A quiet but momentous agricultural and environmental transformation has been developing across southern Niger since the mid-1980s. As a result of an autochthonous process called farmer- managed natural regeneration (FMNR), farmers increased the number of on-farm trees in response to demographic and resource-related constraints. Thus, they successfully restored degraded land and increased resilience in dryland areas.
The regions of Maradi and Zinder are located on the lowest part of the Niger Plateau in south-central Niger and cover about 105,000 sq km. Both areas are located within the Sahelian and Sahelo-Sudanian climate zones, which typically receive between 200 and 600 mm of rainfall per year and have high temperatures. These regions have high population densities and "wall-to-wall” agriculture, where cultivated fi extend across virtually the entire landscape (Reij and Winterbottom, 2015).
The second half of the 20th century witnessed a dramatic reduction in mean annual rainfall throughout the Sahelian region. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC), a rainfall decrease of 29–49 percent has been observed in the 1968–1997 period, compared to the 1931–1960 baseline period within the Sahel region (IPCC, 2001).
Farmers faced significant tree losses in the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of drought, the expansion of cropland, and human pressures (Reij and others, 2009). Because few trees remained on the fields, farmers often witnessed their newly planted crops being destroyed by wind erosion. These environmental and economic crises induced farmers to invest in trees to fight desertification (Reij and Winterbottom, 2015).
In the early 1980s, farmers in southern Niger started experimenting with a process known as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR)—a low-cost way of encouraging the natural and spontaneous growth of trees and shrubs that provide useful food, fuel, and fodder (Reij and others, 2009). This practice spread from farmer to farmer, and currently about 3 million hectares (or 30,000 sq km) of land have been improved across the Maradi and Zinder regions.
The high-resolution images present a time-series view of an agricultural landscape typical of the heavily settled plains south of Zinder, in 1957, 1975, 2005, and 2014. It highlights the increase in on-farm tree density between 1957 and 2014 (on-farm trees are seen as black spots on the images). The low on-farm tree densities in 1957 reflected colonial agricultural development policies. In those days, a farmer was perceived to be modern if he farmed his crop as a monoculture and had removed most on-farm trees to facilitate ploughing the land. Extensive areas of grassy fallow can be seen in the 1957 photograph — a practice that has almost disappeared. In 1975, the number of on-farm trees approached its lowest point.
After the mid-1980s, tree densities steadily increased as farmer perceptions about tree ownership changed. By 2005, satellite images confirmed that a vast transformation was taking place. There were more villages, more people, but also many more trees (Reij and Winterbottom, 2015). This renewed resource generates a range of benefits for the population. Trees reduce wind speed and evaporation, produce at least a six-month supply of fodder for livestock, and provide firewood, fruit, and medicinal products that farm households can consume or sell. Moreover, certain tree species, such as the winter thorn acacia (Faidherbia albida), enhance fertility by adding nitrogen to the soil (Reij and others, 2009).In the 1970s, it seemed as if Niger would be blown from the map. Drought and strong harmattan winds from the desert created a general feeling of despair among the rural development community. No one could have imagined that farmers in densely populated parts of Niger would significantly increase on-farm tree densities with minimal external support. Today, the agricultural landscapes of southern Niger have considerably more tree cover than they did 30 years ago. These findings suggest a human and environmental success story at a scale not seen anywhere else in Africa.