Farmer managed natural regeneration is making a difference in developing countries but institutions need adapting for it to work
There’s a received wisdom that tree stumps, shoots and bushes should be cleared from a field before planting crops. It seems logical, but the experience of farmers in southern Niger suggests otherwise. There, the practice of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) has been found to significantly improve soil quality and crop yields, along with additional resources and income from tree products.
FMNR takes advantage of living underground root systems of previously cleared trees. Rather than remove new shoots, farmers practicing FMNR will nurture five or so of the strongest, most upright stems, pruning the rest away. These stems are allowed to grow, and some are harvested for firewood and timber.
The presence of shrubs and trees helps fix nitrogen in the soil and lessens wind erosion so that seeds don’t blow away and have to be replanted, while falling leaves scattering around fields enrich the soil.
The practice was first introduced in Niger in the 1980s on a small experimental scale in response to widespread drought and land degradation, and a new publication by the World Agroforestry Centre describes how transformational this straightforward practice has been.
It cites a farmer from the Maradi region in southern Niger who estimates that most farmers were getting yields of around 150kg of millet per hectare before FMNR became widespread. Many now get more than 500kg.
“The trees also increase the infiltration rate, and farmers are finding their local water table is going up,” says Dennis Garrity, UN Drylands Ambassador and a senior fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre.
“This is all counter-intuitive to the paradigm of conventional agriculture, where we segregate crops and trees so they don’t compete. Extension services have generally been brought up in the northern paradigm, so we still run up against that conventional paradigm that you ought to clean your fields and grow your crops like a nice crop of corn in Iowa.”
That approach makes sense for northern climates with a short growing season, but in sub-Saharan Africa there’s more scope for mixing tree and field crops. The local Faidherbia albida (or “gao”) tree, for instance, sheds its leaves just before the planting season, enriching the soil.
“You can choose appropriate species such as these that are compatible with crops and if you manage the density and canopy appropriately you can get these dramatic benefits, which increase household income and crop production,” says Garrity.
Tree management has been practised for centuries in Africa and elsewhere but the integration of existing trees into farms fell away as a result of extension practices which encouraged “clean” fields.
Since FMNR began to be encouraged in the 1980s, a previously barren area of around 5m hectares has now returned to significant levels of tree cover. These trees translate into income: the World Agroforestry Centre estimates the value of tree products among sampled households practising FMNR in Niger at about $1,000 (£650) each per year.
Crucially, the system also frees women from having to search off the farm for firewood. Instead, firewood and other tree products can be harvested on the farm itself, and also sold for additional income.
One of the drivers for scaling this up in Niger was the relaxation of strict forestry codes. Previously, farmers had no legal right to trees on their land. The enforcement of these laws gradually faltered from the 1980s, which emboldened farmers to adopt techniques such as FMNR, and by 2004 Niger’s forestry law had been revised.
This is a common issue in many countries, and according to Chris Reij, a senior fellow of the World Resources Institute, it’s one area where development actors can make a difference.
“Farmers are motivated when they perceive ownership of their on-farm trees,” he says. “We are trying to create a grassroots movement around regreening, involving CSOs and NGOs, and are also discussing with national policymakers the need for adequate forestry legislation.”
Another important issue is how to encourage adoption of the practice. In Niger, scaling up has been achieved through farmer-to-farmer learning and radio-based awareness raising. The spread can be rapid, because once a farmer adopts the practice, the impact is seen quickly, says Reij.
“Once a farmer decides to protect and manage natural regeneration, he will have to prune a tree possibly in the first year, and certainly the second year. The prunings can then be used as firewood in the kitchen. The first benefits in the field can be visible in the second year.”
FMNR has also been taken up by farmers in other countries including Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali. However, a paucity of strong data on it is still a stumbling block for development actors, according to Garrity, although DfID’s recent UK Climate Week Award for its Evergreen Agriculture project signals growing recognition of agroforestry techniques in the donor community.
“We know it’s attractive to farmers, but convincing the scientific and extension community is more difficult. Development organisations want solid data to base their judgements on. We’re increasingly doing research on yield, soil and water conservation benefits to fill those gaps.”
As that evidence base grows, more widespread adoption of FMNR may depend on development actors continuing to help advocate for supportive forestry legislation where necessary, and also helping to develop supportive institutional environments within communities.
“As soon as farmers start to protect and manage trees, they need an affinity institution such as village organisations around it to set the rules for managing and protecting those trees, or farmers expose themselves to the risk of theft by those who don’t do so,” says Reij. “FMNR is low-cost and high-impact, and the actual technical part is simple. It’s the institutional part that is a bit more complex.”
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