The first question a journalist asks when deciding whether to report a story is: What’s new? That can be a challenge when it comes to famine in Africa.

The looming crisis in the Sahel region (a 3,400-mile strip of land just south of the Sahara Desert) is clearly newsworthy – after all, tens of millions of lives are imperiled. But how is it different from the famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011? Or, for that matter, the Sahel famine of 2010?

One thing was new and notable: Relief agencies and the government of Niger, the most affected country, sounded an early alarm and called for help. That created a different challenge for a television journalist like me – the prospect of doing a famine story with no pictures of hungry people. It can feel almost predatory to seek images of human suffering, but when appropriately and accurately used, they are critical to conveying a story’s urgency.

This year’s famine is not expected to peak until August, but even in “good” years, there is no shortage of malnourished people in Niger. For decades, Nigeriens have endured an annual hunger season, as reserves from the previous harvest are exhausted and the wait – weeks or even months – begins for the next one.  

We returned with a report – airing tonight on PBS NewsHour – that looks beyond the urgent news to a promising effort to address a root cause of chronic famine in Niger – the steady southward creep of the Sahara Desert. In particular, we look at an approach known as farmer-managed natural regeneration.

It was developed in the 1980s by Yacouba Sawadogo, an enterprising farmer in Burkina Faso, Niger’s western neighbor. For decades, for various reasons, trees had been cleared off Sawadogo’s farmland. He decided to use simple techniques to trap moisture and seeds that blew in on the wind. He allowed the vegetation that sprouted naturally – native trees and brush – to grow alongside his planted crops. Sawadogo and his neighbors found that trees, when protected and pruned, not only enrich the soil to improve crop production, but also provide fodder for livestock, branches for firewood and a cooler “microclimate.”

International aid groups like World Vision and scientists like Chris Reij, both featured in our report, have tried to spread the gospel of farmer-managed natural regeneration as widely as possible. So far, Niger has seen the most success, boosting its annual food production by 500 million tons, according to one study. That’s sufficient to feed about 2.5 million people. It’s a small but significant step that could eventually lead to food self-sufficiency, Reij said.

But for each step forward, population growth takes Niger two steps back. Some development experts say the country’s world-leading fertility rate – Nigerien women bear seven children on average – is the gravest threat.

“The failure to invest in family planning in the past is reaping huge suffering,” says Malcolm Potts at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “But as the Africans say, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time is today.’ ”  

Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, democratically elected in early 2011, has set an ambitious agenda in which “birth spacing” is a priority. Based on his government’s proactive response to the current food crisis, U.S. Ambassador Bisa Williams says she is hopeful that Niger can break out of its perennial ranking as one of the world’s poorest nations. Re-greening the land has given it a head start. Reij notes that there are 200 million more trees in Niger today than 20 years ago. I think that qualifies as both new and newsworthy.

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Fred de Sam Lazaro is director of the Project for Under-Told Stories, a program that combines international journalism and teaching, and a senior distinguished fellow at the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities and Winona, Minn. He has served with the NewsHour since 1985 and is a regular contributor and substitute anchor for PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. He also has directed films from India and the Democratic Republic of Congo for the acclaimed documentary series, "Wide Angle." Fred has reported from 50 countries: from Haiti to sub-Saharan Africa to south Asia, he has focused on stories that are under-reported in the mainstream U.S. media. In addition to regularly covering AIDS, public health concerns, development issues and social entrepreneurship, he led the first American crew to report on the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region. Fred is the recipient of an honorary doctorate, numerous journalism awards and media fellowships from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Michigan. He is a trustee at the College of St. Scholastica, in Duluth, Minn., his alma mater. He serves on the board of MinnPost, an online nonprofit Minnesota-based news service, and also has served on the boards of the Asian American Journalists Association and the Children's Law Center of Minnesota. Fred was born in Bangalore, India and lives in St. Paul.