Desertification: Rooting out the Problem with Trees

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More than 1.5 billion people in the world depend on degraded land, and about three quarters (74%) of them are impoverished¹.  For 250 million of these people, their plight has a name—desertification².  Desertification³, or land degradation occurring in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, is driven by both natural and man-made factors, and it is leaving farmers across sub-Saharan Africa thirsty for answers.  Desertification is not only scraping at the back door of families in places like West Africa. It is already in their homes and affecting their livelihoods in the most fundamental way.  It is seen in the meals they eat, and the meals they don’t.  In this region where agriculture is the backbone of the economy and land is often a person’s most valuable asset, desertification means devastation. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, has a higher proportion of people living in poverty than any other region in the world, and 80% of these impoverished people depend upon agriculture or farm labor for their livelihoods⁴.

As the land dries up, so does peace.

But it’s not just about livelihoods or even food security.  In places like Nigeria, desertification is a threat to peace.  It is here that competition between nomadic cattle herders and farmers for the land that is increasingly swallowed by the Sahara desert has resulted in a conflict between the groups that has killed more people this year than Boko Haram⁵. Similarly, in Ghana, Fulani herdsmen from neighboring countries who have been forced to migrate in search of pasture have been destroying  property across local villages⁶.  As the land dries up, so does peace.

Desertification is not just their problem.  It is all of ours.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by 2050, there will be one third more mouths to feed and that global food supply will need to increase by about 70% to feed them⁷. In a world where we are losing both agricultural land and people to urbanization, this means that efficiency gains will need to be made on the land we already have, that we cannot afford to lose any more, and that some of the land that has already been lost will need to be restored.  Africa will be a key piece of the solution.

In the semi-arid places of West Africa, such as in Senegal where Trees for the Future works, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the Sahara Desert is encroaching at a rate of five kilometers per year. 

Photo credit: NASA
Photo credit: NASA

So what can be done?  In order to answer this question, you must understand the drivers of desertification, which are both environmental and man-made.  Many forces that propel serious desertification in across the world are related to larger global environmental processes like climate change and natural disasters such as drought⁸. We have also seen initiatives along the “Great Green Wall” route across Africa where governments and organizations have planted massive bands of Eucalyptus trees, which have been shown to actually dry out the groundwater tables. In our experience, and that of others like the World Agroforestry Centre,  this is the wrong approach using the wrong type of tree in the wrong place⁹. Combatting desertification from natural processes using trees shown to further degrade the soil is not going to work.

On the human side, the causes have more to do with practices¹⁰.  If you zoom in on Google Earth to view many of the cities located in arid lands along the south side of the Sahara Desert, you see a ring of desert growing around those towns from overgrazing, groundwater overdraft, certain tillage practices such as the removal of vegetative cover, and deforestation. Farming, land use change, unsustainable land use practices all contribute to a loss of soil moisture content and increase the vulnerability of land to the gradual forces of desertification.  These practices are inextricably linked to poverty, and so the solutions must be, too.

These practices are inextricably linked to poverty, and so the solutions must be, too. Trees for the Future knows this…

Trees for the Future knows this, and that is why it promotes solutions for farmers that are not only environmentally sustainable, but also economically smart. Through its Forest Garden Program, Trees for the Future works at the nexus of all of these drivers of desertification.  By training farmers and giving them the tools to establish vibrant Forest Gardens, or agroforestry systems on 1 to 2 hectares of land, Trees for the Future provides families with the means to achieve sustainable food sources, secure sufficient livestock feed, grow products for market and improved livelihoods, enrich their diets, and thrive on land that had been previously parched and withered.  These trees not only provide cover to help farmers retain the soil moisture content that the process of desertification tries to reap, but also supply a wealth of co-benefits, contributing to ecological and dietary diversity, carbon sequestration, and improved soil fertility for farmers facing expensive fertilizer markets.  Trees for the Future truly works on behalf of the poorest farmers to create a socially, economically, and environmentally resilient world, protecting farmers and their families from crises of climate, personal finance, and health.

On a field level, it is incredible to see the transformation that planting the right trees can bring about. Through their roots, trees fix nitrogen in the soil and promote the growth of many fungi and other microbes necessary for soil health. This microlife makes many nutrients available for vegetation to intake and vice verse. The leaf litter that many agroforestry trees drop help to build topsoils. This organic material mixed into the topsoil encourages microlife to flourish and helps soil trap moisture that sustains life in dry times. Every farmer in Trees for the Future’s program plants thousands of trees, many of which are nitrogen-fixing trees that revitalize tired soils.

Senegalese farmer and his son show off their field full of a variety multi-purpose trees and plants that help to halt desertification and bring food, fodder, and income to their family.
Senegalese farmer and his son show off their field full of a variety multi-purpose trees and plants that help to halt desertification and bring food, fodder, and income to their family.

Trees for the Future also accomplishes these monumental tasks in a way that is affordable.  Even scholars agree that agroforestry systems are one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to improve soil health¹¹, and at trees.org, just $10 provides essential tree seeds for one family to start on their path of growth.  In the semi-arid places of West Africa where the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the Sahara Desert is moving at an annual rate of five kilometers— a dusty frontline that smothers livelihoods and robs families of fertile land—the solutions need to move faster.  Proactive measures need to be taken to protect households from environmental and economic shock, and investments need to be made in the future of the land and people.  In Senegal, Trees for the Future has already invested in the futures of 8,983 farmers who participate in its Forest Garden program.  The work of TREES is literally grounded in a philosophy of advancing soil health, food security, climatic stability, nutrition, and ultimately, peace.

In Mbentinki, Senegal, women gather around to fill planting sacks for their new nursery.

In Mbentinki, Senegal, women gather around to fill planting sacks for their new nursery.

It’s time to stop treating our soil like dirt

If you agree and think it’s time to stop treating our soil like dirt and combat desertification,  click here to support farmers in Senegal and others like them across Africa.

Article Post Written by Amanda Grossi, Trees Contributing Columnist 

 


1) http://www.unccd.int/en/media-center/MediaNews/Pages/highlightdetail.aspx?HighlightID=275
2) http://www.unccd.int/Lists/SiteDocumentLibrary/Publications/factsheets-eng.pdf
3) http://www.unccd.int/en/resources/Library/Pages/FAQ.aspx#answer0
4) http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/Y1860E/y1860e04.htm
5) NewAfrican, Issue 562, June 2016 (in print only and purchased in Dakar, but website for publication is http://newafricanmagazine.com/#
6) (Marc, Alexandre, Neelam Verjee, and Stephen Mogaka. The Challenge of Stability and Security in West Africa.)
7) http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_
Global_Agriculture.pdf
8) http://www.unccd.int/en/programmes/Thematic-Priorities/CC/Pages/default.aspx
9) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/12/19/the-great-oasis
10) http://www.fao.org/docrep/x5321e/x5321e04.htm
11) Cheikh Mbow, Meine Van Noordwijk, Eike Luedeling, Henry Neufeldt, Peter A Minang, Godwin Kowero, Agroforestry solutions to address food security and climate change challenges in Africa, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 6, February 2014, Pages 61-67, ISSN 1877-3435, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2013.10.014.
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877343513001449)

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