Native acacia trees planted along terraces on the Ader-Doutchi Plateau, Niger © Gray Tappan/USGS

West Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, increasing the demands on already limited land, water, and forest resources. The region’s landscapes are already affected by degradation, particularly in the fast growing agricultural lands where natural vegetation cover has been removed, and fragile soils have been exposed to wind and water erosion. Since 1975, West African forests have declined from about 131,000 sq km to just 83,000 sq km. Much of that deforestation was driven by agricultural expansion, which doubled in area between 1975 and 2013, and now extends over 1,100,000 sq km — larger than the size of Mauritania. Poor management of agricultural land contributes further to deteriorating landscapes. With so much of the natural habitat being replaced and fragmented by agriculture — and the increased degradation that is often associated with it — there is a critical need to restore degraded and deforested land at scale. While degraded savannas and other natural landscapes can be targeted for restoration, this also applies to agricultural lands where so much of the vegetation cover has been removed and biodiversity has been decimated. 

Much of the 1,100,000 sq km currently in agriculture can benefit  from restoration — greener landscapes with a mosaic of vegetation cover types provide benefits that boost agricultural productivity, improve food and water security, increase biodiversity, boost resilience to climate change, reduce disaster risk, and improve soil fertility.

Tree Parkland
An aerial view of a dense tree parkland on cropland near Bambey, Senegal © Gray Tappan/USGS

There are reasons to be optimistic that restoration at scale can be achieved. A large area of the semiarid Sahel, centered on Niger but also including parts of Mali and Burkina Faso, has shown a remarkable transformation over the past 30 years. Landscapes that were once denuded are now home to high- density on-farm trees, which help improve soil fertility and produce fodder for livestock. Several simple techniques used by farmers in Niger have been unleashed on a large scale due to the empowerment of local groups and communities. The general term for these techniques is “re-greening” — the transformation of degraded landscapes into productive and resilient farmland through widespread adoption of agroforestry and related sustainable land management practices (Reij and Winterbottom, 2015).

There are several techniques for integrating trees into agricultural landscapes. One of the most successful and beneficial is the practice known as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). In Niger, farmers use FMNR to regenerate and multiply valuable trees whose roots already lay underneath their land, encouraging tree growth in their fields. Niger farmers have improved about 5 million hectares (or 50,000 sq km) of land— now producing more than 500,000 additional tons of cereals per year (Reij and others, 2009). As a result of FMNR, vast areas of southern Niger are greener and more tree-covered (see The success story in southern Niger). Agricultural income is up, and food security has been enhanced, even in drought years. The FMNR approach has increased resiliency and decreased Niger’s dependency on external food aid. 

In 2015, the World Resources Institute (WRI) published a report  on  the  steps  needed to scale up re-greening to a wider area, providing a practical approach to landscape restoration (Reij and Winterbottom, 2015). The report focuses primarily on re-greening of agricultural lands through a range of processes. These include the development of new agroforestry systems by farmers who manage natural regeneration of shrubs and trees, the rejuvenation of old agroforestry parklands, the management of natural regeneration on abandoned cropland and degraded land, and improved management of grazing lands by pastoralists through protection and regeneration of trees and shrubs that are sources of browsing for livestock. The WRI considers farmer-managed natural regeneration to be one of the most promising approaches to re-greening in the Sahel. Re-greening can also be applied to the Sudanian and Guinean Regions.

The WRI report (Reij and Winterbottom, 2015) summarizes the major benefits of re-greening:

  • Trees help restore, maintain, and improve soil fertility by maintaining or increasing soil organic matter.
  • Trees help solve the household energy crisis by providing fuelwood, which reduces the burden on women.
  • Trees provide poles for construction and manufacture of furniture and tools, as well as fences for gardens.
  • Re-greening practices improve household food security, and fruit and leaves have a positive impact on nutrition.
  • Trees are assets that provide“insurance and banking services,” which can be drawn on in crop-failure years and times of need.
  • Many tree species in agroforestry systems produce nutritious fodder.
  • Trees increase the total value produced by a farming system and help reduce rural poverty.
  • Trees reduce wind speed and wind erosion.
  • The shade of trees reduces soil surface temperatures and lowers evapotranspiration.
  • Trees contribute to biodiversity and the restoration of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes.
  • Increasing the number of trees in the landscape helps mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon.

Contrary to first impressions, the re-greening that has occurred across parts of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger is not the result of massive tree-planting efforts. Rather, it has largely occurred thanks to the actions of farmers who have protected and managed the natural regeneration of trees and bushes, primarily on cultivated land. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have invested in protecting natural regeneration, increasing the number of on- farm trees. They have done so mainly for economic reasons, with the knowledge that re-greening improves soil fertility, increases crop yields, and enhances household food security (Yamba and Sambo, 2012; Reij and others, 2009; Botoni and Reij, 2009).

Re-greening delivers real economic benefits to farmers and communities. However, there are many areas across the agricultural lands of West Africa where it is not practiced, although the potential exists on most landscapes. Despite the successes we see in Niger and beyond,  development  practitioners  need a framework for scaling up re-greening successes. The WRI report fills that void by suggesting a six-step framework for scaling up re-greening:

  • Identify and analyze existing re- greening successes

  • Build a grassroots movement for re-greening and mobilize partner organizations

  • Address policy and legal issues and improve the enabling conditions for re-greening 

  • Develop and implement a communications strategy to systematically expand the use of all types of media

  • Develop or strengthen agroforestry value chains to enable farmers to capitalize on the role of the market in scaling up re-greening 

  • Expand research activities to fill gaps in knowledge about re-greening

Scaling up re-greening requires major efforts on the part of national governments as well as farmers. National policy makers need to be informed about the existing successes and associated benefits. They need to ensure that agricultural development policies and forestry legislation induces millions of farmers to invest in on-farm trees. National and international policy makers will need to be convinced that it is economically rational to invest in re-greening — and that will require sound economic data. Farmers, too, must be convinced of the benefits of farmer-managed natural regeneration before they take it up as a farming practice. The stakes are high. Land degradation directly affects the livelihoods of millions and erodes ecosystem services that fulfill basic needs of life. There is an urgent need to work toward landscape re-greening, which can positively impact millions of rural people in just a few years, and build an environment that is more resilient to climate change.