‘From Desert to Oasis’ Symposium Showcases Progress in Combating Desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa

Too often, the drylands are portrayed by the media as scenes of suffering, despair and dependency. This gives an impression of hopelessness that is not the whole story. The drylands are home to some of the most productive agriculture in the world, and that is the vision we should strive towards.

To explore this vision, a scientific Symposium/Workshop entitled “From Desert to Oasis” was held in Niamey, Niger during 23-25 September under the auspices of His Excellency Prime Minister of Niger Mr. Hama Amadou. Presentations at the Symposium asked whether there are important successes that have been overlooked in all the doom and gloom, and how we can learn from and build on them. Participants included approximately 100 individuals from all African regions (including those represented by the CORAF, SADC, and ASARECA research networks) and from international organizations representing the research, development and donor communities across Africa.

In a lead presentation, Dr. Chris Reij of Wageningen University revealed new evidence that three million hectares of degraded land in Niger have been rehabilitated by farmers on their own initiative. This phenomenon had gone unrecognized because it was a continuous slow development over the past thirty years over a vast area, and few had been carefully studying what farmers actually do. Because of their chemical composition, very hard crusts called ‘laterite’ tend to form on top of these Sahelian soils, making large areas useless for crop production. Farmers figured out how to break through those crusts and drop manure including native tree seeds into the holes, allowing the trees to grow and cover the land, which gradually breaks down the crust.

ICRISAT is aiding this farmer innovation by identifying high-value trees and shrubs for planting in these “zai holes” so that farmers can immediately begin earning income on their laborious investment. ICRISAT searches the world for the best quality fruit varieties and provides ‘grafted’ trees that attach the shoots of the best varieties onto the rootstocks of well-adapted local varieties, combining hardy local adaptation with higher income potential.

UNCCD Executive Secretary Ambassador Hama Arba Diallo praised this farmer-driven progress, but noted that Africa and the world are growing impatient and wish to see these successes spread more rapidly to benefit all. A major session of the workshop discussed ways to ‘up-scale’ successes and new technologies more widely across the drylands. Dr. Musa Mbenga, Executive Secretary of the Comite Permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte Contre la Secheresse dans le Sahel (CILSS) described how regional policies would need to be changed in order to enable and motivate land users to better combat desertification.

In closing the event, the participants developed a Niamey Declaration describing this positive vision that is still out of reach for far too many, and called for increased action. They also endorsed the new ‘Oasis’ international research-for-development initiative that seeks to build scientific momentum and awareness in support of the goals of the UNCCD.

The Niamey Declaration >>