Recurrent drought in the Sahel has become the norm in the past decade, resulting in agricultural decline and periodic famine. There is general recognition that drought-resistant practices are critical, but until recently, conventional Western methods were commonly applied to solve desertification and soil erosion problems.
Farmers the world over clear farmland of trees and bushes to make room for their crops, and periodically let portions of land lay fallow to restore soil fertility. As farm plots become smaller and land availability becomes scarce, farmers no longer have adequate space to allow plots to lay fallow. However, the World Agroforestry Centre, along with a loose coalition of NGOs, are using a technique called farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR), which promises to address the issue in a unique way.
FMNR teaches farmers not to clear trees away from their fields, instead nurturing a select number and growing crops around the trees. Stumps and small stems in previously cleared fields are also nurtured so that they begin to grow again from the living root systems underground. These stems help fix nitrogen in the soil and lessen wind erosion, and falling leaves can enrich the soil as well. Farmers regularly prune the trees to ensure a mutual sharing of land between trees and crops, and the cuttings can be used for firewood and timber.
The practice was pioneered by Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo in the 1980s, but has recently become much more widespread due to ever increasing land crises and loss of fallow. Another reason for its increasing popularity is the relaxation of forestry laws, giving farmers ownership of trees on their land.
The results of FMNR are especially apparent in Niger, where the technique was first pilot tested. A barren area of approximately 5 million hectares has been returned to tree cover. After only a few years, one hectare of land can have almost 40 trees, compared to only six or seven where FMNR is not practiced. Soil quality and crop yields have improved significantly, as well as additional income derived from tree cultivation.
In southern Niger, estimates are that millet yields have increased from 150kg per hectare to 500kg per hectare. Farmers practicing FMNR report that the trees have protected them in years when rains were scarce, because they help keep the humidity in the soil. These benefits have extended beyond Niger to other countries in both Africa and Asia.
FMNR is a simple, rapid, and low-cost technique to selectively clear land in a manner that leads to improved yields, enhanced food security, and environmental restoration. The technique can also be easily implemented by local farmers with a small amount of training. It has proven more effective than traditional methods of agricultural cultivation and reforestation. FMNR works best when farmers are given ownership over their trees and are able to become leaders of the technique in their own fields and communities.
As land availability issues continue to arise and environmental degradation continues to be a major world issue, FMNR is proving to become an ever more popular practice for improving food security and livelihoods in an ecologically sustainable manner.