Could restoring degraded lands cut down on labour migration in Niger?

Monday, 16 October 2017 16:07 GMT

A farmer rides a donkey cart with hay on the back outside Agadez, Niger, May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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Most Nigeriens depend on farming but widespread soil degradation and climate variability make it difficult to sustain a family all year long

Every year, unwanted migration of millions of people fleeing hunger, poverty and conflict is transforming the international development agenda for the years to come. 244 million people, about half of whom are women, decided to migrate in 2015, hoping for a better future for their children. With climate change and widespread land degradation, environmental migration is on the rise.

This is particularly true for Niger a country of the Sahel region used to men migrating to neighboring countries from January to April after the harvests, searching for casual labour, during what they call the Exode. Niger is also fast becoming a migration hub towards North Africa and Europe.

While 8 out of ten Nigeriens depend on farming in this country, widespread soil degradation and climate variability make it difficult to sustain a family all year long. Niger experiences drought at least once every two years. Only one percent of the country’s land receives more than 600 mm of rain each year, and just 12 percent of land can sustain agriculture. There is an ongoing food and nutrition crisis across the Sahel and Nigeriens, especially women and their children, suffer as they have less access to productive land to produce food.

For this year’s World Food Day, the FAO calls to change the future of migration by investing in agriculture and food security, especially in the drylands, so that rural families can make a decent living from their farm for them and the next generation.

In 2013, the government of Niger launched the ambitious 3N initiative (Nigeriens Nourishing Nigeriens) to tackle this food security through “agricultural and political transformation”. More inclusive land access, as requested by the upcoming Conference on Land Policy in Africa next November, would be a good step forward. This is an urgent need for Nigerien women who have much limited access to agricultural land and farm assets, despite their central role for family nutrition.

Integrated and natural ways to restore land’s food potential by the women and for the women

More than half of Sahel lands are degraded. Nigeriens are among the poorest, but also the fastest growing population with 4% annual growth rate. Pressure on agricultural lands means farmers cultivate fragile and marginal lands. Unsustainable grazing and farming practices like the clearing of tree cover to plant staple food crops of millet and sorghum, and removal of crop residues to feed animals without alternatives to renew soil fertility have accelerated this land degradation.

A hard red watertight lateritic layer prevents water seeping into the soil and plants to grow. Rural communities have abandoned these degraded common lands to free-range grazing animals and firewood harvesting, as not much grain can be produced there. However, because these soils are rich in clay, they can retain water much better than the sandy soils. And could be a precious food resource during the rainy season if the compacted layer is broken. This is the rationale of the Bio-reclamation of Degraded Lands (BDL) system. BDL combines indigenous water-harvesting techniques, application of organic matter and plantation of high-value trees and vegetables. 

The idea is to restore productivity of the barren lateritic soils by using traditional water-harvesting planting techniques, like half-moons or zai pits, for the cultivation of high value vegetables and trees, instead of millets or sorghum as farmers used to do. The impact on incomes and family nutrition makes the intensive labor investment worthwhile.

Agroforestry :  Roots to rights, resilience and returns

Over 10,770 women have been trained in BDL, planting nutritious vegetables like okras, sorrel or protein-rich leafy vegetable Senna obtusifolia, together with drought tolerant trees like vitamin C rich Pomme de Sahel (Ziziphus mauritiana), moringa, sweet tamarind, marula or Australian acacia depending on the families’ needs. In addition to supplementary food, trees can also provide firewood or fodder, shade and live fencing to protect the farming plots against errant livestock.

The other BDL innovation is to negotiate with land owners and the local authorities (village institutions and municipalities) to guarantee land use rights of degraded commons to a women’s group over a long period (fifteen years).

Previous ICRISAT research has shown that a 200 m2 BDL plot could yield an annual income of FCFA 50,000 (approximately 100 US dollars), which is equivalent to what men traditionally earn from millet production per hectare. A mid-term evaluation has estimated that women engaged in BDL groups have doubled their incomes compared to other non BDL families.

Impact on family nutrition is also undeniable. Vegetable and trees improve diet diversity and bring essential nutrients that the staple foods like millets and sorghum do not have. For instance, the leaves of moringa, a tree originated from Ethiopia, are packed with three times more iron than spinach and four times more calcium than milk. Women also dry surplus okras they gain during the production glut in August-September, so that they cook it later, providing nutritious food supplementation for up to 5 months during the dry season.  

Challenges to address and critical lessons learned to scale up BDL

Choice of site is important. BDL is like a green oasis in middle of barren lands that attracts goats and other livestock that don’t have much to eat at this time. To avoid conflicts with herders, it is not recommended to use degraded lands near pasture. Because of free grazing roaming pastoralism in Niger, solid tall fencing or thorny hedges are essential to protect the plants from the start.

Clarification of land ownership with the local authorities is also very important as in some cases, potential owners try to claim the land once the plot becomes productive. From the 167 sites planned initially, half are now cultivated by 87 women’s groups, representing 145 hectares of restored land in a recent assessment.

A close source of water is essential for minimum watering of trees until they are well established. The women’s group for each plot has six trees to take care off. But too much water is not good either as trees have to develop their roots deep in the soil. Watering once a week is enough for the first 2-3 years.

PASAM-TAI’s experience also shows the need for appropriate training and discussion with the families so that they understand that the outcomes even from the first year largely outweigh the required labor to prepare the land. CRS country director, Jean-Marie Adrian, recommends that the community contributes up front with labor and tools, to test the genuine interest for BDL. Providing food for work for instance had some drawbacks, as for some participants, food aid was the reason to join the group, rather than wanting to cultivate the land.

Women’s workload is a dimension any rural project should not ignore. Land regeneration requires physical work especially for the first year when digging zai or half-moon pits. Accompanying measures to reduce women’s workload in the community, such as providing a communal grinding mill or piped water system would help.

ICRISAT scientist Fatondji Dougbedji, stresses that though BDL is meant for women, husbands and other men of the community should be encouraged to assist them for the planting work, especially at the beginning. After the first harvests, most families are convinced. 

Looking at the impact on incomes and family nutrition, BDL ticks many boxes: gender, food and nutrition security and climate resilience. We need to scale up this inclusive farming practice so more families in rural Niger nurture their roots in a more food secure community.

The 5 year project PASAM-TAI is funded by USAID’s Food for Peace and led by the NGO Catholic Relief Service and the research organization ICRISAT, part of the CGIAR, aims at reversing both the gender and environmental handicaps of poor land rights for women and widespread land desertification through the Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands (BDL).