In Niger, along the Sahel desert, farmers are turning desertification around. No aid agency or government is helping or guiding them; the methods they're using are commonsense, and either cheap or free:
Recent studies of vegetation patterns, based on detailed satellite images and on-the-ground inventories of trees, have found that Niger, a place of persistent hunger and deprivation, has recently added millions of new trees and is now far greener than it was 30 years ago.
These gains, moreover, have come at a time when the population of Niger has exploded, confounding the conventional wisdom that population growth leads to the loss of trees and accelerates land degradation, scientists studying Niger say. The vegetation is densest, researchers have found, in some of the most densely populated regions of the country.
“The general picture of the Sahel is much less bleak than we tend to assume,” said Chris P. Reij, a soil conservationist who has been working in the region for more than 30 years and helped lead a study published last summer on Niger’s vegetation patterns. “Niger was for us an enormous surprise.”
What really got the ball rolling was, of all things, the privatization of trees. Up until 30 years ago, every tree in Niger--no matter where it grew--was considered the property of the state. You could not own a tree in Niger. As is so often the case, when everyone owns something, no one owns it, and so no one cares for it. Once farmers were allowed to own trees and their byproducts, they started nurturing the trees:
About 20 years ago, farmers like Ibrahim Danjimo realized something terrible was happening to their fields.
“We look around, all the trees were far from the village,” said Mr. Danjimo, a farmer in his 40s who has been working the rocky, sandy soil of this tiny village since he was a child. “Suddenly, the trees were all gone.”
Fierce winds were carrying off the topsoil of their once-productive land. Sand dunes threatened to swallow huts. Wells ran dry. Across the Sahel, a semiarid belt that spans Africa just below the Sahara and is home to some of the poorest people on earth, a cataclysm was unfolding.
Severe drought in the 1970s and 80s, coupled with a population explosion and destructive farming and livestock practices, was denuding vast swaths of land. The desert seemed determined to swallow everything.
So Mr. Danjimo and other farmers in Guidan Bakoye took a small but radical step. No longer would they clear the saplings from their fields before planting, as they had for generations. Instead they would protect and nurture them, carefully plowing around them when sowing millet, sorghum, peanuts and beans.
Today, the success in growing new trees suggests that the harm to much of the Sahel may not have been permanent, but a temporary loss of fertility. The evidence, scientists say, demonstrates how relatively small changes in human behavior can transform the regional ecology, restoring its biodiversity and productivity.
And while my essentially libertarian self might want to point out that privatizing the trees stopped the desert, much more important is this: "Relatively small changes in human behavior can transform the regional ecology." Libertarianism didn't stop the desert. Hope did.
Over the years, polls taken around the world show that while most everyone believes humans are causing global warming, Americans more than any other people believe there's nothing they themselves can do about it. Why bother? It's hopeless.
Because doing something is better than doing nothing. We don't know if it really is hopeless. We only feel hopeless. But desertification in Niger was considered hopeless. There was nothing anyone could do about it. "Everyone" said so--the aid agencies, the governments. Africa would turn into one big desert and there was nothing anyone could do. But no one told those farmers that.
If African farmers can turn back the desert based only on hope, why can't we make changes ourselves?
No one's asking us to pound our laundry on rocks. We're being asked to do things like use compact fluorescent light bulbs, turn our heat down in the winter and AC down in the summer, hang out our laundry to dry more, and drive less.
Why not? It might help global warming, it usually saves us money as individuals, and it also sends less money to foreign oil interests that frankly hate us and spend that money accordingly--rejection of the oil economy is the ultimate in patriotism. You cannot (willingly and intentionally) drive a gas guzzler and claim you love this country.
Our government's not going to do what needs doing, that's been made increasingly clear. It's going to be up to us as individuals to make the changes, not just for global warming but in dozens of other small ways. We just need a different set of habits. These are changes that can't hurt--they can only help.