Maradi, NigerFor centuries, rich woodlands dotted this dusty, sun-blasted region south of the Sahara. There were fat locust bean trees, wispy bushes, and sparse pockets of winter thorn and tamarind. By the time Ali Neino was a boy in the 1980s, however, just one lonely tree sprouted from his family’s land, and he could see clear to the horizon.
“There was no vegetation in between the village and the fields,” recalls Neino, 45. “No trees, no shrubs, nothing.”
Decades of drought, land-clearing, and demand for firewood had left Niger nearly treeless. Intensive farming to feed the world’s fastest-growing population ensured new trees would not take root. Government efforts to reforest in the 1970s failed. Sixty million trees were planted; fewer than 20 percent survived.
But on a recent stroll along his family’s farm outside Dan Saga, Neino pointed to the trees growing everywhere. Sun-bleached acacia trunks poked through the soil. Branches and fallen leaves littered the yellow dirt. Five kinds of acacia grew. There were fruit-bearing trees and a type of warty bush known as dooki.
In the past 35 years, as scientists begged nations to get serious about reviving forests, one of Earth’s poorest countries, in one of the planet’s harshest regions, added an astonishing 200 million new trees—maybe more. Across at least 12 million acres of Niger, woodlands have been re-established with little outside help, almost no money, and without driving people off their land. The trees here weren’t planted; they were encouraged to come back naturally, nurtured by thousands of farmers. Now, fresh trees are popping up in village after village. As a result, soils are more fertile and moister, and crop yields are up.
Neighboring countries already are racing to follow Niger’s example. But experts say other continents, too, should be looking to Niger as a model. “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.”
A return to roots
These days it’s rare to catch Neino at home, where his family grows millet, sorghum, and peanuts. He’s often greeting delegations from other villages seeking to learn about the resurrection of his region’s wooded areas. Or he’s off to Tahoua or Agadez in central Niger to teach farmers how to do it themselves.
For Neino, southern Niger’s arboreal comeback is key to the country’s future. The nation’s population, now at around 25 million, is on track to double in the next two decades. “The only way to meet the nutrition needs of Niger’s growing population is to change the system,” he says.
But to understand how Niger brought back its trees, it’s important to know how the country lost them.
Niger, the size of Germany and France combined, straddles the Sahel, the transition zone between Africa’s northern desert and humid forest that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. The Sahara swirls over two-thirds of the country, but the west, along the fertile valley of the Niger River, and south, near the border with Nigeria, always held large pockets of trees and bushes.
Much of Niger’s population lived in this wooded band. The trees and shrubs provided shade, held water in soil, and dropped forage for livestock. Farmers planted around the trunks, and when they pruned the trees for firewood or occasionally cut them down, trees re-sprouted quickly from the stumps. In Zinder, a region in the southeast, one species was revered: the winter thorn, which during the rainy season sheds leaves that then break down, nourishing soil with nitrogen while letting sunlight in.
But early in the 20th century, agronomists brought in by French colonial rulers urged farmers to remove trees—to pluck saplings and hack out stumps. The government, seeking to export peanuts, wanted Niger’s agricultural sector commercialized. It pushed farms to move from hand cultivation toward steel plows pulled by animals. That resulted in orderly fields with straight lines and perfect furrows, which left little room for trees. Many in Niger came to believe trees and crops should not mix.
By the second half of the 20th century, the population of now-independent Niger had exploded. A series of punishing droughts beginning in the late 1960s led to crop failures and famine. Springs disappeared. Wells dried up. Farmers kept clearing more trees for agriculture even as soils dried up or lost nutrients. Desperate families turned to the region’s last asset: They felled remaining trees to sell in nearby cities as cooking fuel. Women and children would walk hours to find wood.
Niger is a tough place to grow anything even when there’s shade; Niger without trees is a dragon’s lair. Temperatures regularly top 100 degrees Fahrenheit and can hit 140 degrees at the soil surface. By the mid-1980s, the country faced ecological collapse. But two parallel events would alter its course.
In 1983, a group of men who’d traveled abroad to look for work during the dry season did not return in time to clear trunks and seedlings from their fields before the rainy season. They had no choice but to plant around them. They quickly noticed something odd. Crops planted near young trees seemed to grow better and faster. The following year, it happened again. Soon, other farmers stopped clearing fields.
Falling leaves fertilized and kept soil moist. The vegetation blocked sand pushing in from the Sahara, and protected crops from wind. “It was like the entire climate changed,” Maimouna Moussa, 60, also from Dan Saga, recalls. By just the second year she was already thinning and pruning emerging stems from these fast-growing trees, providing firewood. Over time, her millet harvests doubled.
