Niger’s landscapes in general, particularly in Maradi have undergone a regime shift from a highly productive to a desert-dominated regime. The productive regime was maintained by land use characterized by scattered rural populations cultivating small fields amidst surrounding bush. Yields were sufficient and there were abundant supplies of forest products made possible by wet climatic conditions. The implementation of a new land law established the national government as the owner of all trees and provided disincentives for farmers to care for their land. This led to the exposure of soils to the Sahara winds resulting in erosion and accelerating desertification. This resulted in hunger and destitute among many people. Key institutional changes with regards to land tenure and tree growth were put in place along with simple soil and water conservation techniques, rock lining, improved versions of traditional planting pits or tasa, and demi-lunes which have reversed desertification. This process has reduced erosion and increased fertility and crop production, income, food security, and self-reliance to impoverished rural producers.
Type of regime shift
- Drylands & deserts (below ~500mm rainfall/year)
- Small-scale subsistence crop cultivation
- Extensive livestock production (natural rangelands)
Spatial scale of the case study
- Sub-continental/regional (e.g. southern Africa, Amazon basin)
Continent or Ocean
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Key direct drivers
- Vegetation conversion and habitat fragmentation
- Environmental shocks (eg floods)
- Global climate change
- Small-scale subsistence crop cultivation
- Extensive livestock production (rangelands)
Key Ecosystem Processes
- Soil formation
- Nutrient cycling
- Water cycling
- Food crops
- Wild animal and plant foods
- Water regulation
- Regulation of soil erosion
- Food and nutrition
- Livelihoods and economic activity
Spatial scale of RS
Time scale of RS
- Contemporary observations
Confidence: Existence of RS
- Well established – Wide agreement in the literature that the RS exists
Confidence: Mechanism underlying RS
- Well established – Wide agreement on the underlying mechanism
Productive Land Use Regime
The productive land use regime in Maradi Region as well as in the rest of Niger consists of a landscape characterised by sparse rural populations cultivating small fields amidst surrounding bush. Population densities are smaller with sufficient yields and ample supplies of timber and other forest products from natural woodlands. Fallow practices are common allowing fields to rest, and trees and shrubs are regenerated to provide extra wood before being cleared for planting (Winterbottom 2008). The most important feature of this regime is the fallow time which allows the environment to keep its natural productive capacity intact and provide a host of services such as soil and water conservation, increased soil fertility and goods among which food crops and fuel-wood in abundance. More importantly is that that productive period coincided with the wet decades that spanned from 1900 through with higher rainfalls during the 1920s, 1930s and 1950 (Hulme 2001).
The desert regime traces back to early 1960s, punctuated by the increasingly episode that commenced in the Sahel in the late 1960s, and which culminated in severe droughts in 1973, 1984 and 1990 (Warren 1995), and continues today. It is generally depicted as a regime characterised by an ongoing depreciation in ecosystem services and goods and moving towards a desert ecosystem. The landscapes are dominated by vast expanses of savannah devoid of vegetation under desertification threats until the early 1980s. This has resulted from a series of practices as a consequences of the enactment of institutional arrangements and enforced by both the French colonial government as well as the successive post-colonial governments. This regime regime illustrates high degrees of erosion and decreased soil fertility which has resulted in poverty and destitution translated into hunger, malnutrition, imbalanced diets and sometimes massive death.
Drivers and causes of the regime shift
Land clearing and tree-felling became common in the 1930s as the colonial administration pushed Nigerien farmers to grow export crops (cotton) and implemented policies that provided disincentives for farmers to care for their land (World Resources report 2008). Such disincentives included a new land law that established the national government as the owner of all trees and required Nigeriens to purchase permits to use them (Brough & Kimenyi 2002). By clearing native trees and shrubs, farmers exposed their lands to the fierce Sahara winds, resulting in plummeting soil fertility and harvests as a result of increased erosion. The loss of tree cover also triggered a rural fuel-wood crisis. Poor households were forced to burn animal dung or crop residues instead of using them for compost, reinforcing the downward spiral in soil quality and crop yields declines (Rinaudo 2007; Winterbottom 2008). Incidentally that resulted in an increase in intensity of cultivation of land reducing thus the fallow time to keep up with the production levels needed to feed an increasing human population which made it that woodlands were to be converted into farmland. That, in turn, contributed to land clearing and tree-felling and the cycle repeated itself in a reinforcing feedback loop.
