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And this is primarily a developing-world opportunity for two reasons. First, the poor world tends to be rich in things like forest and sunshine. Second, the rich world has few incentives to change its ways. "Suddenly there is the possibility of a whole new green trajectory for Africa," says UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall. "You might ask, Can combatting climate change actually offer a new future for Africa?"
That dream is certainly firing some extraordinary ambitions, like Liberia's plan to become the first nation powered entirely by biomass. Since CDM became operational in 2005, work has begun on 2,510 projects funded by an annual $394 million in carbon credits a slow start, though the U.N. expects 6,000 projects funded by $2.9 trillion by the end of 2012. And while most CDM projects initially went to Asia, Africa is catching up: the U.N. expects 245 African projects worth $440 million by 2012.
That's still a long way from greening a continent. The question of whether green development becomes an African norm hinges on whether it works for companies and business leaders. That means Africa's farmers: 7 out of 10 Africans live on small farms. Unexpectedly, scientists are finding that it is those farmers who offer some of the best reasons for hope.
The View from the Desert's Edge the first clue that something extraordinary is happening to Niger comes on the approach flight to the capital, Niamey. As you drop altitude through the brown haze that fills the air, shapes begin to appear on the desert floor below, stretching in ordered rows to the horizon. At a few hundred feet, it becomes clear that they are the shadows of millions of trees.
For University of Amsterdam environmental researcher Chris Reij, returning to Niger in 2004 after a decade's absence was "quite a surprise." In areas that used to be completely barren, where you could see villages miles away, "suddenly the view was blocked with green." Farmers were digging holes and ditches shaped like crescents and square brackets and erecting low fences out of stones, deadwood and brush to catch drifting soil. These keep the dirt stationary long enough for it to catch water and insects, germinate seeds, allow the farmer to add manure and gradually become small, narrow fields. Into them farmers plant tough desert trees like the faidherbia albida, a type of acacia that fix nitrogen into the soil.
Since work began on them in the 1970s, the fields have grown. Some have become woods. Instead of being sucked downward into the spiral of desertification, they have kick-started a new, virtuous cycle of life. Grassland and trees trap the desert. Fruits and vegetables grown in their shadow provide food for people and animals. Rainfall has increased. Hunger has fallen.
The implications for desertification and global warming are immense. Reij cautioned himself not to get carried away. "I thought maybe they had regreened a few hundred, perhaps 1,000 hectares [2,470 acres]," he says. In August 2005 he asked the U.S. Geological Survey to take some satellite images of Niger, then compared them with ones from 1975. "They'd regreened 5 million hectares [12 million acres]," says Reij. "That's 200 million new trees 20 times the number that had been there before producing 200 million euros [$270 million] of value that feeds an extra 2.5 million people. It was the biggest environmental transformation in Africa."
What had prompted this renewal? Fighting climate change. Long before that term was commonplace, long-term weather changes were wreaking havoc in Africa. The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., has tracked half a century of declining rainfall on the continent. Although unusually good rains shielded an expanding population in the early 1960s, in 1968 came a drought that lasted until 1974. More than 100,000 people died.
The first and most immediate effect was conflict. Military men, accusing their governments of an inadequate response, seized power in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Niger and attempted several coups in Mali. Another was mass migration, from the Sahel to greener countries to the south, such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast. A third was an injection of foreign aid, like a $100 million Italian project to build dams and wells and plant 18 million trees in 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares) of the Keita Valley in Niger.
With nothing like the kinds of resources that international aid organizations have, Niger's new rulers initially tried environmentalism by decree. They renamed Independence Day, Aug. 3, Arbor Day and ordered every citizen to plant a tree on the anniversary. Then they tried green economics. In 1993 the state began allowing farmers to own, buy and sell their land. Farmers could now plan on long-term returns; years of labor on a ditch, known in Niger as a zai, became not just socially worthwhile but personally profitable. Reij says each rescued hectare brought in annually an extra $70 for every person working the regreened land, a huge boost in a country where per capita income is $185. Farmers who previously harvested one crop from every four sowings were now reaping each time they planted and even began buying new patches of desert to rehabilitate and expand their fields.
Today Niger is one of the world's foremost examples of a green economy. Fighting climate change in Niger is development. Trees, soil and water have been reinstated as capital. Conflict between farmers and herders is down 80%, says Reij. And all this without dependence on schemes such as CDM or UN-REDD. Which means, as Reij says, "most of it didn't cost anything."
Inspired by Niger's example, Reij turned advocate with a campaign called the Sahel Re-Greening Initiative, spreading the word of how ditches and fences can beat back the desert. There are other regreening projects under way in Mali and Burkina Faso. An 18-year project in Tanzania's Shinyanga region, just south of Lake Victoria, has seen 860,000 acres (350,000 hectares) replanted, making 2.8 million people about $170 a year better off, according to a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In the northern Ethiopian district of Tigray, the government has directed the regreening of 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares), plans to add 618,000 acres (250,000 hectares) more each year and is exploring the possibility of also introducing private land ownership, as in Niger. Reij's collaborators are also spreading the word as far away as Nepal, Namibia and Australia. What so impresses the delegations he takes to Niger, says Reij, "is the scale of it. It inspires you. You can't help but learn a lesson."
Change will not come easy. Across the Sahel, persuading farmers to give up herding cattle between ever decreasing water holes to work on the land will take a cultural transformation. "We eat meat, blood and milk," says Samburu elder Lehgalee. "The grass is going, and the cows are dying, but it's our way." In Niger, the desert still eats 195,000 to 250,000 acres (79,000 to 1 million hectares) of land per year. Two consecutive poor harvests in 2009 and 2010 prompted an international emergency operation to feed 4.3 million people, though on a visit in November, Reij found the crisis had spared farmers taking part in the regreening. "Their trees have become like something we keep in the freezer," he says. "A lifeline to prune and sell for money to buy food in the bad years."
The consequences can be startling and heartening. Moussa Sambo, 57, is chief of Kareygorou village, outside Niger's capital. He admits he used to think life would never be any better. "For years I watched the wind sweep the soil and sand off our land and into the river," he says. Then seeing the success neighboring farmers were having with zai, he set his village to work. Crop yields went up. The village diversified from maize and sorghum into jatropha for oil, and pigs, ducks, goats and chickens. The young men who had left to work in Togo or Benin returned home.
Kareygorou's farmers now have enough surplus food and cash crops like wood to see them through poor rains. Sambo, who had resigned himself to watching his village die slowly, now finds that he is presiding over not only its revival but the greatest prosperity it has ever enjoyed. "We stopped the desert," he says, "and everything changed."
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 13, 2010 issue of TIME Asia Magazine.