Can a Tree Stop the Advancing Deserts?

The world is facing a real conundrum just now. With more than seven billion humans and counting, we’ve got to produce more food – much more food. But today, farmers everywhere must be more resilient in dealing with rising global heat, droughts, floods and extreme weather events. And in the process, farms must not add to the climate problem by emitting more and more carbon from cleared, degraded farmlands.

So here’s the plan:

  • Increase global food production;
  • Make farms more resilient to climate change; and
  • Make agriculture a major carbon sink, not a carbon emitter as it is today.
Desertification results from climate variations and human activities

Desertification threatens two billion humans today.

But how?  It’s not like we’ve got the wind at our back. Deserts are advancing around the world. More than 40% of the Earth’s landmasses are drylands, and about 20% of them have already succumbed to desertification.  Two billion people – almost one third of the human population – are now at great risk of poverty, hunger and disease from desertification. Just when we’ve got to build productive, resilient and carbon-absorbing farm systems, we’re faced with the advance of vast desert lands, choking off food production, destroying biodiversity and accelerating climate change by releasing carbon stored in soil and plants into the atmosphere.

We could use a miracle just now, couldn’t we?

But most of us are a bit leery about miracles.  We’ve seen the pitches for miracle pomegranate juice, miracle Amish fireplaces, miracle diet supplements, miracle face creams, miracle baby videos, and “mira-cool” air conditioners. On a global scale, we’ve tried gene-altered miracles and suffered catastrophic land degradation from massive agricultural miracles. Even Christians – who believe in the miracle of Christ’s resurrection – don’t look for God to nullify his natural laws on a global scale and reverse the environmental forces we’ve set in motion everywhere.

So you’re right to be skeptical about our chances. But hear me out for a moment: When I was traveling in Kenya last month, I learned about something almost miraculous. Farmers across the African dry-land belt from Senegal to Ethiopia, and all the way down East Africa to Zimbabwe, have begun to reclaim unproductive drylands on a massive scale.  In Niger – one of the countries hit worst by desertification – they have “regreened” an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. And they’re producing an additional half million tons of grains on that land every year.

How are they doing it? Some people call it “evergreen agriculture,” and it involves a number of farmer-managed techniques. But for the most part, it revolves around the use of an absolutely remarkable tree: Faidherbia albida. I’m tempted to call it the Miracle Tree, but let’s see if we can manage Faidherbia. That’s FAIDHERBIA. Don’t forget the name.


Field corn (maize) growing beneath Faidherbia trees

Now, in the U.S. and Europe, we tend to think of land as being either farm or forest; one or the other; but not both. It’s no surprise, therefore, that European colonialists in East Africa and the Sahel instructed their charges to clear the land of trees and to plant monoculture crops. It’s been so long that some local African cultures no longer carry even the memory of the old ways, when crops grew beneath a light canopy of protective trees. And in many of these lands, soils are now so badly degraded that chemical fertilizers are no longer able to put off the day of reckoning. Add the effects of drought and flood erosion associated with climate change, and the deserts have grown and grown.

And that’s why the Faidherbia tree seems so miraculous. If you could imagine a tree that would provide nitrogen-rich food for the soil beneath its branches, that would spread a leafy shade canopy during the hot dry seasons, but would shed its leaves onto the soil in a rich mulch at the beginning of the rainy planting season, you’d probably think you were praying for a miracle. But that’s exactly what Faidherbia does. To boot, it uses very little water, its roots help to prevent erosion, and its bean pods provide protein for livestock and wildlife.

The impact on farm yields is remarkable. In Zambia, farm fields without fertilizer yield an average of 2.6 tons of field corn (maize) per hectare. But plant Faidherbia trees in the fields, and the yield more than doubles, to 5.6 tons. At last count, they had compared the results in 95 separate trials, so it’s no fluke. The impact is clearly visible to even the casual observer as well: People sometimes speak of the Faidherbia “halo effect.” A lone Faidherbia tree in a field will be surrounded by a dark green halo of vigorous crops, far outpacing the health of the plants beyond the reach of the tree’s branches.

Picture5Why this dramatic impact? The Faidherbia is a legume – its leaves and roots provide vital nutrients to the soil; the fallen leaves naturally mulch the fields below, maintaining soil moisture and suppressing weeds; the tree’s root system binds the soil together in the face of floods and erosion; and the new leaf canopy arrives just in time to protect the drying soil and crops from the worst of the dry season conditions. More plants grow; biodiversity is restored; seasonal streams run more steadily; people and ecosystems prosper.

You may be wondering if this is some new GMO-driven quick fix. I did. But it’s not. Faidherbia is an indigenous African tree, suppressed under the last century’s farm practices. But it quickly spreads once farmers recognize the benefits of integrating trees into their farm plots. So far, 200 million new Faidherbia trees have been planted in Niger alone. I have no idea what the count is in Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and other participating countries, but it must number in the millions as well.

The Faidherbia "halo effect"

The Faidherbia “halo effect”

Think of it! 200 million new lifesaving trees in one desert-threatened country!

Who is doing all this? I can tell you about a few of the actors involved. I first saw Faidherbia at a tree nursery near Nairobi run by A Rocha Kenya, a Christian conservation mission. I then came across it again at Akili Holdings, a remarkable Kenyan community development incubator. But I saw its effect in full bloom at the World Agroforestry Centre, a U.N. entity committed to the development of sustainable farming ecosystems including tree crops.  And while these three examples suggest a wide range of organizations involved, it would be a mistake to imagine that life-giving trees are being planted by international or charitable organizations. Admittedly, training is being done with outside help; but millions of African farmers are transforming their lands on their own. In Niger alone, more than a million farm households are involved in the planting and nurturing of Faidherbia trees.

For anyone seriously engaged in creation care, there’s more than enough bad news to deal with every day. But for today, join me in celebrating the rediscovery of one of the Creator’s many everyday miracles, the Faidherbia albida tree. Even if you’re not accustomed to praying for the U.N., take a moment to be thankful for the work of dedicated scientists who are restoring degraded dryland ecosystems. And consider making a donation to Christian environmental NGOs like A Rocha Kenya, who are helping us to restore the call to “tend and keep” God’s garden into our faith journeys.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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