Regreening Africa could help both people and environment, says report

A new report on the impact of deforestation in Africa suggests that integrating more trees and shrubs into farmland could not only benefit the environment, but also improve food security and even reduce the likelihood of people becoming refugees

Many parts of Africa have been deforested by the expansion of agricultural land. This loss of trees has many detrimental effects. Soil erosion increases because trees no longer block wind and their roots no longer hold soil together. Soil fertility decreases because the input of nutrients in the form of organic matter like leaves from trees vanishes. Renewable sources of fuel and building materials are lost when trees are removed to convert land to agricultural landscapes.

Chris Reij and Robert Winterbottom, senior fellows of the World Resources Institute, have written a report detailing efforts to reverse the trend of deforestation in agricultural landscapes in Africa, a practice that they define as “regreening.” In the report Scaling Up Regreening: Six Steps to Success, A Practical Approach to Forest and Landscape Restoration, Reij and Winterbottom describe methods by which regreening may be able to occur at landscape levels.

The authors define regreening success as “situations in which significant numbers of farmers, individually or collectively, have developed ways to protect, regenerate, and sustainably manage an increased number of shrubs and trees in their farming systems.”

The objective of their report is to provide a framework for farmers and policy makers in governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to develop regreening success at meaningful scales. In the report, Reij and Winterbottom explain the challenge of defining the scale at which regreening success needs to be developed, and why it is important to do so.

“Regreening is a practical and relatively low cost approach to begin to address issues of degradation, rural poverty, food insecurity and vulnerability to climate change.”

“The meaning of ‘regreening at scale’ depends on the context. It can refer to farmers regreening thousands or even millions of hectares over the course of several years or a couple of decades. If millions of hectares of agricultural land are degrading because of wind or water erosion and depletion of soil fertility, then it does not help when these problems are addressed on a few hundred or even a few thousand hectares. The problem needs to be addressed on millions of hectares.”

The authors use the Seno Plain in Mali as a case study of large-scale regreening. This deforested region of West Africa has been regreened to the extent that there are now 450,000 hectares of what the authors term “medium to high-density parkland,” meaning that much of this land now has trees and shrubs again. Most of this regreening has been achieved by a process called farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), defined by the authors as “the protection and management of naturally occurring trees and shrubs regenerated through roots and seeds present in the soil.”

The authors believe regreening may offer a possible solution to the chronic economic and political instability in some regions of Africa.

“Certainly, we can expect more rural households to be facing increased hardships from climate change, and increased likelihood of becoming refugees if nothing is done to address the root causes of land degradation, declining agricultural production and increased food insecurity, chronic poverty, etc,” Winterbottom told Mongabay. “And we think scaling up regreening (particularly FMNR) is a practical and relatively low cost approach to begin to address these issues of degradation, rural poverty, food insecurity and vulnerability to climate change.”

Regreening may even help reduce the instability that causes refugee migration.

“We don’t have the hard evidence, but experience points to that direction,” Reij told Mongabay. “In 2001 we did a study in Burkina Faso in villages with and without investments in water harvesting and agroforestry and the demographic dynamics between the ‘with’ and ‘without’ case were evident: negative demographic growth in villages without (with one exception) and positive demographic growth in villages with investments.

“It’s not possible to stop migration entirely, but investments in regreening/restoration create income earning opportunities and they help slow down migration.”

In addition to Mali, the report describes regreening case studies in Ethiopia, Malawi, and the Sahel region of Niger. From their findings, Reij thinks that regreening and the agroforestry systems that support it can benefit most regions of Africa. “I would argue that all situations with high population densities and wall-to-wall agriculture offer opportunities for developing or intensifying agroforestry systems,” he said.

However, even if regreening can indeed improve agricultural conditions and related issues like food security, how likely is it to catch on in Africa? Winterbottom and Reij think the odds are good that it can be practiced widely.

“There is a growing community of development practitioners, supporters and technical specialists working on food security, climate change resilience, poverty reduction and other sustainable development goals and objectives that have observed the benefits of regreening and are considering how to scale up adoption of regreening practices and extend those benefits to more people,” Winterbottom said.

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Reij added: “A movement is slowly but surely developing around regreening. In April a regional conference for Southern Africa was held in Malawi and it drew 560 participants from many African countries.”

But while awareness of regreening is spreading through the agricultural development community in Africa, there are still obstacles to mainstream acceptance.

“Several people from the Bill Gates Foundation have been briefed on the results and benefits of regreening, and the widespread adoption of FMNR and related practices…regreening still does not appear to be mainstreamed in their programs – perhaps because they rely on agronomists and crop scientists who have a tendency to ignore the value and contribution of trees and shrubs on cropland,” Winterbottom said. “But with climate change, and the observed limitations of conventional approaches in sustainably boosting yields while generating other benefits (increased supplies of fodder, firewood, diversification of sources of income and increased rural incomes, increased resilience to climate change, etc) particularly in Africa, in time, we are hopeful that Gates and others seeking to have a positive impact on agricultural production and food security will read the report and invest to a greater degree in scaling strategies for regreening.”

First published by Mongabay