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Forest and climate- 3 questions for Chris Reij


In 2015, the COP 21 climate conference brought about a strong wave of public awareness, made official by commitments from a number of stakeholders with one major objective: limit global warming to less than 2°C by 2100. Achieving such an ambitious task means leveraging all available resources.

By 2035, our ambition is to have 20% of our portfolio made up of low-carbon businesses, while maintaining profitable growth in these areas.


3 questions for Chris Reij

Senior Fellow Global Restoration Initiative, World Resources Institute, Washington DC

Chris Reij is a Sustainable Land Management specialist. He has worked in Africa since 1978 andhas been involved in numerous studies and consultancies across Africa, with a focus on Western Sahel.  His research focuses on restoration of degraded land in semi-arid regions, farmer innovation in agriculture, long-term trends in agriculture and environment and analysis of agricultural successes and land management in Africa.



What is, in your view, the most remarkable environmental initiative in Africa?

What may well be the biggest positive environmental transformation in Africa is found in Niger. The drought episodes of the 1970s and 1980s and the strong pressure on the land resulted in a sharp reduction in vegetation cover throughout the Sahel. Many technologies to fight against desertification have been tested in the Sahel. Since the middle of the 1980s, smallholder farmers in densely populated parts of Southern Niger have begun to protect and manage trees and bushes, which sprouted naturally on their farmland. In this way they increased the number of on-farm trees on about 5 million hectares and they have added at least 200 million trees.

They have achieved this not by planting trees, but by protecting and managing natural regeneration and we observed that large-scale regreening only happened in areas with high population densities. “More people, more trees”. Farmers have increased tree numbers on their farmland, some species helping maintain or improve soil fertility and producing fodder for livestock.


les_gao_ne_genent_pas_les_cultures.jpgWhat are the benefits of this method?

By increasing the number of on-farm trees, farmers create more complex and productive farming systems, which are better able to cope with climate change. A conservative estimate is that this large-scale regreening in Southern Niger produces an additional 500,000 tons of grains, which is enough to feed an additional 2.5 million people.

Women are key beneficiaries from increasing on-farm tree densities.  In 1985 they spent an average 2.5 hours each day to collect firewood, the main energy source in the kitchen, compared to an average of 30 minutes today as they can prune the on-farm trees.




Which lessons can be drawn from this experience?

Grassroot initiatives are often the most powerful drivers of positive environmental change. Niger is a success story mainly because hundreds of thousands of farmers decided that they would benefit from investing time and energy in the protection and management of trees. A key element that made it possible was that farmers perceived ownership of on-farm trees. This is also confirmed by a recent change in forest legislation. 

Improving the environment does not necessarily require sophisticated solutions. Protecting and managing trees and bushes which regenerate naturally on farmland is low cost and produces benefits quickly. We find examples of large-scale regreening by farmers in Burkina Faso, Mali, Ethiopia and Malawi. This technique could be promoted in all countries involved in the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel (GMVSS).