Sowing seeds and planting roots

FADE Environmental Articles, Weekly Column Tags: , 0
“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.” ― Wangari Maathai

It appears that the Yobe State Government is done talking and is committed to turning their words in action. This it showed with the launch of a massive tree-planting campaign in the 17 local government areas of the state to combat land degradation and desertification.

Yobe state is one of the eleven frontlines states bordering the desert in Nigeria making it highly prone to desertification. The government is hopeful that this campaign to plant three million trees would go a long way to reclaim soil fertility to enhance agricultural production. According to the state, during the official announcement of this campaign: desert encroachment, land degradation and siltation of rivers had retarded agricultural activities in the state coupled with the negative effect of promoting poverty in the communities.

A massive sensitization campaign preceded the tree planting announcement across the 14 emirates in the 17 local government areas. This is highly commendable as such massive planting and nurturing of trees would protect the environment against wind storms, improve soil fertility and provide shelter for humans and animals. It would even contribute to the socio-economic growth of the state by providing jobs for those who would be responsible for the planting and nurturing of the trees. This is a good thing as it would lend a hand to the Presidency in its ambition to lift 100 million people out of poverty in the next 10 years.

It is important to point out here that the rains are coming to an end. Most farmers would agree with the fact that for planting, water is an essential partner. The rain is the cheapest and easiest way to get water across a large landmass for an extended period. It will not be sufficient in the long run though as soon after the rains come the dry season. This is a period where one can experience a high mortality rate. Mortality can come from not just dry season but termites as well.

From our experience in Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE) – an NGO committed to the prevention and control of environmental degradation with more emphasis on desert encroachment, the rate of mortality for such a project should be calculated to be about 35 – 40%. This we hope has been taken into consideration and adequate plans for the replacement of lost seedlings are in place.

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Damataru, the state capital of Yobe; even at that time, one could see dunes all over the place, some of which were two to three storey buildings high, almost as if the town was waiting to be taken over by the desert. I was told not too long ago by those who have been there recently that not too much has changed and in fact that in some places, it may have gotten worse.

This is why such a project like this is essential even if a little late in arriving. It needs to also be replicated in other states. The sooner this is done, the better because planting and nurturing trees is a long term project. It is not a quick fix. It takes time for trees to grow which means it will take some time for the trees to actually contribute in stopping the encroachment, pushing back the desert, carrying out of land reclamation to recover the land and developing greenery so that farmers can enjoy good yield in a fertile land and migration can be curbed as animal herds and their owners can return. The host and surrounding communities would greatly benefit from this project. It will change the health of the people because the value chain that will develop from all the above-mentioned benefits will be immense. Still, it will take about 10 years to notice any considerable progress.

It becomes paramount to state again at this point something I have campaigned for over the past six decades that the development and security of the continent of Africa will continue to suffer until the Sahara which is the biggest desert in the word is tamed. We will continue to play a defensive role in pushing back the Sahara if it is not tamed rather than take on the offensive role by developing a proper road network in the desert, which will, in turn, lead to the greening of the area.

35 years after my first expedition across the Sahara, I made a return trip to the desert. This time, my journey was not to satisfy any youthful yearning for adventure but was a definite mission to save the lands and people from the fast encroaching desert.

You see, I had witnessed first-hand the extent at which the desert claimed vegetation and forced people further away from their homes. This was as far back as 1966 and despite a series of conventions and discussions; nothing definite was being done to curb the encroaching desert. I felt I had a responsibility to do show people just how bad the situation is and can be.

One of the ways by which I did this was to incorporate a much-needed vehicle for my work and advocacy in the environment called Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE), Africa. Its primary mission is to create awareness on a global scale of the immediate, medium, and long-term implications of desert encroachment and desertification. Understanding the constraints of policies, because of frequent changes in African governments and diminishing donor support, FADE has chosen a medium-term strategy that combines an awareness program with direct action.

I had a long-standing relationship with the late Emir of Kano State so it, therefore, came almost without prompting to me, that in choosing the location for my first pilot project of planting a wall of trees to combat land degradation, I approached the Kano State Government, who welcomed my plans with so much enthusiasm. Therefore, with the assistance of the Emir and the founding members of FADE, we raised funds and seedlings for the project and got to work.

The very first milestone accomplished was the sinking and commissioning of a deep borehole. Before this, the community had no public potable water supply. The indigenes depended on collecting water from ponds and seasonal streams for their water supply. To me, this would be grossly inadequate to sustain the pilot project. Besides I also wanted to change the lives of the people by providing a source of clean water for their use. With the borehole in place, we started planting in the 3rd quarter of 2001. Initially, we planted ten thousand trees but kept expanding and replacing dead ones with time. I enlisted the help of the students in the daily watering of the trees. Let me point out that watching the trees grow and bloom was an immense fulfilment of the purpose for me. Borrowing the words of Louise Dickinson Rich, “I feel a great regard for trees; they represent age and beauty and the miracles of life and growth.”

But what I did not envisage was the tremendous growth in students’ enrolment at the only secondary school in the village. Within 2 years, they had grown from less than 50 students to over 200 students. Where did they all come from? The school principal informed me that a lot of those who had earlier skipped town due to loss of income and livelihood returned with their families. Others were children of settlers from nearby farming communities, who were then able to tend to their livestock with water from the borehole.

I was informed that under the supervision of the district head, water would be piped, periodically, from the borehole through a series of plastic hoses and pipes to nearby fields and farms. For their domestic needs, women and children would collect water in jerry cans, buckets, and leather pouches. I was truly astonished by what FADE had accomplished. We wanted to provide water for the plants, and here we were providing water for a whole community, and growing the community in the process.

I told this story to show that land reclamation activities such as the one the Yobe State government is embarking on can have far-reaching advantages on the entire region if done right. This campaign mustn’t go the way of many of its predecessors in other parts of the countries including the Great Green Wall Initiative which should have done considerably well in greening a number of these frontline states by now.


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