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March 09, 2007

Farmers in northern Nigeria suffer the effects of desertification

A powerful article by Lanre Oyetade on the human causes and effects of desertification, featured in The Tribune :

In the late 1990s, Alhaji A hmad Idi could count on his land to produce 40 big sacks of sorghum and another 20 full of groundnuts each year. But today, he works twice as hard to squeeze out yields half that size. "There isn't enough rain and we have to dig deeper and deeper to find water," said Idi, a farmer in the Makoda region, two hours from Nigeria's northern border with Niger.

And yet, to look at his land, nothing seems to have changed, he says: a few trees and shrubs, some soil - same as ever. "The effects of desertification are felt long before sand dunes start appearing," explained Abdul-Azeez Abba, a member of the Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE). "It starts exactly as Idi describes : productivity drops, the sub-soil becomes sandy, rains diminish, temperatures rise and the water table drops."

Idi is far from being the only one who has noticed that something is amiss. Statistics show that Nigeria loses 350,000 hectares of arable land per year. In the northern 10 states of the country, each year the desert advances another 600 metres further south. Tens of thousands of farmers and their families have already been forced to move off land that has become barren. These people head south in search of jobs and land that does not exist, according to Festus Okoye of Human Rights Monitor (HRM), which is based in the northern city of Kaduna. But farmers are not the only ones feeling the pinch. The nomadic Fulani people are also heading ever further south in the hopes of finding better grazing areas for their herds.

All these movements have put a major strain on the fertile land of central Nigeria, which are more prized and less available. "There have always been tensions and conflicts between agricultural and pastoral practices, but desertification has accentuated them," said Yakubu Dalhat of Savanna Conservation Nigeria, an environmental defence group also based in Kaduna. The government had established routes for the nomads, but the desert's advance has done away with those, said HRM's Okoye.

"The pastoralists are now forced to move through cultivated land with their livestock. The farmers are at a loss as to how to protect their crops," he said. Violent confrontations are increasingly common as a result. In February, two park rangers were killed when they tried to stop herds from grazing in a protected area. Central Nigeria, which supplied much of the country's income prior to the discovery of oil in the South, has fallen on hard times due to demographic pressures, most notably in urban areas where the majority of those pushed off their land end up.

Moreover, the loss of arable land and pastures threatens the economy of the predominantly rural region and the national food supply. Newton Jibunoh, FADE's founder, is an expert in the matter. The retired agronomist first crossed the desert in 1965 to go to England for his studies. Nearly 35 years later, he decided to travel the same route coming from the opposite direction in order to see the extent of the desert's advance. Shocked by what he observed, he felt compelled to act.

Beyond the effects of erosion and demographic pressures, deforestation is a primary cause of desertification. Wood is an important source of fuel for poor northern people who do not necessarily realise the consequences of cutting down trees. It is essential, therefore, to limit the extent of deforestation and to replant trees, but such projects are impossible without the support of local communities. "We try to explain to them the economic and environmental value of trees, which the local people are often unaware of," said FADE's Yusuf Ubaid.

"We can't go anywhere, all the land is taken," said farmer Idi, shrugging his shoulders resignedly and explaining that the only solution is to use more fertiliser and switch to more resistant crops. But there is a general sense that the desert's advance can only be stopped if Nigeria's authorities start taking the threat more seriously. Despite treaties signed, agencies formed and policies articulated in the years leading up to the Nigerian government's launch of a national action plan against desertification in 2001, there has been no tangible improvement, say observers on the ground.

The government's annual reforestation programmes have largely failed, they say. In the absence of sustained public awareness campaigns, the majority of the saplings die or are cut down. The 1,500 km green belt along the edge of the desert, promised in 2001, has never materialised. A report issued by the Ministry of the Environment shows that only 30,000 hectares were reforested in 2002, a mere tenth of the area claimed by the desert during the course of the year.

"In terms of votes, the populations that are most affected by desertification may not be the most important ones," said SCN's Dalhat to explain the apparent lack of interest in a country where economic power is concentrated in the South. "With a few exceptions, the authorities, including at the state level, show little interest in this struggle."

"But if we don't do anything, the desert will soon be in our backyard," said Dalhat. "When your neighbour's house is burning, yours is also in danger."

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