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Looking to the Sahel for Lessons in Pushing Back Deserts

Posted by Lindy on October 28, 2011

From an article by Stephen Leahy

Oct 17, 2011 (IPS) – Nearly all our food comes from the Earth’s limited food- producing lands, but those lands continue to be degraded, guaranteeing far higher food prices and less food in the future, experts warn. But degradation and desertification can be halted and reversed, as evidenced by once barren parts of Africa’s dry Sahel Region that are now green and thriving thanks to local efforts.

Without reversing ongoing land degradation, studies show food prices are estimated to increase by 30% and that there could be up to 12% less food available.  And we can’t afford to deplete our food-producing lands when there will be nine billion people by 2050.

Although the world can produce enough food for everyone, roughly one in seven people will go hungry. Why? They simply cannot afford to buy enough food. World food prices remain 15 percent higher than a year ago, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Food commodity speculation and climatic change that is bringing increased heat and changes in precipitation patterns, along with increasing demand for biofuels, have been blamed for rising food prices in recent years.

Every year, desertification results in the effective loss of some 12 million hectares of land.

Much of Africa’s western Sahel region on the edge of the Sahara desert was as barren as a concrete floor in the 1970s. Now close to six million hectares are green again and home to over 200 million trees in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Many of the trees were not  planted, it was natural regeneration thanks in part to an increase in rainfall. However, the biggest factor was the local peoples’ actions to protect the trees and develop water harvesting techniques to create an intricate agroforestry system that sustains them. And those actions were sparked by changes in government policies that essentially said: “If you plant a tree or protect a tree, you own it forever.”

Local peoples responded by constructing semi-circular mounds, planting pits, knee-high dams and impoundments to trap and hold water, nourishing trees, bushes and food plants and helping to recharge groundwater. In some areas the water table has risen five or six metres.

Using these techniques, small-scale farmers in Niger have been able to grow 200,000 tonnes of onions. Some are producing 2,000 kilogrammes of food from a hectare of land that did not produce anything.

The re-greening of this part of the Sahel has increased the region’s soil fertility, reduced temperatures, cut the number and intensity of sandstorms, provided firewood and fodder for animals, boosted biodiversity and generated other benefits with no cost to governments, he said.

The big question now is how to bring this to other parts of Africa and the world?

In Ethiopia, where large tracts of land owned by the country’s richest person were being ploughed up for a monoculture crop,  the resulting clouds of dust blow away the  land’s fertility. Semi-arid areas of the world need to shift into agroforestry that integrates trees animals and crops.

To achieve truly sustainable forms of food production, governments need to move away from monocultures and large-scale irrigation projects. A combination of plants, trees and animals can conserve and enhance the productivity of land. Studies show that where agroforestry (also called agroecology) has been applied, it has led to an average of 116 percent increases in average yield in Africa.

The best thing governments can do is support and provide incentives to their smallholder farmers to shift to agroecological methods rather than investing in big, expensive projects. Dams and large-scale irrigation are extremely costly for states, have huge environmental and social impacts and are unsustainable.


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