It was around this same time in the early 1980s, about 50 miles away, that Tony Rinaudo stumbled upon a stump.
Spreading the word
Since 1981, Rinaudo, a young missionary from Australia, had been in Maradi trying in vain to plant trees. He knew they would cool the air by emitting moisture, provide shade, and potentially help crops. But planting trees was taxing, and the new ones mostly died before their roots could reach the water table, which was dozens of feet deep. Local farmers, facing crisis, had little interest in waiting around years for baby trees to blossom into something useful. “They were more concerned with growing food,” says Rinaudo.
One day, Rinaudo spotted a desert bush, a fresh new stem emerging from a cut stump. Something clicked. “I’d observed cut trees regrowing before,” he says. “But it just connected it for me—all these stumps can become trees again.”
Rinaudo realized his approach had been all wrong. He didn’t need a budget and work crews and loads of young trees. He needn’t fight the weather. He just had to convince farmers to trust nature. Humans needed to get out of the way. “The real battle was over how people thought about trees,” he says. “Everything they needed was at their feet.”
Nothing about this approach was new. So-called farmer-managed natural regeneration had been practiced around the world in dryland systems for centuries. It was essentially how farmers in Niger had operated before colonialism. Rinaudo sought only to re-popularize and promote it—to convince farmers to capitalize on the deep roots their ancestors had left, both literally and figuratively, in the land.
In 1983, he began offering food to a handful of families in exchange for their willingness to experiment—not by planting trees, but by letting them grow back, at least 16 per acre. There were few takers at first. Farmers were skeptical that this would produce more food. Letting trees grow was also an invitation for thieves, who stole them in the night to sell as firewood. By 1984, many farmers, frustrated, started cutting their own trees down again.
It wasn’t long, though, before they regretted it. Almost immediately, for the few farmers who stayed the course, “crop yields were better,” Rinaudo recalls. Cassava, sweet potato, and sesame grew better. There were more edible leaves, fruit, and seeds. Fallen branches were being used for firewood; women and children no longer had to venture far for wood.
Over the next dozen or so years, into the late 1990s, Rinaudo would visit nearly 100 villages, sharing what his first crew experienced. Peace Corps volunteers in Maradi did the same. Soon, farmers were talking to one another about it. A movement began to take shape—one that Dennis Garrity, former head of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, now considers “the most outstanding environmental transformation I can think of in Africa.”
And yet outside Niger, almost no one noticed.
Forests today are under strain on every continent that has trees. Logging and forest-razing for ranching threaten livelihoods for millions, water supplies, and wildlife habitat. Climate change has increased tree-killing droughts, bug infestations, and wildfire. In two major reports just this spring, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasized again that protecting carbon-storing forests and bringing back degraded ones is essential to curb warming, along with quickly reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
But from Asia to South America and most places in between, major efforts by governments, businesses, and nonprofits to plant trees have been riddled with problems. Many tree-planting programs waste millions of dollars, inadvertently destroy pristine lands, or result in millions of dead seedlings. In some instances, investors are pouring money into tree-planting projects with shoddy track records.
Niger’s transition faced none of those issues. And yet its spread was so organic it took decades for the world to see it. Even then, the discovery happened almost by accident.
In June 2004, Dutch forest scientist Chris Reij arrived in Niger to make a presentation. A dean at the university in Niamey, the capital, mentioned an intriguing trend: Farmers in Maradi were protecting trees. So Reij headed out into the countryside.
Reij had worked in West Africa on and off since the late 1970s, and he’d visited Maradi in 1988. “It was quite a desolate place” then, he recalls. What he saw in 2004 blew him away. Everywhere he looked, young trees were sprouting.
Reij suspected there could be 25,000 acres of fresh trees, which at the time seemed like a lot. He contacted Gray Tappan, at the U.S. Geological Survey, a geographer who maps land-use and vegetation. Tappan had lived in Senegal and spent years studying the region.
Within weeks, Tappan was flying over Niger taking photographs with his 35-millimeter camera. He too was stunned. Over the next two years Tappan, Reij, and others dug deeper, traveling from western Niger nearly to Lake Chad in the southeast.
Despite Tappan’s years in the Sahel he’d heard nothing about this shift. Satellite images hadn’t picked it up; the resolution wasn’t high enough. “I didn’t realize what was going on until those field trips across Niger,” he says. Re-greening seemed to touch 80 percent of the country’s cropland.
