Action Against Desertification

Making land fertile again

FAO’s Action Against Desertification programme is expanding a successful land restoration model across the Sahel


Tera – Land restoration in northern Niger is making degraded areas productive again, providing economic opportunities in a region where migration has become a tradition. Now, under FAO’s Action Against Desertification programme, these efforts are being expanded to six African countries.

When Moumouni Nuhu returned to his village after thirty years, everything was gone, the trees, the animals, everything. In his youth they would chase hares, antelopes, guinea fowl – a bit too much, maybe. 

“The harmattan blows with a terrible force now. It takes all nutritious elements out of the soil,” says this 65-year old retired civil servant in Bajirga, his community on the outskirts of Tera, a dusty town in north-western Niger, known for its cattle market that attracts traders from as far as Nigeria. 

Who can be surprised that youth are leaving, Moumouni asks, dressed in a white robe and sitting in the shade of a tree. Pointing out the barren field around him where women are digging under a scourging sun, he says: “We have to make degraded land fertile again.” 

Travel and see

If you have a reason to stay home, you don’t leave, says Hassan Gado (51), who has just returned after a long life of work abroad. He first left in 1984, sold cigarettes in Lagos, worked in the port of Cotonou and then in a shoe-shop in Lomé. 

In 2010, someone offered him a boat trip to Spain, but Hassan was told that the captain of the ship did not know about it. He got scared he would be thrown overboard when discovered and decided not to go. 

Being a migrant worker is hard, Hassan says. You don’t have any family. Sometimes you don’t even have a place to sleep. But there are good times too. “I went out to see the world,” says Hassan. “Bob Marley said: ‘Travel and see’. If you always stay where you are, you don’t learn anything.”

Not trees only

A truck has arrived today from the national forest seed center in Niger's capital Niamey, loaded with seeds for communities around Tera that have been involved in land restoration activities since 2013.

Maman Adda, Director of the center, explains that communities are at the heart of restoration efforts. Seeds were selected based on extensive village consultations. Capacity development of village technician is continuous. Seed collection took place with help of the seed center and, next, seeds are planted in village nurseries. Since 2013, five nurseries were established around Tera, now producing 100 000 seedlings per year. 

Today’s shipment from Niamey contains seeds of shrubs and grasses. “Restoration is not only about planting trees”, Maman Adda says. As fast-growing species, shrubs and grasses produce within one year, while the output is fodder grass, not only essential to feed the animals of a population that is predominantly pastoralist or mixes farming with cattle grazing. It sells well on Tera’s market too. 

The hard work is now being done by the women in the field, where Moumouni Nuhu is still sitting under the tree. They are preparing the soil by digging traditional half-moons, or zaï, that retain rain water and keep the soil moisturized, giving plants a better chance to grow. The seeds from Niamey are planted on the borders and when the rains come in June, one tree will be planted in every zaï. Seventy hectares of land were restored around Tera since 2013.

A river

“The solution is in the plants”, says Moctar Sacande, a plant scientist from Burkina Faso, who developed this restoration model while working at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and is now leading efforts under FAO’s Action Against Desertification programme to scale-up restoration in six African countries, to an estimated 10 000 hectares by the next planting season starting in June. 

Tera's mayor Hamidou Niandou agrees that restoration can alleviate people difficulties here, but he thinks that more is needed. He is concerned, not only about emigration, which has become a tradition, but by the lure of terrorism – not for ideological reasons, Hamidou says, but because you can make good money by joining.

Sacande contends that restoration can transform the Sahel's woes into opportunity. Think about the economic potential of gum arabic from Acacia senegal, one of the preferred tree species here. Or livestock: Niger could become an exporter.

“Working together,” he says, “governments, the international community, civil society and grassroots organizations have a real opportunity to convert these tiny drops into a river crossing the entire region and improve the living conditions of people that so far have been left out of the equation.”


Key facts and figures

FAO’s land restoration approach has been successfully put in practice in transboundary interventions in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger between 2013-2015 in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

  • 120 villages involving 50 000 farmers, half of them women.
  • 55 woody and herbaceous species planted, using over 1 million seeds and seedlings.
  • 2 235 hectares of degraded land restored.

The restoration model approach and results have been published in Restoration Ecology - 2016 by FAO experts Nora Berrahmouni and Moctar Sacande. 

Read more: Moctar Sacande: "Land degradation is not yet irreversible".