Innovation regenerates forests in the Niger
Local knowledge and a new type of relationship between farmers, extension workers and researchers are yielding impressive results
In the Maradi region of southern Niger, farmers are exploring innovative ways of managing natural resources. Farmers are demonstrating these innovations to extension workers and university researchers, and together they are looking for ways to improve and replicate them.
One of the most promising innovations is the creation of village committees to manage how farmers, pastoralists and others share land, allowing forests to regenerate and encouraging a more balanced use of natural resources.
The village committees are made up of four to six men and women volunteers who raise awareness about forest regeneration, negotiate agreements between farmers and pastoralists, and guard against illegal tree felling. They also set fines for violators.
In many areas of the Sahel, poverty has caused severe deforestation as people cut down trees for fuel, building and other uses. With each year's rains, tiny tree shoots begin to emerge from the soil, a reminder of the thousands of stumps and roots lying just below the surface. In the past, these shoots had little chance of growing to full size because animals grazed on them, farmers cleared them to plant crops or people cut down young trees for fuel.
With the committees in charge, a wide variety of woody species are growing again. The trees and shoots provide fodder for animals and wind protection for crops, increase soil fertility and supply wood for construction and fuel.
The committees receive formal recognition from village and administrative authorities, ensuring that villagers respect their decisions ? including those obliging them to pay fines. More than 50 village committees are now operating in the area.
The successes of village committees were first identified during an IFAD-supported project, the ten-year Aguié Rural Development Project, which began in 1991. An evaluation had found that the project's impact on poverty reduction was constrained by a top-down approach and limited involvement by project participants. But it noted the success of village committees and other innovative ways of managing natural resources.
Between 1998 and 2003, two IFAD technical assistance grants paid for a pilot research project to document and test farmers' innovations. In addition to the village committees, farmers experimented with reintroducing a local species of palm tree, establishing village-based project evaluation teams and creating women's credit groups.
The NGO Environment and Development in the Third World worked with researchers from the University of Niamey in the Niger and the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. They concluded that many of the innovations could be replicated in other rainfed agricultural areas of the Sahel.
"This partnership was unique because researchers promoted the knowledge of farmers and treated them as true partners in the search for solutions," says Chaibou Guero, coordinator of the research project.
As part of the research project, university students spent three months learning from farmers in the field. The experience enriched students' understanding while providing important lessons to be incorporated into future curricula.
"Teaching how to blend farmers' knowledge with scientific knowledge is essential if we want to respond to the true needs of farmers," says Alessandro Meschinelli, Research Analyst in IFAD's Technical Advisory Division.
A new project has now been approved and is expected to begin soon. The eight-year Project for the Promotion of Local Initiative for Development in Aguié is supported by IFAD and the Belgian Survival Fund (BSF). It builds on the innovations started by farmers, but uses a more participatory approach than the earlier project. BSF will focus on improving nutrition, health and sanitation.
Farmers and their knowledge will be central to the project's activities. Farmers will demonstrate their best practices and will work with extension workers, researchers and other members of the project team to see how to remove constraints and make improvements.
"It seems like a small shift, but the results can be radical," says François Lemmens, BSF Programme Manager. "Instead of project teams feeling accountable to their bosses back home, they feel accountable to the farmers themselves."
The project will also promote partnerships between farmers and service providers, NGOs and other institutions, ensuring access to technical assistance. It will bring farmers together with local officials, complementing the Government of the Niger's efforts to decentralize decision-making to the local level.