In Niger, some 200 million trees sprouted across 5 million hectares over the last four decades without planting a single one, thanks to the relentless efforts of thousands of farmers who understood the importance of the vegetal species to have more fertile, moister soils and increase crop yields.
“It’s a really inspiring story,” says Sarah Wilson, a postdoctoral forest researcher at Canada’s University of Victoria, who studied Niger’s rebirth. “It’s the kind of restoration we want. It just spread from farmer to farmer.”
The Sahara Desert covers two-thirds of Niger, but along the Niger River and near the border with Nigeria, there are pockets of trees and bushes where most of the population lived at a time when farmers were practicing hand cultivation, mixing trees and crops. In 1983, a return to the roots occurred when a group of men couldn’t clear trunks and seedlings from their fields before the rainy season. Therefore, they planted around them and noticed that crops growing near young trees grew better and faster. Year after year crops improved through farmer-managed natural regeneration, the technique practiced before colonialism arrived. Experiments were made, like letting at least 16 trees grow back – instead of planting new ones – on every half of a hectare. Due to positive outcomes, a movement took shape, and a growing number of farmers applied the technique on their own land. The number of trees continues to grow as the trend spreads. Nigerien farmers’ efforts are an inspiration for other Sahel bordering countries, and letting trees grow back naturally could play an important role in the Great Green Wall tree-planting campaign aimed at halting the progression of the Sahara Desert.