Land degradation in Niger

Surviving (and striving) in the age of Climate Change

Each year, Niger loses 100,000 hectares of fertile soil to climate change. But desertification is not irreversible. Read about how a project in Central Sahel is not only bringing back vegetation and quintupling harvests, but also changing the relationship between the people and their land.

Ghaya ben Mbarek
Ali Moctar (Afroto)
October 24, 2022

On the first day of our trip to the Illéla commune, we visited the village of Kiré Kafada in a deserted, rocky valley, where members of three different tribes – the Tuareg, Fulani, and Hausa – have made it their common goal to restore the land. As we sat down, they shared their immense pride in this experience. “Let’s first ask for blessings,” a tribe member said, and asked us to raise our hands for a shared prayer, demonstrating the strong spiritual connection these farmers have with their land. 

82-year-old Abdou Degi, one of the oldest members of the three tribes, told us why their forefathers had chosen this site to settle down. “This area was a forest so dense that when a cow gave birth to a calf, we weren’t even able to see it,” he said. “Forty years ago this valley was forested, all the way up the hill,” added Ibrahim Abdoulaye, a local farmer. “It was difficult to make plots for cotton or sweet potato.” 44-year-old Abdoul-Aziz Guidan Karo told us that “the valley was also a refuge for wildlife such as elephants and hyenas.” Every day on our journey, we heard stories about a green, lush past when there had been almost too many trees. Looking around, it was hard to believe. 

The right to a healthy environment

Temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Already, the majority of Niger’s vast territory is unproductive barren land, and every year another 100,000 hectares that could be used for farming or pasture are lost to erosion and land degradation, a process depleting the soil so that it becomes infertile. At the same time 85 percent of the population of Niger depend on the environment for their livelihood and are thus especially vulnerable to climate change effects such as droughts, floods, wildfires, or desertification. In 2015, under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), the Republic of Niger committed to restoring 3.2 million hectares of degraded land by 2029. It was time to do so, because Article 34 of Niger's Constitution of 2010 states that “Everyone has the right to a healthy environment.”

Degraded land in Illéla
Women in the desert fields
Large trees used to grow in the valleys of the Illéla region. Can this ecosystem be restored through hard, communal work?

In recent years, the World Resources Institute (WRI), a partner of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, has been working with the Niger Ministry of Environment and its Directorate of Water and Forests to develop an action plan for the Illéla region. It is designed not only to increase the agricultural productivity of the land and to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, but also to integrate the knowledge and needs of the local population into the land restoration efforts. To find out how these efforts are changing the lives of the people in the region, a team of reporters commissioned by the Robert Bosch Foundation embarked on a journey to northeast Niger.

Illéla is located almost 500 km northeast of Niger’s capital Niamey. When the jeep convoy from the Ministry of Environment stopped in the provincial town of Tahoua after a bumpy ten-hour drive, twilight had already swallowed up the surroundings. The next morning, an endless, hilly landscape in yellow, ocher and orange spread out before our eyes. But this apparent uniformity contains various biotopes that people have traditionally used quite differently: high plateaus for grazing cattle that find less and less to eat due to the lack of rainfall; slopes that are particularly affected by erosion but are increasingly used as farmland; and valleys with rivers and small pools, at least in the rainy season, where sorghum, corn, peanuts, and vegetables are cultivated and trees grow to a height of 5 to 10 meters. “Besides land degradation, our biggest challenge is demographics and rapidly growing livestock numbers,” says Professor Tougiani Abasse, a scientific advisor to WRI from the National Institute of Agricultural Research of Niger. By 2045, the population in Illéla will have almost tripled from 170,000 in 2017, so more and more unsuitable land is being cultivated. That exposes it to degradation, while the people’s increasing demand for wood leads to more deforestation, thinning out the vegetation and reducing the natural regenerative capacity of the soil. 

Gate to the local government of Maire
Workshop with Professor Abasse
The key to a sustainable project is for local governments and local people to steer the process, while experts like Professor Abasse (right) provide knowledge and feedback.

“I have lived in the region for ten years and during this time we’ve had exactly one satisfactory harvest,” says Salifou Garba, Illéla’s Environment Director. Commonly known as ‘Colonel Papa,’ he also served as our Hausa translator on the trip.

Ownership and local knowledge are needed for sustainable change

The republic of Niger has been one of the most food-insecure countries in the world for decades, ranking last on the Human Development Index. This region has been on the receiving end of a lot of development aid, but the experiences have not always been good ones. “Often, the international organizations come in, bring generalized solutions, and disappear after the project is completed,” says ‘Colonel Papa.’ According to the action plan for Illéla, top-down approaches do not give beneficiaries ownership of recovery efforts, often neglect local know-how, and fail to promote sustainability. Not wanting to repeat this mistake, the WRI project right from the start cooperated with local administrative authorities, community and tribal leaders, and the local population. Separate workshops were held with men and women to better understand the situation on the ground, share knowledge, develop a common vision – and then drive the process forward. “The first step is about awareness,” says Professor Abasse, “so people understand the phenomenon of land degradation and how it relates to climate change.”

