African Farmers to the Rescue

Though deforestation rates in parts of Africa may be rising, farmers in many African countries are growing trees – lots of them.

Yale Environment 360, an online magazine focusing on global environmental issues, published an article June 13, 2023 written by Fred Pearce that tells how African farmers are improving the global climate by growing trees.

“Across the continent,” Pearce wrote, “smallholder farmers are rejecting government advice that trees should be expunged from fields because they get in the way of growing crops. Instead, they are allowing previously suppressed trees to regenerate on their land.” When they do that, they improve soils and crop yields. That provides bigger fruit harvests, supplies more fuelwood, and makes more food for livestock. And it improves farmers’ lives.

In the country of Niger, villagers often tell the story of how two farmers, who worked during the dry season at a distant mine, returned to their fields after the rains had already started. Because they were late planting their crops, they didn’t clear the field of vegetation first. When the crops matured, the villagers were astonished to see that the two farmers had better yields than their neighbors had.

The following year, other farmers also planted their crops without first clearing the vegetation. They too had better crop yields. They were disobeying everything they had been taught by colonial and government authorities that they should remove sprouting trees from their fields before planting crops. If they had continued to obey that advice, their land might have turned into desert. When they let tree seedlings and roots grow unmolested, the soil became more fertile.

Chris Reij, a dryland restoration specialist at the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C., was one of the first outsiders to visit Niger and see how the land had been transformed. He was amazed by how many trees were growing on what had been almost treeless landscapes. He found similar situations in several other African countries as well. The technique used to grow so many trees is often called farmer-managed natural regeneration.

Yale Environment 360 asked Gray Tappan, a geographer at the U.S. Geological Survey, to map the tree cover on farms in several African countries. “He used sample satellite images to estimate that there are about 1.4 billion trees on farms across sub-Saharan Africa,” wrote Pearce. Those trees store up to four tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year, which improves the global climate.

The number of trees Tappan estimated was more than three times as many trees spotted by Florian Reiner, a remote-sensing analyst at the University of Copenhagen, who worked with an international team of colleagues. Using computers and artificial intelligence, they reported in the May 2023 Nature Communication that at least 29 percent of tree cover in Africa was “outside areas previously classified as forest.”

It took Tappan’s study and Reij’s on-the-ground visit to see how many more trees were actually growing outside forested areas. Thanks to hard working farmers who heeded their own experience of what really works, more and more trees are helping to improve the soil in many African countries. And they are helping to improve the climate for all of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *