Of the 50 million seedlings planted every year in the 11 northern Nigeria states worst effected by desertification, 37.5 million wither and die within two months, environmental officials say.
“The 12.5 million seedlings that make it to maturity are not enough to create a deforestation-reforestation equilibrium, especially given the fact that a large number of the trees that grow are later chopped down,” Kabiru Yammama of the National Forest Conservation Council of Nigeria [NFCCN] told IRIN.
People in the north use an estimates 40.5 million tonnes of firewood each year, he said. At the same time, the desert is encroaching at an estimated annual rate of between 8 and 30 hectares in the 11 states, which are Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi.
Around 35 percent of the arable land there has been overtaken by desert in the last 50 years, he added. This has adversely affected the livelihoods of over 55 million people, more than the combined population of Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania.
Until two years ago Nigeria’s president would fly up to one of the 11 states every September to ceremonially plant the first seedlings for the National Tree Planting Campaign, which coincided with World Environmental Day.
“The campaign was suspended because the government realised that it is an exercise in futility”, Yammama, of NFCCN, said.
He blamed the failure on the government not the people: “You can’t plant a tree in the desert without a water source and expect people who are struggling for water for their human needs to shoulder the extra burden of watering it,” he said.
While the national campaign has been suspended, the 11 states governments are continuing to plant. The World Bank has provided funds for planting 1 billion seedlings in 2008 which will be funneled through the federal government to the states.
Environmental officials do not agree on how they can reduce the failure rate of the seedlings.
Jigawa State’s environment commissioner Yusuf Mato said he has a plan to plant the seedlings during the rainy season which starts in May. “Then the seedlings will be fed by rainwater and attain a certain level of growth before the [rainy] season ends”, he said.
But Yammama said he does not think the seedlings will survive. “Drought-resistant trees which are best for the north do not need much water and [heavy] rain water will certainly kill them,” he said.
Kano State environment commissioner, Garba Yusuf said his state intends to plant 5 million new seedlings this year and has embarked on a campaign to mobilise people in the countryside and make them aware of the importance of nurturing the young trees.
But he also recognises that that may not be enough. “The government can’t expect to leave all the work of nurturing millions of trees [to the community],” he said. “We planted 10 million trees in the last four years and most of them died,” he said.
Yammama agrees. “No sensitisation effort will be effective [on its own],” he said.
He proposed planting fruit-bearing trees which people would care for and not cut down because they have economic value.
But he also said that as long as the government does not provide alternative sources of energy for people that are affordable and easy to use they will continue to rely on the trees for cooking fuel.
Yammama noted that Nigeria has a 3 billion ton coal reserves that is not being exploited plus stockpiles of special coal stoves, “But the lack of the refined coal has stalled their sale,” he said.