21-Jun-2008 -- We were conducting a follow-up field trip to continue documenting the unprecedented environmental transformation that Niger's agricultural landscapes are undergoing – the phenomenon of huge increases in tree density over the past two decades. What is particularly surprising is the fact that the highest tree densities occur in areas of high rural population density, i.e., more people – more trees. Also surprising is the sheer scale of the re-greening, on the order of 5 million hectares.
Many Hausa farmers have told us that they have been protecting and managing spontaneously regenerating trees since the mid-1980s. They began this practice because they had to "fight the Sahara". They had to combat the impacts of dust and sandstorms, as opposed to the popular notion of an advancing front of sand dunes. The ecological and economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s acted as a trigger, along with growing population pressure.
Farmland re-greening has resulted in a wide range of impacts. It has led to more complex and more productive farming systems, improved household food security, changes in local climate, increased drought resilience, local increases in biodiversity, improved soil fertility, more fodder for livestock, and a reduction in time women need for the collection of firewood.
On this day, we were heading northeast of Mayahi into the northern fringes of the agricultural zone, to try to ascertain the northern limits of the zone of increased tree cover. A quick reference to our maps showed a Confluence not far from our route. We deviated somewhat to capture it, driving through a rolling landscape of ancient dunes, stabilized centuries ago by savannah and more recently, cultivation under a tree parkland. We followed a network of dirt roads connecting numerous villages. Our progress was hampered by the emerging millet and peanut plants – so great is the pressure on the land that farmers had planted on the sandy roads. To avoid crushing the young plants, we had to backtrack several times to find alternative routes.
The final track took us within a few hundred meters of the Confluence – an easy stroll from the car. Several of us had GPS units, so the race was on to see who would be the first to nail it. After we left the Confluence, the skies opened up, raining upon the thirsty land for the second time this season.