Trees help bring the conditions of peace – if you know how

Guest Post by Rishabh Khanna.
This year’s Right Livelihood Award carries an important message: if farmers using simple techniques can restore hundreds and thousands of hectares of degraded land in Africa then there is hope we can feed the world. We may, however, need to ditch some deep-rooted ideas. At Vi I Skogen ‘s Award Seminar in November, recipients Tony Rinaudo and Yacouba Sawadogo presented Agro-foresty to an enthralled and enthusiastic audience.

The standard practice of clearing trees to make fields for farming brings unintended consequences. The 1980 drought left Niger in a serious food crisis that led to some farmers encouraging tree growth to retain water in the soil. Tony Rinaudo, started by sharing the startling fact, that an increase in 1 percent of organic matter in an hectare of land increases the water holding capacity of the land by 144,000 liters. In Niger he said they were able to double the crop yield by simply adding trees in the landscapes. He explained to the audience that rather than planting trees, the focus is on pruning, selecting and protecting the trees that are already trying to grow.

He demonstrated to the audience how he prunes trees to encourage them to grow better, be healthier and all the dead roots and shoots can be used as a fuel by the local community.

Quick demonstration of pruning to invigorate tree growth (and get firewood)

Tony said that the key to successful agroforestry movements is to give them the permission to use their forests with education on how manage their land in a sustainable manner. Farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR) is not owned by Tony or any other organization; it needs to be owned by the farming communities.

When he was asked by his own deeper purpose, and why he moved to Niger, he shared his story of his childhood from Australia. As a young boy, he was burdened by enormous inequality between the rich and the poor. He prayed to God to be put in a place where he would be useful. In the early 80s, he had the calling to go and work in Niger. He started encouraging and supporting bringing tree growth back. At first there was an enormous push-back from the village, as the assumption in those days was that trees and crops don’t go together. The famine of 1984, made things personal for Tony.

At first 10 people from 10 villages to start planting 40 trees per hectare, this grew to 500,000 hectares as it came under the food for work program. Later, when the government incentive was removed 25 percent continued with the practice.  Those farmers who did this practice noticed bumper yields in their land. Thanks to organizations like World Vision andWorld Resources Institute, there are now more than 24 countries where farmers practice FMNR. In 2012, at meeting in World Agro-foresty  Centre in Kenya, they shared that such a movement would spread across the Sahel.

The government in Niger realized their mistakes and has now integrated Agroforestry in their national strategy. The division between forestry and agriculture is artificial and can be at the root of drought and poor productivity. Niger understands that it is incumbent on government to create an enabling environment. And it does not take a massive investment in technology: with few resources Tony and his team in Niger have managed to restore 5 million hectares of land in 20 years.

Yacouba Sawadogo discovered theAgroforestry model of farming 45 years back and had similar success to Tony’s in restoring the land. In the follow-up panel discussion, Yacouba’s son said that tenure and user rights are essential as this is a very long-term process. Gender too, is big challenge in Burkina as most of the land is owned by men, so women can be in a very difficult position. This practice of Zai is spread all over west Africa including in Niger, Mali, Burkina and Guinea.

The potential is huge: trees are not only water retainers. When it comes to ecosystem services, some trees recycle nutrients and some trees can be used in the management of pests. They all sequester carbon. This area of Agro-foresty as provider of ecosystem services is inadequately studied.  

A lot of work waits to be done; according to World Bank there are two billion degraded hectares of land in the world. In terms of soil carbon, Agro-foresty is said to reduce 2.14 tons of CO2 per year per hectare.  There is a lot more research needed on the socio-economic benefits of Agroforestry, too. In terms of building resilience, there is one study that showed that FMNR practices have already reduced the risk of flooding in 2,783 hectares. This workshop truly inspired me to learn more about Agro-foresty methods, FMNR and how it can be applied in other contexts.

Rishabh Khanna, Initiatives of Change, (IofC)  focuses on the individual and the connection of personal transformation and global change. IofC looks for the synergies of change; encourages people to find their purpose, their connection to the world and to be a changemaker.

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