August 2012 - Traditionally, farmers in Niger and across the Sahel had developed practices to ensure the sustainable use of trees and tree products. But, beginning with the French colonial government, laws and regulations in Niger made all trees state property, and penalized farmers who felled or pruned trees.
With no incentive to maintain trees on their property—and with families to feed—farmers in need of agricultural land removed the trees and other natural vegetation. This had the unintended consequence of worsening erosion and reducing soil fertility and yields, which pushed farmers to cultivate ever more marginal lands.
By the late 1960s, farmers had become extremely vulnerable to the droughts that periodically swept across the Sahel. Tragically, the drought of 1969 resulted in famine that affected 50 million people.
Not until the early 1980s, nearly a decade after independence, did things begin to change. To support local livelihoods, international NGOs and donors began promoting simple, low-cost soil and water conservation techniques combined with agroforestry. Around the same time, Niger’s government began to reassess its governance of rural land and natural resources.
As new laws and regulations strengthened local rights to benefit from trees, farmers across southern Niger began nurturing underground roots and tree stumps in their barren fields--enriching the soil, and producing food, fodder, fuel wood and other goods.
At the same time, the Forest Service was transformed from a paramilitary institution that punished farmers for cutting trees into an extension service that helped them adopt simple tree management processes.
Over the course of 30 years, with government and NGO support, smallholder farmers revitalized five million hectares of land. Improved crop yields and incomes, and increased production of fuel wood, fodder, and other non-timber forest products benefitted five million people.