The shrinking of Niger’s natural tree cover was exacerbated by a rapid population growth. That was a result of the perversely positive outcomes of the effective French health care system, notably higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality which incidentally increased a strain on natural resources (Brough & Kimenyi 2002). Therefore by 1975 much of the remaining natural woodland had been converted to farm fields to feed rapidly growing rural communities increasing consequently intensity of land cultivation which, in turn, reduces yield per hectare making food production one of recurrent problem for food security. As a result, the practice of fallow was abandoned altogether. By 2015, the Niger’s population will rise to 18.8 million and the area of cultivable land per capita will fall further- from 1.45 to 1.12 ha per person (Wentling 2008). But by clearing native trees and shrubs, farmers exposed their fields to the fierce winds, resulting in plummeting soil fertility and thereby harvests. In addition to the damaging effects of Sahara winds, the latter destroyed seeds in Niger’s June-to-October growing season that resulted more often in repeating sowing, destroying newly planted crops. The third and last driver is a series of an extreme 4-year drought that triggered famine across the Sahel in general through yield failures by impairing moisture in crop root zone, afflicting 50 million of people (Dan Baria 1999). Over the last 45 years, Niger has been plagued by an average of one bad harvest every eight years, following a growing season of low rainfall (Wentling 2008). That has exposed farmers to deadly cyclical droughts, which are predicted to increase as a result of climate change (Reij 2006; IPCC, 2007). These frequents droughts henceforth have increased rainfall variability that jeopardise bio-productivity of the system under study.
Impacts on ecosystem services and human well-being
The shift from a productive land use to a desert regime has direct impact on biodiversity of the area, causes soil erosion and decreases productivity therefore affecting provisioning services such as fuel-wood, and food for the local communities.
This has a direct impact on human wellbeing as it has increased poverty, hunger, malnutrition, imbalanced diets and sometimes even death.
Much of hope that has reversed desertification has come from the transformation of vast expanses of savannah devoid of vegetation into relatively densely studded landscapes with trees, shrubs, and crops. That has been achieved through an unprecedented, farmer-led re-greening movement initiated by the Maradi Integrated Development Project (MIDP) featuring a new approach to reforestation (Rinaudo 2005). This approach consists of low-cost techniques for managing the natural regeneration of trees and shrubs, known as farmer-managed natural regeneration, or FMNR. These techniques involved supporting the regeneration of trees and their sustainable management to produce continuous supplies of fuel-wood as well as non-timber products such as edible seeds and leaves. MIDP’s effort entailed few rules emphasizing farmer experimentation and choice. In fact, farmers chose how many trees stumps to let re-sprout in their fields, how many re-sprouted stems to grow and harvest, and what to do with the wood (Rinaudo 2005). By planting alternate rows of neem (Azadirachta indica) -an exotic nursery-grown species –and a native Acasia nilotica saplings across the valley to act as windbreaks, this techniques improved soil retention and fertility (Steinberg 1988). Re-vegetation also improves the traditional poor fertility of Niger’s soils, which in turn boosts crop production. Bush trees dotted across fields help hold soil in place, reducing wind and water erosion (Guero & Dan Lamso 2006). Moreover, the growing season on land with trees is longer because farmers only have to sow once, compared with twice or more on fields unprotected from the elements (Rinaudo 2005; Reij 2008). Such benefits are magnified when farmers act collectively. Vegetation in one field affects nearby land by serving as a windbreak and promoting improved water infiltration and soil retention (Winterbottom 2007). Besides the FMNR much of the success of the re-greening movement can also be attributed to the simultaneous soil and conservation work. In fact, simple soil and water conservation techniques were used to rehabilitate barren land. These widely adopted techniques consist of rock lining, improved versions of traditional planting pits or tasa, and demi-lunes that improve water infiltration into soil thereby increasing moisture in the root zone (Abdoulaye and Ibro, 2006). These techniques enabled cultivation of secondary vegetable crops such as onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cow peas, watermelon, and asparagus for home use and sale in local markets (Guero & Dan Lamso 2006). This simple and cost-effective practice of farmer-managed natural regeneration has provided an impressively wide range of benefits for Niger’s impoverish rural communities. Over the last 30 years or so, about 200 million trees have been protected and managed by farmers in the FMNR regions and at least 250,000 ha of degraded land has been restored to crop production (Reij 2008; McGahuey & Winterbottom; 2007). On the other hand, there has been a perceptible trend in the increase in rainfall that has recently been noticed across the Sahel region as a whole that might also account for that change that is happening.
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