Author Ghaya Ben Mbarek in Illéla
Our author Ghaya Ben Mbarek (center) and Salifou Garba, Illéla’s Environment Director (next to the right), while talking to villagers.

On the plateaus and embankments, the ground is dry and hard, almost like ocher-colored asphalt. We accompanied a group of workers, many of them women and young people, who used hooks and other tools to break up the hard crust and create so-called “half-moon basins,” curved pits about 50 cm deep and 4 to 5 m long, in which water and nutrients collect. This increases the productivity of the soil. This form of soil cultivation has a long tradition, explains ‘Colonel Papa’: “Long ago, people dug small holes here to collect water and then planted millet there.”

It is hard, physically demanding work. “We’ve worked all day for months, all together, men and women,” says Hadizatou Tanko, a farmer from the village Kiré Kafada. By tilling the higher ground, they are also preventing the riverbeds and pools in the valley from silting up. New plantings and sustainable timber harvesting, which leaves a few shoots in the ground, do the rest. Five years after the initial restoration work began, trees are growing again in the river valley. “It is thanks to the work of the whole community that our children can now collect gum arabic here again,” says Hadizatou Tanko. This collaboration also seems to lead to a new sense of belonging. “The work is changing people’s relationships with their land,” says Professor Abasse. With their own hands, people collect the stones from the fields and use them to build planting structures, thus enabling plants that had long disappeared to grow again. “That these species are coming back gives them a feeling of ownership of these sites,” says Professor Abasse.

Reshaping in extreme heat
A half-moon of earth
In the extreme heat the locals reshape the landscape, digging so-called half-moons. Water and nutrients collect in these man-made structures.

After all the hard work, people want to know if it was worth it. The stories of the villagers in Illéla are encouraging, but the WRI also did a cost-benefit analysis of how the measures have changed lives and economies. On restored land millet yields have increased fivefold as compared to non-restored land. Sorghum and peanut yields have shown similar improvement. Besides, wildlife has returned to the restored areas and more wood and fodder can be collected.

What are the learnings for the global COP27 conference?

But the picture is not entirely rosy – or should we say green? Some areas that were worked on could not be restored. And as the WRI clearly states, “The Illéla community’s rural restoration goals will be difficult to achieve without sufficient funding to scale best restoration practices.”

At COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh in November 2022, participating countries will review the status of the AFR100 initiative. The interim results are mixed: While large areas of land in Sub-Saharan Africa have been restored, financial resources are lacking in many places and it is not always transparent where the money is going. During the second project phase of the initiative, the focus will therefore be on establishing ways and financing mechanisms through which the money reaches local communities like those in Illéla directly. This is based on the conviction that for restoration projects to work across the board, local people must be the ones to decide how to use the money in the fight against the climate crisis.

Local dressed women
Restoration efforts are also changing the local economy, opening up new prospects for young people and women.

We sat down under one of the rare trees in the valley, where Kiré Kafada villagers discussed the situation with Professor Abasse and ‘Colonel Papa.’ Such conversations are part of the daily routine – and of the project design. In Illéla, landowners and workers, state employees and tribal authorities, men and women, old and young meet as a land restauration committee to discuss the project. The idea is to give people a voice in and some control over the decision-making process. The committee also aims to collaborate with similar groups in other communities regionally and nationally to share their land restoration experiences, knowledge and successes, and to develop a kind of toolkit.

The fight against land degradation is not only changing the land and the environment, but also the local economy and the way people live together. In order to carry out this work, a new wage labor sector has been created to support people who cannot live off their own land – thus offering them new prospects and an opportunity to be masters of their own fate. “We the people have given our body and soul to this work, which is very beneficial for us,” 65-year-old Mariama Aboubacar told us. “We receive a fixed sum every three weeks.” But she was speaking not only about the money and her livelihood, but also about the bigger picture: “We are really satisfied with the results, how our land changed. And this is the biggest motivation of all.”

More about in the video

"People take responsibility for their country themselves"

For orientation

Western Africa

Illéla is located in southwest Niger. In two jeeps of the Ministry of Environment the team of reporters from the Robert Bosch Stiftung drove more than ten hours from the capital Niamey. Spring is one of the hottest seasons of the year with daytime temperatures rarely under 45° Celsius.

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About the project

African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative

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Restoring forest landscapes as one of our planet’s most important carbon sinks is crucial to fight climate change and improve resilience. Political momentum for these efforts is rising: The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) involves 32 countries, which have pledged to restore 128 million hectares of land by 2030 – more than three times the size of Germany. Now these national commitments have to be translated into restoration successes on the ground. We support the World Resources Institute (WRI), one of the key partners of AFR100, in accelerating restoration in two key landscapes – Makueni in Kenya and Illéla in Niger – and to reimagine restoration by integrating equity principles. 

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