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Do Australian aborigines hold answers to Sahelian deforestation?

Farmers gather for a workshop on growing acacia trees (file photo)
Farmers gather for a workshop on growing acacia trees in the Sahel (file photo) (World Vision)

For more than 20 years scientists have tried to introduce in Niger the acacia plant typically grown by aborigines living in dry zones of Australia. Despite the perennial’s ability to withstand windstorms, heat and drought, Nigerien farmers have been slow to accept acacias or their protein-packed seeds. But with deforestation wiping out trees in Africa, agriculture experts told IRIN this aborigine import may fill a growing void.



Though Africa has only 16 percent of the world’s global forest area, from 2000 to 2005 it lost about four million hectares a year, close to one-third of global deforestation, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).



Of 1,300 species of the acacia plant worldwide, more than 900 are native to Australia, according to the Australian government.



Agricultural trainer Peter Cunningham with the Australian non-profit Serving in Mission (SIM) told IRIN the acacia tree has proven itself a “hardy” plant in Niger over the last 20 years. “People are finally starting to see the benefits of this tree, which has a high survival rate.”



Food



Almost two million people in Niger suffer from moderate malnutrition as of December 2008, according to the government. While a December study it conducted showed that the number of households nationwide suffering from severe malnutrition – seven percent – had fallen by half from the previous year, there are still agricultural production areas like Tchintabaraden, 800km north of the capital Niamey, where one-third of the population is severely malnourished.



The government is seeking donor support to provide seeds and fertiliser to 250,000 families.



Cunningham said the acacia trees, which cost SIM about 5 US cents each and are made available at no cost to farmers, can help the country’s often precarious food situation.



Soil



In a 2008 report for the non-profit World Vision on the viability of acacias to boost food security and crop yield, Cunningham wrote that decades of improper farming techniques in Niger have depleted soil nutrients. He told IRIN acacias have the potential to boost crop yield, but only if they are planted correctly.



The report provided diagrams of how acacia trees should be spaced in rows 25 metres apart, planted five metres apart around the perimeter and combined with other crops like millet and sorghum.



Working in the semi-arid region of Maradi in southern Niger, Cunningham wrote that such an “agro-forestry farming system” could diversify income, lessen the risk any one crop would perish in inclement weather and better distribute income and labour year round.



“More than providing nutritious seeds that can be turned into protein-packed flour for pastas and breads,” Cunningham told IRIN, “The trees are also windbreaks against sandstorms that dry out less resilient cash crops.”



Agriculture fatalism



Since 2004 Cunningham has tried to revive farmers’ interest in acacias. He told IRIN he is working with nearly 500 farmers in 33 villages in Niger’s south. Cunningham said each farmer has about 100 acacia trees.



But the agricultural trainer said adoption has been slow. “Subsistence farmers have done the same type of traditional farming for a long time. Accepting trees has come incrementally.” He said most farmers in Maradi’s predominantly Muslim community are fatalistic about their barren land plots. “They reason that it is God’s will. This mentality has been a barrier to the trees’ widespread acceptance.”



Cunningham told IRIN that interest in the tree waned as donor support ended in the 1990s. “The plant was part of [World Food Programme food-for-work] programmes, but after that ended [in Maradi] the trees did not survive long after.” He said the trees’ average lifespan is 10 years.



Cunningham said things are changing and that research has shown how its root system helps acacia trees better withstand droughts and “untimely” rains. Floods in Niger in 2008 wiped out hundreds of agricultural fields, according to the UN.



For an IRIN report on another reforestation project, click here.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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