10 June 2011, Rome - An FAO pilot project that has proved a great success in combating desertification is to be rolled out more widely in an attempt to turn African drylands back into fertile land.
With two thirds of the African continent now classified as desert or drylands and desertification affecting a quarter of the world's population, the breakthrough has the potential to transform the lives of vulnerable populations. In operation since 2004, the Acacia project has involved the planting and managing of Acacia forests in arid lands helping combat desertification while providing socio-economic benefits to local communities.
Fatou Seye, her husband and their six children live in the village of Thiékene Ndiaye in Senegal's drylands. Now 50 years old, Fatou remembers how different the land looked during her own childhood. "When I was young, the land was so much greener with a much greater diversity of plant species," she recalls.
Here, as in much of the Sahel - the 5000-kilometre belt of land that divides the Sahara desert from the rest of Africa - vegetation has been disappearing.
The Acacia project
Climate change has led to prolonged periods of drought, over-intensive farming and over-grazing have caused land degradation and deforestation has turned the once fertile land into desert. In an attempt to reverse that process of desertification, FAO has stepped in with the Acacia project. Fatou Seye and her family are among the beneficiaries. "Before the project we had no trees, we were cultivating degraded, infertile lands, but with the project that has changed, " she says.
Fatou Seye is one of 150 women in the village benefiting from the project. From 2004 to 2007, FAO, in partnership with the Senegalese forestry service, provided seeds and seedlings and taught the women in the village how to sow and plant the Acacia trees as well as how to extract and market the gum they produce.
In the last year, the trees have finally reached maturity and gum extraction has become possible. But even before the local community benefited.
According to Nora Berrahmouni, FAO Forestry officer, "Acacia offers many benefits. They feed the soil by capturing nitrogen that restores fertility. It is a shelter for crops. It also provides gum Arabic, which has an international market, and so it is good for the economy. Not only that but it is also a source of fodder for livestock and food for local communities."
Fatou confirms that the Acacia have already dramatically improved living conditions "because now we're producing hibiscus juice and millet, peanuts and beans, which we can eat. Production of fodder for livestock has increased and we sell the fodder at market. With the money, we are planning to build a mill so can make flour and bread."
Harvesting of the gum itself has only just begun as, at 7 years if age, the plants are only just mature enough. In the coming years the plants will provide further income for these women.
The gum is sold via intermediaries to the Valdafrique processing plant close to Senegal's capital, Dakar. From there it will be sold on international markets.
The Chief pharmacist at Valdafrique, Dr. Madiagne Sakho, says "the Arabic gum industry is great business because the gum is in demand from many industries, including the pharmaceutical and food industries where it's used in a wide variety of products ranging from bakery and dairy products to soft drinks."
According to Thiam Sakhoudia of the Network for Gum Arabic and Resin Associations (NGARA), "great potential exists to provide income for these communities and also to help diversify the economy because these days the peanut market is in crisis so the gum Arabic sector can help make up for losses there."
A total of 44 villages have benefited from the Acacia project in Senegal so far and the project is also in operation in five more countries across the region. Italy has funded the Acacia Operation Project since 2003 with a total funding of USD 5.389.400. Based on its success, FAO is now in search of funding to roll the Acacia project out on a wider scale to re-green more of the land bordering the Sahara desert. If successful, the initiative will keep the desert sands at bay and help provide protection for the millions of vulnerable people living within Africa's drylands.