Reforesting Arid Lands: Agroecology is Working in the Sahel

Blog by Peter Gubbels, Groundswell West Africa collaborative partners

It was inspiring to participate in the learning exchange hosted by the Agroecology Fund and Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. I appreciated the perspective endorsed by the participants that amplifying agroecology requires context-specific support to enable small scale farmers to adapt specific practices that will lead to a progressive transition to a productive, resilient, sustainable and nutrition-sensitive farming system.

To amplify this process requires support for agroecology as a science and a grassroots social movement. In most countries, there is an urgent need for more conducive policies and programs.

photo Ghana Hands on pruning by farmer volunteers

Photo: Hands on pruning by farmer volunteers in Ghana

There were not many participants from the French-speaking Sahel region of Africa at the learning exchange, and I thought I would share our ground realities and the challenges we face to promote agroecology. Small scale, dry land farmers in the Sahel are facing a chronic food and nutrition security crisis.

This is caused by declining soil fertility, degradation of land, loss of tree and vegetative cover, and climate change. In addition to increasingly frequent drought and erratic rainfall, the Sahel is a region that climatologists say is going to be most affected by increased temperatures of up to four degrees Celsius by 2050.

If current millet and sorghum cropping systems do not change, sun and heat will reduce average yields from 15 to 40%.

Photo Ghana

Photo: Farmers from Bilanga, Gayéri and Tibga carefully listening to Michel Zorome during a FMNR demonstration in Yako

One of the key innovations farmers are adapting to cope with this is Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration of Trees (FMNR). This is a form of agroforestry that builds on traditional methods. Through innovative ways of managing trees on crop lands (a simultaneous fallow), farmers can sustainably improve soil fertility, and reduce the effects of high temperatures through dispersed shade.

FMNR is only one of several innovative agroecological practices that are part of a transition process that gradually transforms local farming systems. Others include variede soil and water conservation measures, effective use of crop residues, and improved methods of composting.

There is already evidence of how these agroecological practices work.

The challenge for amplifying agroecology lies in strengthening social movements, changing current agribusiness-oriented agricultural policies, and re-orienting agricultural research and education to create a vastly more enabling environment. Without this, and innovative strategies for quick horizontal scaling of successful experiences in agroecology, the crisis will get worse.

The two main opportunities or windows for influencing or changing policies are the current government priorities for building resilience and adaptation to climate change. I hope our experience in the Sahel can contribute to this learning and exchange site. However, we are also counting on the support of the Agroecology Fund, AFSA and participants to help us in the Sahel overcome our growing critical food and nutrition crisis.

Our use of the word “crisis” is not an exaggeration. Every year in the Sahel, good rains or not, there are over 20 million people, (mostly dry land farmers), who are food insecure. Many depend on humanitarian aid to survive. More seriously, over 35% of all children in the Sahel suffer from irreversible physical and cognitive damage because of chronic malnutrition.

Agroecology, in all three of its dimensions—as a practice, science and movement—is a critically important part of the solution to resolve this crisis in the Sahel.