Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Something to feel good about

A grassroots agricultural revolution is – almost unnoticed by the outside world – spreading across West Africa's Sahel desert

A grassroots agricultural revolution is – almost unnoticed by the outside world – spreading across West Africa's Sahel desert
The bushes turned out to be clusters of shoots from the buried stumps of trees.

The shoots could never grow much before being cut or eaten by livestock, but when Rinaudo pruned them down to a single stem and kept the animals away, they shot up into substantial trees within four years.

As the trees grew, so did crops. 

And as local farmers began reaping good harvests, neighbours and visitors followed suit. 

Now, two decades later, some 200 million trees have been regenerated in this way, covering five million hectares of Maradi and the neighbouring region of Zinder, enabling the growing of enough extra grain to feed two-and-a-half million people.

Nor is this all. 
Satellite images have shown that the same technique has been used successfully over 485,000 hectares of next-door Mali. 
And it is known to have spread to Senegal and the Niger regions of Tahoua and Dosso, though no one has had the resources to quantify it.
This was only one of the success stories that emerged at a conference in Switzerland this week on land restoration. 
Counter-intuitive techniques developed by Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean farmer and biologist, are successfully revitalising 15 million hectares of degraded land on five continents, by grazing livestock very intensively on small areas for short periods: their dung and the grass they trample enrich the soil, mimicking the natural practices of the once-vast herds of gnu or American bison.
Farmers converting to organic agriculture in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe, have boosted their annual incomes from $50 to $900 in a single year. 
Some 400 sand dams, built across rivers in East Africa and India, have enabled 97 per cent of farmers to increase production. 
And the revival of traditional water-harvesting techniques in Marwar – “the land of death” – in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, has enabled enough fodder to be grown to support a million cattle.
Besides increasing harvests and reducing poverty, all this helps combat climate change. 
The Sahel’s regenerated trees can take 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere per hectare, while Savory believes that such intensive grazing on just half the world’s available land could return concentrations to pre-industrial levels.
Just as importantly, it addresses the main cause of the 80 per cent of the world’s conflicts that occur in the drylands, as the degradation forces nomadic herds on to land occupied by farmers’ crops –and at a time of rapid population growth. 
Expanding productive land is the best way to ease this and, indeed, the number of conflicts in Niger has fallen by four-fifths in those areas where trees have been allowed to regenerate.
Rinaudo – who now works internationally for World Vision – still finds that previously “hopeless” people “dance and sing” when they discover the underground forest, and how they can “change their lives, and the world, with a pruning knife”.
Geoffrey Lean

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