Reclaiming the Desert
by Virginia Postrel • Feb 12, 2007 at 2:18 pm
Yesterday's NYT featured a report on how farmers in Niger have reclaimed land that was threatening to become permanent desert. Given the inaccurate photo caption about planting trees, I expected to read about a foreign-aid program that provided seedlings. Instead, it turns out that the farmers figured out what to do the old-fashioned way--by using their powers of observation and what they had on hand.
Severe drought in the 1970s and '80s, coupled with a population explosion and destructive farming and livestock practices, was denuding vast swaths of land. The desert seemed determined to swallow everything. So Mr. Danjimo and other farmers in Guidan Bakoye took a small but radical step. No longer would they clear the saplings from their fields before planting, as they had for generations. Instead they would protect and nurture them, carefully plowing around them when sowing millet, sorghum, peanuts and beans.
Today, the success in growing new trees suggests that the harm to much of the Sahel may not have been permanent, but a temporary loss of fertility. The evidence, scientists say, demonstrates how relatively small changes in human behavior can transform the regional ecology, restoring its biodiversity and productivity.
The new attitude toward trees also changed local customs and institutions and, eventually, official law.
Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.
But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.
Note that the behavioral change came first and was ratified by law--a process that is more likely to succeed than a new property-rights regime imposed from outside. This success story is a good example of what William Easterly calls "Searchers" (versus "Planners") in The White Man's Burden, which I reviewed in the NYTBR.