nutrition, protect the field so the family can grow more valuable and useful crops, and ultimately optimizes agricultural production on the land over space and time. Importantly, these trees also provide nutrient-dense animal fodder that can feed cows, goats, and other livestock, and they regenerate quickly over time to provide more food for the animals. The Forest Garden Approach is a flexible, scalable program that is applicable anywhere. Trees for the Future is already working in other regions of Kenya to augment farmer incomes and revitalize farmland through sustainable food and livestock fodder production. We work with those who depend on the land to think creatively on how to keep their land productive, especially when the land plots are getting smaller and smaller, and demands on the land are growing exponentially. Our solution was designed to improve the lives, livelihoods, and land of 800 million people around the world suffering from hunger. It can permanently end hunger, poverty, and the need for food aid among the 40 million people Gettleman describes. Our solution empowers communities after a 4 year training where we see farmers increasing their income over 400% and their cash and marketable crops rise from 1 – 2 crops to 8 – 12 crops per farming family. Our Forest Garden Approach plants a green wall around a field with trees that can reduce wind erosion and lessen evaporation from the field, returning moisture to the soil in dry areas. Planted in rows across a field, trees serve as barriers to water erosion and channel water into the ground where it is needed by helping more rain absorb. Tree leaf litter builds the top soils while tree roots fix nitrogen into the soil from below. In a field with trees, the soil continually gets better over time. With fruit trees and vegetables taking more space on the farm, farmers do a lot less clearing and burning, two activities that are almost necessary to grow monocrops of cereal or cash crops. With timber trees, the farmers are growing the trees they need to cut down for building and not deforesting. With fodder trees surrounding their farms, they are growing what they need to feed their livestock instead of overgrazing them. At a micro level, trees support abundant life that helps land thrive. Helpful insects, bacteria, and fungi all play critical roles in healthy soil. They break down food and nutrients so trees and other vegetation, like vegetables and staple crops, can use it. Healthy soil has diverse nutrients and forms of life, and trees are the magic ingredient for bringing back strength to degraded soil.   Trees and soil aren’t sexy, but it is everything, and saving it could help save us from conflict. Before Gettleman’s recent article, Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai warned us: “The more you degrade your environment, the deeper you fall into poverty.” The conflicts Gettleman describes are but a sliver of what is to come. We’re already seeing the waves of climate and environmental refugees fleeing degraded lands.  As I write in my new book One Shot: How Trees as our Last Chance for Survival, “Today, hundreds of countries are on the edge, just a couple droughts away from a civil war and large-scale migration” (p.134). The secret to our success has been in finding a way for people to grow wealth, health, and resilience in a way that reverses land degradation. A conflict-ridden future can be averted if we take necessary steps to revitalize the land we have now. We have the tools to fix this and reverse the losses, but we need to proactively plan for the future to address these problems. We can seize on unprecedented opportunity amidst Gettleman’s illustration of the current state of Africa by planting trees.

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