Hama Heinikoye remembers when the tall plateau looming over the Nigerien village of Darey was sprinkled with trees and grasses — and children feared crossing it because of wild animals.
“They’d attack our goats…whooey, whooey,” said the thin, septuagenarian village chief, imitating the marauding wildlife that he claims included lions. Darey residents seated around him chuckled appreciatively. But Heinikoye’s memories are no laughing matter.
Over the years, the wild animals and plants disappeared, victims of encroaching sand, soil erosion and rolling droughts. By the time Hama was in his fourties, the vast plateau in southwestern Niger was a barren expanse of rocky, unfertile soil.
Today, the lands are greening again, and not just because of seasonal rains. Trees and grasses are growing along the hard red ridgeline crisscrossed with irrigation canals. Corn and cassava plants are blooming in the terraced fields below. The metamorphosis comes thanks to a government-led drive against desertification, supported by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and other key partners.
“Hunger and desertification often go hand-in-hand, especially in the Sahel,” said Abdou Dieng, WFP Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “Many people face tough choices: to suffer, migrate or resort to harmful practices — even to tip into extremism. We must, and we can, offer them real options.”
Altogether, some 65 percent of arable land is seriously affected or lost in Africa since 1965, experts say. Much of the land degradation is taking place in the vast Sahel belt, which stretches from Mauritania eastward to Sudan. The fallout is not just in denuded landscapes, but also in deepening hunger and a surge of migration in search of work.
But slowly, this bleak picture is changing, thanks to strong commitment by governments and other actors. In half-a-dozen West and Central African countries, a mix of initiatives by WFP and other partners is beginning to deliver results.
They include rehabilitating agricultural land and planting trees on the once-desolate plateau near Darey, located roughly 135 km north of the capital Niamey.
“Before the project, the plateau was completely bare, and when it rained, the water would just pour into the ravines,” said 47-year-old Gambi Issoufou, one of the many village women involved in the land rehabilitation project. “But now, we understand we can fix that. The vegetation is returning.”
She joined roughly dozen Darey villagers one recent afternoon to plant young seedlings under a hot sun, carefully dousing each with water from an irrigation ditch.
Village chief Hama planted his own tree nearby.
“We have really fought against the desert’s advance through these trees,” he said.
Launched in 2014, the Darey project is one of several land rehabilitation initiatives supported by WFP Niger that also include nutrition and educational components.
“We also try to raise awareness so communities don’t contribute to eroding the environment they live in,” said WFP Field Monitor Hassane Balle, who helps oversee the Darey initiative.
Similar land rehabilitation efforts are underfoot in several other parts of Niger and neighboring Chad. In the west-central Bahr El Gazel region, some farmers are planting literal ‘living hedges’ against the encroaching sand dunes.
“It also protects our fields against animals,” said 40-year-old Fatima Haki, a mother of eight.
Fatima counts among more than 300 farmers working at Bouloungou wadi, where the hedge surrounds a valley of palm trees and thriving fields of maize, okra and millet.
Working in collaboration with other organizations, WFP paid the farmers cash for their labour, and financed the instalment of several motorised pumps and rain catchment basins for irrigation. The community is also learning better agricultural techniques from partners and trading tips with other participating wadis.
Many, like Fatima, are seeing sharply increased yields as a result.
“I’m going to sell some of the surplus to buy family necessities,” she said, “and also invest back into the land so my harvests are even bigger.”
Like many others, her husband works as a day laborer. Other local residents have migrated to N’Djamena or further afield, often leaving women in charge of farming.
Now, with Bouloungou yielding greater harvests, Fatima hopes her husband will return.
“We can’t prevent desertification on our own, but now we have this living hedge and we are working together,” she says. “One day, we will stop the sand.”
Originally published at insight.wfp.org on September 15, 2017 by Elizabeth Bryant.