NIGER-For centuries, rich woodlands dotted this dusty, sun-blasted region south of the Sahara. There were fat locust bean trees, wispy bushes, and sparse pockets of winter thorn and tamarind. By the time Ali Neino was a boy in the 1980s, however, just one lonely tree sprouted from his family’s land, and he could see clear to the horizon.
“There was no vegetation in between the village and the fields,” recalls Neino, 45. “No trees, no shrubs, nothing.”
Decades of drought, land-clearing, and demand for firewood had left Niger nearly treeless. Intensive farming to feed the world’s fastest-growing population ensured new trees would not take root. Government efforts to reforest in the 1970s failed. Sixty million trees were planted; fewer than 20 percent survived.
But on a recent stroll along his family’s farm outside Dan Saga, Neino pointed to the trees growing everywhere. Sun-bleached acacia trunks poked through the soil. Branches and fallen leaves littered the yellow dirt. Five kinds of acacia grew. There were fruit-bearing trees and a type of warty bush known as dooki.
In the past 35 years, as scientists begged nations to get serious about reviving forests, one of Earth’s poorest countries, in one of the planet’s harshest regions, added an astonishing 200 million new trees—maybe more. Across at least 12 million acres of Niger, woodlands have been re-established with little outside help, almost no money, and without driving people off their land. The trees here weren’t planted; they were encouraged to come back naturally, nurtured by thousands of farmers. Now, fresh trees are popping up in village after village. As a result, soils are more fertile and moister, and crop yields are up.
Neighboring countries already are racing to follow Niger’s example. But experts say other continents, too, should be looking to Niger as a model. “It’s a really inspiring story,” says Sarah Wilson, a postdoctoral forest researcher at Canada’s University of Victoria, who studied Niger’s rebirth. “It’s the kind of restoration we want. It just spread from farmer to farmer.”
A return to roots
These days it’s rare to catch Neino at home, where his family grows millet, sorghum, and peanuts. He’s often greeting delegations from other villages seeking to learn about the resurrection of his region’s wooded areas. Or he’s off to Tahoua or Agadez in central Niger to teach farmers how to do it themselves.
For Neino, southern Niger’s arboreal comeback is key to the country’s future. The nation’s population, now at around 25 million, is on track to double in the next two decades. “The only way to meet the nutrition needs of Niger’s growing population is to change the system,” he says.
But to understand how Niger brought back its trees, it’s important to know how the country lost them.
Niger, the size of Germany and France combined, straddles the Sahel, the transition zone between Africa’s northern desert and humid forest that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. The Sahara swirls over two-thirds of the country, but the west, along the fertile valley of the Niger River, and south, near the border with Nigeria, always held large pockets of trees and bushes.
Much of Niger’s population lived in this wooded band. The trees and shrubs provided shade, held water in soil, and dropped forage for livestock. Farmers planted around the trunks, and when they pruned the trees for firewood or occasionally cut them down, trees re-sprouted quickly from the stumps. In Zinder, a region in the southeast, one species was revered: the winter thorn, which during the rainy season sheds leaves that then break down, nourishing soil with nitrogen while letting sunlight in.
But early in the 20th century, agronomists brought in by French colonial rulers urged farmers to remove trees—to pluck saplings and hack out stumps. The government, seeking to export peanuts, wanted Niger’s agricultural sector commercialized. It pushed farms to move from hand cultivation toward steel plows pulled by animals. That resulted in orderly fields with straight lines and perfect furrows, which left little room for trees. Many in Niger came to believe trees and crops should not mix.
How one part of Niger has changed
By the second half of the 20th century, the population of now-independent Niger had exploded. A series of punishing droughts beginning in the late 1960s led to crop failures and famine. Springs disappeared. Wells dried up. Farmers kept clearing more trees for agriculture even as soils dried up or lost nutrients. Desperate families turned to the region’s last asset: They felled remaining trees to sell in nearby cities as cooking fuel. Women and children would walk hours to find wood.