While we celebrate the International Year of Forests, a collaborative pilot project combating deforestation sets a fine example of successful collaboration between FAO, its African partners in six countries, members of local communities, regional organizations and resource partners. In operation since 2004, the Acacia project consists in planting native gum Arabic trees in unproductive drylands and it has helped transform lives and revitalize the environment. It involves the planting and managing of Acacia forests in arid lands helping to combat desertification while providing socio-economic benefits to local communities. Whether increasing desertification in Africa is the result of climate change or caused by human practices degrading the landscape, it is happening all the same. Nora Berrahmouni, FAO forestry officer, argues "We need to tackle and address the drivers behind desertification, through sustainable land and forest management, not just fixing the problems after they happen". However, no magic bullet will solve all these problems, but increasing woodland cover or putting back trees into the landscape is the first step in reducing soil, erosion, even enriching soils, and providing such basic needs as shade and firewood. But maybe there are certain species of trees which provide even more than just these essentials, and can be considered at least as one of the magic bullets.
The Acacia Operation, implemented through the funds provided by the Italian Contribution to FAO Global Trust Fund for Food Security and Safety in the GTFS/RAF/387/ITA project, has contributed to achieve valuable success in the Sahel region, as explained by Mr Lucci Chiarissi, Responsible for the FAO/Italy Trust Fund for Food Security in this interview.
The gum Arabic tree, which fixes vital fertilizer nitrogen into the soil provides these benefits and that is why this species is spearheading the Acacia project. According to Nora Berrahmouni, "The gum Arabic tree has many benefits. It feeds the soil, so that the fertility is restored. It also provides shelter for crops, as well as fodder for livestock". And the easily extractable gum is in ever increasing international demand for a myriad of uses in the food, soft drinks and pharmaceutical industries, due to its edible properties.
Since 2004, this pilot project was implemented in six countries (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Kenya, Sudan, Niger), and its results and lessons learnt have been promoted and disseminated across the Sahel. FAO has taught members of local communities, particularly women, to sow seeds and plant seedlings of Acacia; seven years later they are also learning how to harvest and market the gum collectively to reap profits from an expanding international market. And, regardless of external markets for gum, their fields are producing the food they need, while the Acacia trees supply fodder in the form of leaves and seedpods for their livestock. Much of the success on the ground owes a great deal to the efficient co-operation of different groups at FAO collaborating with their in-country partners, ranging from forestry officers at regional to national levels to those involved in the Network for Natural Gums and Resins in Africa (NGARA). Sally Bunning from the Natural Resources and Environment Department at FAO, describes what lies behind this success as Inspirational Teamwork. The project has seen the integration of the expertise of the Forestry Department with the resource mobilization and operational capacity of the Technical Departments, as well as the consolidated partnership with countries, regional organizations and resource partners. OCE has produced and disseminated videos showing the project results to the most influent media outlets. The project has also reached beyond the Organization, developing synergies with other programmes, offices or organizations.
Fatou Seye describes best the impact that the Acacia project has had on her family and community, "Since we received trees and tools for the project, it has been easier for us to work the land and put food on the table". In Nora's words "team is the heart of this programme".