To really begin to grasp its extent, Tappan tracked down old aerial photographs from 1957 and 1975. Only after he could compare them with his new images did he realize, “This is huge.” By 2009 he could document new growth across at least 12 million acres. Field trips told him roughly how many trees there were on a typical acre. Some villages had 20 times more trees than before.
Today, Tappan and colleagues, based on the trees they’ve seen popping up in new villages during additional field visits, suspect the regeneration may have expanded to nearly 15 million acres. Tappan thinks 200 million is a low estimate of the number of new trees in Niger. And the number is still increasing as the trend spreads.
Unlike other efforts, this one started from the ground up. No one is paying farmers for their trees. “This large-scale re-greening is all voluntary,” Reij says. And evidence suggests it can address environmental and food-security issues in Niger far better than more expensive tree-planting campaigns.
The great green wall
African leaders have promoted tree-planting since the 1970s to combat tree loss. This simple-sounding solution proved troublesome from the start. Planted trees were the wrong species or needed too much maintenance or goats dug them up or local communities with little at stake pulled trees out to sell the wood. Mostly, planted trees died.
Fifteen years ago, government leaders doubled down. Worried about the Sahara advancing south, and with the help of the World Bank, they proposed a plan to plant trees to hold back the sands: the “Great Green Wall.” This ribbon of woods would stretch across 3,500 miles of the Sahel.
Many scientists were and are skeptical, in part because of how climate change is pounding the Sahel. Niger’s temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Rainfall, once predictable, fluctuates year to year as rising ocean temperatures alter weather patterns. Precipitation is erratic, coming later and in bursts that the soil can’t absorb. That is making everything drier and hotter—but not necessarily in a way that a wall of trees could block. “The desert isn’t spreading like a front,” Tappan says. It’s spreading in patches, here and there.
A multi-billion-dollar tree-planting campaign also discounts the lessons of Niger’s success. More trees are indeed what the Sahel needs. But planting them is expensive and unlikely to succeed long term. Instead, farmers across the Sahel—and elsewhere in Africa—could be encouraged to let trees grow back naturally. The pre-colonial woodlands are still there, their deep roots buried in the ground, waiting to regenerate on their own. So far, these regenerated trees are thriving even as the weather shifts.
The benefits are there for all to see. Freed from the hours-long hunt for wood, women in Niger are making more medicines, oils, and soap from trees to supplement their incomes. Scarce resources in recent decades had driven up tensions between growers and nomadic herders; now trees in Dan Saga are drawing back herders who relish the shade, while their livestock fertilize farm fields with manure.
Tree-rich regions in southern Niger are producing an extra half million tons of cereal grains a year—enough to feed 2.5 million more people. On Neino’s family farm, “millet harvests have increased fivefold,” he says. Sorghum and peanut trees are doing better, too.
“Before, farmers often had to sow their crops two, three times after they were destroyed by strong winds that covered the crops with sand,” says Aichatou Amadou, a 50-year-old farmer from Droum in the Zinder region. Now, “I only have to sow my crop once.”
Saidou Mallam Habou, also from Droum, says, “I feel we’re using the farmland much more efficiently now than we used to before.”
An urgent good thing
To be clear, Niger remains a place where food insecurity is still among the world’s worst. Growing trees won’t be nearly enough to feed a country whose population is expanding at a lightning clip. But it certainly can help.
In 2005 and 2011, more droughts struck the country. Niger’s grain deficit hit half a million tons. Reij sent a team to examine food data over a several-year period. While many small holders faced ruin, densely populated districts that had resurrected trees actually still produced a multi-ton surplus.
Reij’s interpretation: “Where there are low population densities, people still feel that natural resources are abundant." They don’t have the incentive to do the work to manage trees. But farms that do are more resilient.
That’s why forest ecologists are trying to get more countries to innovate like Niger. Christian nonprofit World Vision, for which Rinaudo has gone on to work, sent Senegalese farmers to Niger to learn. The farmers returned home and restored 150,000 acres of woodlands. Similar stories have surfaced in Burkina Faso and Mali.
The approach is expanding into East Africa, to Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia, and it’s attracting interest outside Africa as well. It’s cheap, scales easily, and serves farmers’ needs. It may not work in every situation, but it could be used far more. Just recently, Tappan found trees regenerating naturally across nearly 8 million acres of Malawi—many less than 20 years old.
“Part of the significance of the Malawi story is that this was totally a farmer led phenomenon,” Rinaudo says. “There is no evidence of government, NGO, or other external influence. Farmers simply saw the need and the opportunity to regrow trees from stumps and did it.”
“What’s the need? It’s quite urgent,” he goes on. “What’s the potential? Absolutely enormous."