April 17, 2018
By John Leary, Executive Director of Trees for the Future
Water is vital to all forms of life. Yet in recent years, water has been one of the most unpredictable and unreliable elements for farmers. The impacts of climate change, coupled with increased demands on finite resources, have forced farmers to make changes to survive. Through the Forest Garden Approach, farmers across Africa are finding the answer.
In our projects, farmers can take back control of water by planting a diverse combination of trees and crops on their land that spread and infiltrate water, acting as a living sponge during the rainy season. This starts with the roots of thousands of trees planted in a Living Fence around the field, creating pathways for water to channel back into the ground. As the leaves of these trees fall, they provide food for microscopic life in the soil. When the soil is revived with a thriving microscopic community, it can retain more water for plant use. This water stored in the soil is called ‘green water’ and can be used directly by plants, preventing the need for irrigation. Mulching the land with tree leaves can help retain 20 to 70 percent of this green water for an entire dry season. We see this in our projects. The rains come in August and September, but the trees hold and use this green water for seven months, delivering ripe juicy fruits in April, during the driest time of the year.
Unlike other resources, water returns to us from the sky in unpredictable ways. While our projects in East Africa experience increasing droughts, our projects in Senegal see flooding during times of year when rain never fell before. Managing these unpredictable rainfall patterns requires a fundamental change in the way farmers produce food on their land. Decades of abuse through monocropping, overgrazing, and the application of agrochemicals has robbed the land of trees, soil, moisture and nutrients.
Planting Forest Gardens allows farmers to take tangible actions to manage water on their land before flooding or drought occurs. This becomes increasingly important as climate and weather patterns change. In a monocrop system, if the rains come too early or too late, the crop is lost. In a Forest Garden, whether the rains come in early June or late August, the trees act as a natural storage and release system. This ensures that the farmer is not dependent on large dams and irrigation channels, or on water rights decisions made in air-conditioned high rises. The farmer has his or her own hidden water storage system. Farmers begin to have control again. They now have control over the water on their land, as well as control over what they grow. Trees give farmers the ability to put the limited amount of water they have to use throughout the year. In the dry season, when the vegetable gardening ends, tree fruiting begins. When nothing else is growing, and the monocrop fields lie dormant, Forest Garden farmers are harvesting jujube berries and cashews fruits while they wait for the next cycle of annual cropping to begin. The trees and mulch shade the soils from excessive evaporation, keeping the soil neighborhoods alive and ready to absorb the monsoon rains.
Like industrial farming, large decentralized water infrastructure will only accelerate our collapse. For small farmers, these systems are out of reach. As the future climate becomes more unpredictable, farmers must adopt a methodology that protects their land, diversifies their crops, and optimizes their natural resources. From the clouds to the surface and below, trees bring the rain and capture the water that falls. Forest Gardens allow farmers, at no cost, to plant rain and grow water.