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November 08, 2006

 Learning from Niger

At a recent international scientific meeting in Niamey on desertification:

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.

There's similar good news from Niger's neighbour Burkina Faso. An earlier paper by Reij decsribes the spread of a similar system for sorghum farming from around 1980, using small pits called zaļ plus low stone embankments for water control. It was inspired there by two farmers, Yacouba Sawadogo and Ousseni Zorome, with small-scale funding and extension work by the British NGO Oxfam.

What's the lesson for the USA?

The CIA World Factbook describes Niger and Burkina Faso as two of the poorest countries in the world; it estimates their PPP GDP per capita as $1,000 and $1,200. Niger actually ranks last on the UN index of human development.

These dirt-poor, uneducated African farmers have been practising the revolutionary, reality-based problem-solving method known as commonsense. Roughly speaking, this goes:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Find something that works.
  3. Do it, and keep doing it, and push your neighbours to do it.
It looks as if the adults are back in control of one branch of the US government; some of them may even be nearly as capable as Mr. Sawadogo. Is there perhaps a chance that his methods may be brought to bear on climate change? Of course the problem is much more complex than his, and the solutions more expensive; but then the resources of the United States are also orders of magnitude greater, and its opportunity costs for action much lower.

The British government has just issued a fat and alarming report on the economics of climate change. It bears the name of its chief economic adviser, Sir Nicholas Stern, who has held the same job at the World Bank.

The sum response by the Bush White House was an e-mailed statement:

The U.S. government has produced an abundance of economic analysis on the issue of climate change. The Stern Report is another contribution to that effort.
So that's all right then.

Unlike the White House I propose actually to read the Stern report over the coming weeks, and share my thoughts with you if I have any.

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