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Desertification: Rooting out the Problem Using Trees


World Soil Day is December 5th

More than 1.5 billion people in the world are dependent 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 just 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 proven more deadly 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 farmers to urbanization, 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.

See also  Tour a Forest Garden

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”

So what can be done?  In order to answer this question, we must understand the drivers of desertification, which are both environmental and man-made.  Many forces that propel serious desertification from 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 viable. 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 one to two 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.

See also  7 Ways Forest Gardens Promote Independence
“Senegalese farmers plant a variety of multi-purpose trees and plants that help to halt desertification and bring food, fodder, and income to their family.”

On the farm 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 biodiversity makes many nutrients available for vegetation to intake and vice versa. The leaf litter that many agroforestry trees drop help to build topsoils. This organic material mixed into the topsoil encourages biodiversity 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.

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 Trees for the Future is accomplishing this with our Forest Garden Approach.  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.  Trees for the Future has invested in thousands of farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa and helped to approve the lives of more than 26,000 people – all through the power of trees. The work of TREES is literally grounded in a philosophy of advancing soil health, food security, climatic stability, nutrition, and ultimately, peace.

It’s time to stop treating our soil like dirt

Click here to stop treating our soil like dirt, combat desertification, and support more farmers across Africa.

See also  Planting it Forward in Ikinu, Kenya


5) NewAfrican, Issue 562, June 2016 (in print only and purchased in Dakar, but website for publication is
6) (Marc, Alexandre, Neelam Verjee, and Stephen Mogaka. The Challenge of Stability and Security in West Africa.)
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,

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