How afforestation combats desertification in Nigeria

By Prof. Nasiru Idris

Afforestation programme is playing significant role towards checkmating desert encroachment in Nigeria. However, combating desertification requires an integrated, multi-dimensional approach which involves the establishment of shelterbelts, windbreaks, woodlots, orchards and nurseries as well as complimenting it with social forestry projects which raises public awareness through campaigns such as school forestry programs, forestry extension services and a fuel wood conservation program. All these efforts were to mitigate the environmental and socioeconomic problems in the northern part of Nigeria.

The Nigerian government in collaboration with the World Bank embarked on some afforestation programmes to check desertification and further environmental deterioration, while attempting to reclaim some of its dislocated communities in response to the worsening ecological conditions in the northern part of the country. An initial “Forestry I” was designed to last from 1979 to 1986. However, this first attempt was unsuccessful and consequently was aborted in 1984 due to several reasons among them are seedlings survivals rate was very low and less than 5% of over 50 million seedlings distributed free of charge during the five-year period survived.

Despite the unfortunate termination of the program, there were useful lessons learned for future investments.

For instance, it was learned that some farmers acquired the free potted seedling in order to use the enriched potting soil as fertiliser for their millet, and not necessarily to plant the trees. This practice alerted program planners to farmers’ concern for better food crop yields into feed their family. Insufficient protection of saplings from grazing livestock, inappropriate choice of trees species, conflicting scheduling times, poor transportation and insufficient distribution methods were some of the limiting factor that constrained this precursory tree – planting initiative. It was also learned that farmers had tree preferences and took pains to protect and nurture their fruits and shade trees such as cashew, mango, parkia, guava and neem.

After Forestry I, the Forestry II project was undertaken in the period of 1987-1996. The objectives of these programmes included: (a) strengthening the structural base of the forestry sector through improved policies, revenue collection system, training and research; (b) stabilising soil conditions in threatened areas and improving the supply of fuel wood, poles and fodder, by supporting farm forestry and shelter belt activities; and (c) increasing the supply of industrial wood by improving the management of existing high priority plantations and by establishing new plantations.

During the Forestry II programme, the government has used several components of the projects including shelterbelts, woodlots, orchards, roadside planning of trees, livestock production and establishment of nurseries. The first component used during the afforestation programme is shelterbelts, which are long rows of trees aligned to break the impact of prevailing winds; in Northern Nigeria, belts were aligned in a northeast/southwest direction to break the most damaging of winds, which occur in April-May at the start of the rainy season.

The main objectives of the Shelterbelt establishment were: (1) to provide a source of fuel wood; (2) to provide a source of poles for building; (3) to prevent desert encroachment by stabilising soils and reducing winds; (4) to increase crop productivity; and (5) to make marginal lands more arable while the second component is woodlots which are plot of trees planted by farmers or communities on their farmland.

Major uses for the woodlots include fuel-wood, fencing poles, roofing poles, electric poles and also to increase income by selling the products of the woodlots as well as to stabilise and improve the soils, and provide fodder for animals and the third component is Orchards which are land areas or developed plots of trees activated for fruits, nuts and to improve nutrition through consumption of the produce. The last component of the Forestry II programme is the Roadside Planting of trees which is done mainly by project office staff. This involves the planting of trees (multi-purpose) in often available spaces along the roads and pathways.

The afforestation component of the Forestry II project was initiated as a pilot project. It was aimed at providing baseline information for future afforestation activities in the semi-arid region of Nigeria. The afforestation programme was implemented in six and later nine states located within the semi-arid region of the country. The states include Bauchi, Katsina, Borno, Yobe, Jigawa, Kano, Plateau, Sokoto and Kebbi. The programme consists of various investments including nursery development, woodlot and orchard establishment, farm and social forestry activities and shelterbelt establishment.

The project has recorded appreciable positive impact at various levels of its implementations. The improvement of livelihood of the rural people through increased forest products supply has been noted, fuelwood and poles supply has also increased, and this has gone a long way in creating employment for the rural dwellers. On the other hand, the rural populaces are now very aware of the consequences to the environment, of mismanaging the biological potentials of the region either through overgrazing, bush burning and/or indiscriminate tree felling.

People now appreciate the impact of shelterbelts particularly their effect on the reduction of wind speed, increased litter accumulation, soil fertility and increased food in the form of fruits and invariably improved crop yield as well as fodder availability.

However, for more than 20 years after the Forestry II programme, desertification still remains the most pressing environmental problem in the dry land parts of the Nigeria. The visible sign of this phenomenon is the gradual shift in vegetation from grasses, bushes and occasional trees, to grass and bushes; and in the final stages, expansive areas of desert-like sand.

Indeed, Nigeria loses over 350,000ha annually to advancing desert, the dunes are threatening life-supporting oasis, burying water points, and in some cases engulfing major roads in the affected areas. Trees planted by government as shelter belts to check the advancing dunes are withering due to lack of attention.

The worsening problem of desertification is quite glaring as an estimated of between 50% and 75% of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara States in Nigeria are affected by desertification and are particularly vulnerable to wind erosion. These states, with a population of more than 70 million people account for about 43 % of the country’s total land area.

With the country losing over 350,000 hectares of land yearly to desertification, it could not afford to watch while arable land is being lost to desert encroachment. It is in the light of the above, that the Federal Government of Nigeria, within the overall framework of protecting the Nigeria environment has given prominence to the twin problem of drought and desertification. Thus, the Nigerian government has put in place various National Policies, Institutional and Legislative Framework, Sectoral Programmes, and Partnership Building to address the problem of drought and desertification. Apart from the Federal Government’s programmes, all the eight states bordering the desert have also taken bold steps to check the movement of the desert.

However, in the arid and semi arid zone of northern Nigeria there is widespread land degradation, mainly attributed to deforestation. Increasing agricultural intensity and livestock over-grazing, combined with increasing demands for fuel wood have led to a rate of deforestation estimated to be 3.5 per cent, one of the highest in the world. Livestock densities are high. Soils in the region are ferruginous tropical soils, generally of poor structure and low fertility.

The hot and dry climate causes bare, un-vegetated soils to easily heat up, especially during the dry season, resulting in soil baking. Coupled with high evaporation rates, the soil becomes powdery and easily blown away by the wind. Thus, in the absence of vegetation, wind and water erosion on exposed soil shave had extremely detrimental effects, limiting plant growth and productivity.

For afforestation programme to continue to combat desertification, relevant agencies of government at both states and national level needs to adopt more proactive measures not just on paper as we have been seeing in the past 24 years. Therefore, combating desertification in Nigeria, requires comprehensive innovations to enhance existing economic activities, such as farming, fuel wood production, and pottery (for fuel-efficient stoves), to be implemented through existing social institutions like the new Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development.

While at small scale level, individuals, communities, schools, agencies of government (MDAs) should establish a standard nursery in order to raise seedlings towards forest plantation in the country. Nursery development is the first step if we are serious towards combating desertification in Nigeria coupled with climate change.

By Professor Nasiru Medugu Idris (Dean, Faculty of Environmental Science, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria; nasiru@nsuk.edu.ng)

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