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Australian acacias for Africa

Posted by Lindy on May 20, 2010

While acacias are found in Africa, varieties common in Australia have the added benefit of providing human food.

In parts of the Sahel, and in particular in Niger, where deforestation seriously reduced the amount of trees between 1950s and 1980s and led in the agricultural areas to strong winds, ,high temperatures, soil erosion, infertile soils and desertification. Combined with rapid population growth and poverty, these problems contributed to chronic hunger and periodic acute famine.

Whilst drought and crop failure is still a problem in Niger – the last severe famine was in 2005 – there are areas where farmers have been able to protect and regenerate degraded land and combat the effects of desertification. Building on twenty years of successful and sustainable agricultural approaches tried and tested by the Maradi Integrated Development Project (MIDP), farmers have been encouraged to take up an integrated agroforestry farming system. These involve a range of multi-purpose Australian acacias, other agroforestry trees, crop residue mulching and annual crops.

Natural regeneration of trees by farmers, known as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), has proved particularly successful. It provides firewood, building timber, improves crop yields, increases biodiversity and provides valued income to farmers. With this system, trees are owned by farmers and seen as beneficial and it is one of the few sustainable and expanding agroforestry systems in the Sahel.

Meanwhile MIDP’s has also involved the testing and domestication of several edible Australian acacias. These perennial species grow rapidly, are well adapted to infertile soils and produce seeds that can be easily harvested and processed into nutritious human food. As a result, a significant number of communities in the area are known to be regularly consuming acacia-based foods, particularly derived from Acacia colei ( one particularly good speie). Take-up was slow until MIDP joined with World Vision Niger to launch a more concerted approach to promoting the multiple benefits of acacias. This developed  into the Farmer Managed Agroforesty Farming System (FMAFS), which is an alley cropping, agro-pastoral forestry system that incorporates FMNR of trees along with high seed and wood-producing acacias.

During 2006-7, over 350 FMAFS were established in 33 villages, which has led to increased production of acacia seed. An Australian firm, Kalkardi Ltd, bought up 4,550kg and paid US$0.40 a kg, which stimulated interest. The farmers then went on to use the tree in ways not envisioned by MIDP – using the seed pods as fertiliser side dressings, using water from soaking acacia bark to increase the strength of mud-plaster, and the medicinal use of acacia leaf juice to treat fever and stomach upsets. Acacia foods, such as local dishes made with acacia flour, have become widely and enthusiastically accepted in the villages where it is grown. The food is valued for its taste and, since acacia-based foods are more filling, consumption of staple grains is reduced, so that more is available for use at a later date or for sale. Other uses include as windbreaks, reclamation of degraded land, biomass production for mulch and organic matter, firewood, feed for honey bees, and livestock, they also contribute to soil fertility through fixation of atmospheric nitrogen (they are legumes)


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