In 1977, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) adopted a plan of action to beat back the rapid growth of deserts in the world. By 1991, however, the U.N. concluded that while some local progress had been made, “the problem of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas had intensified.” By 2003, the organization reported that fully one quarter of the Earth had become degraded, and that every 10 years an area the size of France, Germany and Switzerland is lost to desert.
What is desertification? Many people mistakenly assume that the growth of deserts is a natural phenomena; but according to UNCCD, desertification involves “a gradual process of soil productivity loss and the thinning out of the vegetative cover because of human activities and climatic variations such as prolonged droughts and floods,” in arid and semi-arid regions. The agency blames overcultivation, overgrazing, poor irrigation practices and deforestation as the main human-created causes; climate change is likely to play an increasing role in the future.
The consequences of desertification are devastating for ecosystems and communities. According to the UNCCD, desertification reduces the land’s resilience to natural climate variability, makes soil less productive, damages vegetation, undermines food production and contributes to famine.
The current humanitarian crisis on the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, is a shocking reminder of the potentially devastating effects of land-degradation and desertification. According to the United Nation’s FAO, Ethiopia lost 19 percent of its tree cover between 1990 and 2010 – this in spite of the long-term anti-desertification efforts of governments and NGOs.
However, amidst partial successes and outright failures of aid agencies to stem or reverse land-degradation and desertification, one effort stands out.
Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration
Beginning in Niger in the 1980s, Tony Rinaudo, an African aid missionary, began working with farmers to develop a new approach to reforesting degraded landscape. Niger, a nation on the edge of the Sahara desert, faces extreme conditions for planting. When he arrived, Rinaudo describes farmers planting and replanting millet seed in 30 mile per hour winds and scorching heat—crops that failed over and over in the same season, failing to germinate or soon after germinating attacked relentlessly by locust, borer insects, crows and other animals. Meanwhile, herders faced perennial shortages of fodder for their livestock leading to high mortality for the animals.
After several years working on famine relief and conventional but unsuccessful tree planting, Rinaudo had an insight: he noticed that scattered across much of the landscape were stumps or seedlings of trees that make up what he calls an underground forest ready to rise above ground with only a little care and protection.
The practice he developed involved selective pruning of shrub shoots to a main stem, which was then pruned of its lower leaves and branches. Whereas previously, these native sprouting trees were either plowed under or burned with crop residues, they were not protected. Within a few years, new woodlands were growing.
It turns out, says Rinaudo, that what he and others had thought of as a great battle against the encroaching Sahara was in fact a mirage; it was not the desert to the north that was the enemy—it was a combination of attitudes, customs and unwise government policies that were degrading the land.
Previously, farmers believed that growing trees amidst productive fields would reduce their yield; Rinaudo showed them, however, that properly spaced and pruned trees actually increased crop yield, by as much as 2 to 3 hundred percent, all while providing an additional source of fodder and firewood. Even within a short period of time, there was enough residue form pruned trees to provide mulching for fields—increasing soil water retention and reducing evaporation.
Because of the simplicity and low-cost of this approach, today farmers have regenerated more than 30,000 square kilometers of Niger using the technique, which is called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). In addition to its local benefits for farmers and for water management, regrowing the underground forest at a large scale serves as a carbon sink as well, and could therefore be an important part of managing the effects of global warming. The Humbo Assisted Regeneration Project which uses FMNR techniques in Ethiopia has received money from The World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund, which supports projects that sequester or conserve carbon in forests or agricultural ecosystems.
Last month, Rinaudo talked about his work at the international permaculture convergence in Jordan. Today the practice is spreading to other African nations and other parts of the world as well.