Greening of the Desert


In this dust-choked region, long seen as an increasingly barren wasteland decaying into desert, millions of trees are flourishing, thanks in part to poor farmers whose simple methods cost little or nothing at all.

Better conservation and improved rainfall have led to at least 7.4 million newly tree-covered acres in Niger, researchers have found, achieved largely without relying on the large-scale planting of trees or other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification, the process by which soil loses its fertility.

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.

Read the rest: In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert 

This is an encouraging and enlightening story in a number of ways: it’s an example of poverty alleviation through local initiative and local control. Local farmers recognized serious problems with their land (because, surprise! they live their lives there) and set to solving them (again, surprise, because they depend upon the land for their livelihood). The importance of genuine capitalism, in which real people own real property, is also very evident in this story: particularly in relation to the change in attitudes towards trees:

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

This change could take place because real people in a real local community now owned the trees and could sell them within a local economy. I doubt whether this would be as effective, or effective at all, if they were tied into a globalized market, which would not accomodate the relatively small-yield most of these farmers acquire from their trees. At any rate, the importance of property-rights is clearly evident: state ownership- even if in the name of ‘the people’- generally means no one owns anything, which means a divestment of concern.  

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