Is there a solution to desertification?
Introducing new farming practices in Keita, Niger, is helping to reclaim land so the community can improve their livelihoods.
Jun 18 2019
Almost every year, over 40% of households in Keita, Niger, suffer from food insecurity. Farming and livestock rearing are the main sources of income, but poor harvests due to a lack of rain, rapid population growth and increased prices at the market have led to widespread hunger.
Many locals believe that the low annual average rainfall is the main cause of desertification. However, even if the rain is concentrated over a period of two-three months, an average annual rainfall of 300-350 millimetres could keep the grass green and land fertile throughout the year.
While climate change has had an impact, there’s another reason why desertification is taking place in Keita and the wider Sahel region – farming and livestock rearing practices.
Most farmers in this area of Niger produce either millet or sorghum, which are both kinds of cereals. Cultivating these crops year after year affects soil fertility, leading to a gradual decrease in yields.
The locals’ livestock management also had an effect on the quality of the soil. Due to the lack of foliage, cattle permanently grazes every square metre of the community. This prevents the grass from resting and recovering, which causes soil erosion.
Eroded soil struggles to maintain water, resulting in poor productivity and meaning that families are no longer able to keep big herds of cattle.
“It’s like a paradigm shift, because livestock rearing along with the single-crop farming of cereals are related to soil degradation,” says Joaquin Cadario, Action Against Hunger’s programme coordinator.
“The soil compacts and when the next rains arrive, the water doesn’t penetrate the ground. It’s a vicious cycle.”
In the fight against desertification, there’s a natural fertiliser that’s readily available to people in Keita – the manure produced by their cattle.
Working with the local community, Action Against Hunger and our partners AleJAB created a plot for cattle to stay in and help fertilise the land. The cattle was confined to this area and after a week the plot was sealed off to allow the ground time to rest and recover. This process was then repeated over a period of a couple of months.
The local community were also highly involved in the project, gathering all the available cows in the village and committing to guard their cattle at night.
The system, known as “holistic management”, was first developed by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory.
“Desertification is a fancy word for land that’s turning into a desert,” he says.
So far, the results have been impressive. In just eight weeks, the grass in the two plots have grown considerably – giving an idea of the potential this area has to recover and regenerate.
With manure and more time to relax, the desert in the Sahel could absorb 300 litres of rain per metre² every year, even if it’s concentrated in two-three months, and the land will become fertile again.
After a successful first phase, the project will now expand to 12 more villages in the region and 12,000 inhabitants.
“In the small plots where we’ve shown this process works, but larger communities require more planning,” says Joaquin.
Regular meetings are planned with community leaders to make sure that people let the land lie fallow.
And this is the innovative part of the project, Joaquin remarks. “Until, most of the plots we’ve been managing – which make up around 9 million hectares of land – are private. So there’s only one decision-maker and it’s easier. Now we need to unite 12,000 volunteers to put a model in place to protect the land.”
And projects like these will be essential for fighting against desertification across the Sahel region – which threatens the livelihoods of 45 million people in 18 countries.
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