Friday, February 16, 2007

In Niger, "Trees Turn Back the Desert"— but it's too soon to celebrate

Ambassador James Bullington astonished his foreign service colleagues (including me) when he marked his retirement at the end of a 37-year career as a diplomat by signing up with Peace Corps to run its program in Niger, one of Africa's poorest countries. After reading the New York Times' interesting and hopeful piece on Niger* last Sunday, I asked Jim how well it matched what he had learned about the country during his six sun-burnt years there. Here is his response, plus two of his own photos:

The New York Times article on the greening of the desert in Niger is a welcome change from the gloomy reports of famine, disease, war and other disasters that dominate news reports from Africa. It's backed by what seems to be good scientific evidence, and it's consistent with what I saw during my time as Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. Perhaps the best news in the article is that this progress in reclaiming areas that fell barren due to desertification has been achieved by simple, low cost methods undertaken by ordinary farmers, not by a massive (and probably unsustainable) government project.

The article is less than satisfyingly informative, however, on how millions of illiterate farmers were inspired to protect existing trees and were given the rudimentary skills needed to reclaim land that has turned into hardpan and plant new trees on it. In fact, this has been a decades-long process facilitated by the Niger Government (with regional tree nurseries and arbor day campaigns), and fostered especially by more than 3000 American Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived in Nigerien villages and promoted tree planting and other conservation techniques over the past 45 years. Peace Corps remains very active in Niger, with about 120 Volunteers working today alongside poor rural people in extraordinarily harsh conditions. They are highly appreciated by the people they serve, and by the Nigerien Government, but they receive little credit from Americans and little notice by the American media.

Also, in spite of the very good news that the long-term southward creep of the Sahara seems to have been halted or even reversed in Niger during the past few years, we need to bear in mind that this is only one of the problems besetting this poorest of the world's countries. (It ranks 177 out of 177 countries covered in the United Nations Development Program's 2006 Human Development Index.) An even worse problem, for example, is uncontrolled population growth, which has been running at 3.3% to 3.6% annually for decades and shows no signs of moderating. This means that the population doubles every 20 years or so. In 1960, it was only 3 million. Today, it is 14 million, and it is projected to reach 23 million by 2020. Consequently, per capita GDP has been falling steadily, and most Nigeriens are even poorer today than they were in the 1960s.

Moreover, while land reclamation and more trees are certainly useful, they can't even solve the problems of water availability and soil fertility, much less cope with global warming. Water tables have continued to drop throughout most of Niger, as water is drawn off to support the growing human and animal demands; and per-hectare yields of millet and other food crops are falling as increasingly marginal land is brought under cultivation.

Although the good news of a greener Niger is most welcome, any tendency to celebrate should be restrained by the grim realities of intractable problems and poor prospects. Niger needs a lot more help, over many years, if it is to be lifted from its grinding poverty.

*Lead photo by Michael Kanber for The New York Times

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