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27 June 2023

Irrigation-free indigenous tree restoration: key to smallholder climate resilience in drylands

Savannah landscape showing extensive grassland and indigenous trees. Photo Credit: Rizknaz, Pexels

Local resources have received little attention in the dual quest to improve livelihoods while taking action towards climate change mitigation. In many cases, policies and strategies prioritise technocratic solutions. However, a recent project in northern Nigeria has revealed the potential of indigenous tree species in reducing climate-induced hardships. These species have often been overlooked, but they can play a significant role in local development, promoting a green recovery, and mitigating climate change.

Trees, in general, and especially multi-purpose and nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs, have been part of the farming systems of the arid and semi-arid areas of Kano and Jigawa states in northern Nigeria for hundreds of years.  Farmers have observed that planting agricultural crops under certain trees, like White Acacia (Faidherbia albida) and African Locust Bean (Parkia biglobosa), results in higher yields compared to plots without such trees. This is because these trees have the ability to fix nitrogen into the soil. This age-long practice, however, is at the moment facing two critical challenges: 1) ravaging incidence of poverty, leading to the over-exploitation of natural resources (including such trees on farms); 2) shift in ecological zones due to climate change, with the Sudan savannah becoming drier and mirroring the Sahel savannah, which further exacerbates tree loss.

A female farmer practicing indigenous tree management techniques. Photo Credit: UK PACT

As in many parts of the Sahel region, tree restoration in dryland northern Nigeria is still mainly a government or development partner-driven venture. This centrally executed arrangement favours planting fast-growing exotics with less local uses in heavy water and input-dependent tree nurseries. The arrangement further excludes many smallholders desirous of key indigenous trees for multiple ecological enhancement and livelihood diversification uses. In a dry region facing one of the harshest impacts of a changing climate, smallholder farmers in northern Nigeria can least afford irrigating these exotic trees both at nursery and after field planting.

A recent project, funded by UK PACT (Green Recovery Challenge Fund) between University of Leeds, University of York and Bayero University (Kano-Nigeria) has demonstrated that restoring indigenous tree species on smallholder landscapes can be a cost-effective way to contribute to local development, support green recovery, and mitigate the effects of climate change in arid and semi-arid Sahelian regions of Africa. The project highlighted the importance of irrigation-free indigenous tree restoration (IFITR) practices in improving the local climate, livelihoods and reducing poverty among smallholder farmers in Jiwaga and Kano states, northern Nigeria. The region faces serious risks of desertification attributed partly to climate change, unsustainable land use practices and non-replacement of lost native tree species that have provided valuable resources for local people for many years.

Through innovative training and practical learning sessions, the project team supported farmers in developing skills for identifying, nurturing and managing local indigenous tree species that require no irrigation for their continued survival. The training included silvicultural practices such as selecting indigenous tree species stumps, thinning and pruning and follow-on management of sprouts to revive and accelerate the growth of these indigenous trees. The promoted trees, identified through innovative and rigorous co-design and co-creation processes, are typically woody, with a long lifespan and ability to contribute to regreening and climate change mitigation strategies over an extended period.

Restoring indigenous trees provides smallholder farmer households in northern Nigeria, who constitute over 70% of the population and are among the poorest in the country, with valuable resources such as animal feed and fruits. The trees are vital for supplementing household incomes and revenues may come from the sale of baobab, tamarind and jujube fruits, shea fruits/butter, locust bean fruits/ powder and baobab leaves. With such livelihood diversification and revenue-sourcing activities traditionally tied to feminine tasks, indigenous tree restoration can significantly improve the negotiation and decision-making capacity of women.

Indigenous baobab trees. Photo credit: Gregory Fullard, Unsplash

To ensure continued learning and sustainability, the project developed context-specific training manuals and four demonstration plots (two in each state) which support practical training on the management of indigenous tree species. The project team further produced three (3) educational videos and organised an art exhibition to raise regional awareness about the benefits of irrigation free indigenous tree restoration. These outputs also focused on implementing principles of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI).

Looking  into the future

By leveraging the potential of indigenous trees, the project contributes to the dual goals of long-term green recovery and livelihood improvement in the arid regions of northern Nigeria. The emphasis on an equitable and gender transformative approach provides some opportunities for wholistically scaling-up the environmental and socio-economic outcomes of the project to other arid and Sahelian regions in Africa. Ultimately, attention needs to be paid to the potential contributions of long lost and fast depleting indigenous resources to climate change mitigation and livelihood diversification.

This article was written by Professor Ibrahim Baba Yakubu, Department of Environmental Management at Bayero University, Kano- Nigeria.