Niger races to reclaim the desert through an innovative initiative that puts Nigeriens to work to help rebuild arable land and avoid famines during recurring droughts.

Watch Niger Leads West Africa in Addressing Drought and Famine on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


Introduction: Next: Coping with a looming famine in West Africa and one country’s effort to prevent the frequent recurrence of food shortages. Our report is part of the series “Food for 9 Billion,” a partnership with the center for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions and American Public Media’s Marketplace. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Niger, one of eight drought-stricken countries where relief officials say millions of people are imperiled.

Reporter Fred de Sam Lazaro: At 8 a.m. each day, the weigh-in begins at the health center near Madarounfa, a town near Niger’s remote southern border with Nigeria.

Babies are weighed and the girth of their arms also measured – a color-coded proxy for malnutrition and famine. There was still an occasional green, or normal, on this day. Children in the yellow zone were more common, but in a few weeks, many more will fall, like Amina, into the red.

More tests followed to assess her condition before Amina was transferred to the emergency feeding center a few miles away. It is near capacity, and the medical supervisor expects they’ll begin pitching expansion tents much earlier this year.

Dr. Hassan Aouade: In May, our admissions were up more than 10 percent from 2011, and that usually means our June and July will be really bad. The peak is usually in August.

Reporter: Hunger is widespread in this region and famine frequent. But that very routine-ness is helping relief workers anticipate and contain the damage this year far better than the last crisis, in 2010, says the U.S. ambassador to Niger, Bisa Williams.

Bisa Williams: This is not like the situation in 2010. I think we’re better prepared, and I think it is because the government of President Issoufou did alert the community very early; they sounded the alarm as far back as October, September of last year.

Reporter: Williams says unlike earlier governments, which denied or downplayed famines, President Mahamadou Issoufou – elected early in 2011 – has declared food security a top priority.

Mahamadou Issoufou: I remember the first big drought in 1973-74; then again in 1984, we had another one. Since then, the time between droughts has been getting shorter, and I believe this is attributable to climate change

Reporter: Niger is a landlocked former French colony. The Sahara Desert lies in the north and has steadily crept into the semi-arid south, where most food is grown.

Adding to this desertification, farmers for decades cleared fields of trees and saplings. They saw no benefit to them and, in any event, under colonial law, trees were state property, seen as a timber resource. Drought and rapid population growth added to the cutting. By 1975, images from U.S. Geological Survey satellites showed a virtual desert.

President Issoufou said Niger must address desertification if it is to get beyond the chronic food emergencies.

Issoufou: That’s why we have created the 3N initiative (Nigeriens Nourish Nigeriens) – Nigeriens helping Nigeriens. It’s a structural response to the food crises that are consistently linked with our recurrent droughts. We are convinced that drought does not need to mean famine.

Reporter: A key part of the 3N program is to expand a greening initiative that was actually begun more than two decades ago.

This year, across Niger, people have been given temporary jobs to tide them through the so-called hunger season, the lean period until the harvest arrives – in normal years, in September. A major goal of such public works projects is to reverse desertification.

Abdoulaye Saley: They give us food to dig these holes. We get 4 kilos of maize and 6 kilos of beans. This land is very dry, and they told us it will have trees and we can have better crops and fodder for our animals.

Reporter: The shallow, half-moon-shaped depressions they’re digging trap rainwater and tree seeds blown across the land or dropped by animals. It’s hard to imagine anything sprouting from such barren conditions.

But that’s exactly what’s happened in a wide swatch of southern Niger – naturally, says Chris Reij, a Dutch scientist who has worked in this region since the 1970s.

Chris Reij: If you look around you, not a single tree that you see here has been planted. All of it’s coming from seed stock in the soil or coming from trees cut down before whose root system is still alive and given a chance to emerge, it will grow, or from seeds from the manure from livestock deposited here.

Reporter: He says the trees have kept desert sandstorms at bay and restored land to productivity, even though it’s not as visible as early in the rainy season.

Reporter (to Reij): So this, it doesn’t look like much – very desert-like. But there’s a crop here?

Reij: This is millet, which is one of the main crops here. It was sown two weeks ago, after rain, maybe even more recent. In three months, it will be this high, and this whole field will be lush green. The farmer has mulched.

Tony Rinaudo (in video): The leaves on the soil will protect the crop from drought, hold moisture in the soil.

Reporter: Chris Reij and a colleague, Tony Rinaudo, began championing so-called agroforestry in the ’80s – specifically, a model for protecting trees on farmland they first observed on a farm in Burkina Faso, Niger’s neighbor to the west. Their work was picked up, among others, by the aid group World Vision, which produced this video.

Farmers like Sakina Mati were employed to spread the word on the benefits and the new law, which gives farmers ownership of trees.

Sakina Mati: We began using this technique in 2006, and it has worked well for us.

Reporter: One of the key goals was to dispel a commonly held notion that the payback is years away, says Chris Reij.

Reij: Trees do grow very fast; even in the first year, they need to start being pruned. They develop a trunk and canopy, so even in the first year, you have some benefit – the leaves and twigs that women can use in the kitchen. By year two and three, certain trees can reach taller than you and me, and after five years can reach 4 or 5 meters.

Reporter: Trees that are pruned grow sturdier trunks, yielding abundant firewood, the main cooking fuel. The leaves form livestock fodder and trap moisture in the soil. Improved soil fertility can mean better harvests, and already, a few villages have surpluses.

The surpluses have been gathered into a grain bank in Dan Saga and many other villages in this region. In Dan Saga, drought took a severe toll on the harvest last year. But people here said that hasn’t translated to famine.

Woman: The grain bank is helping us a lot; it is keeping our children fed until the harvest comes in.

Man: If we didn’t have the grain bank, most of the men would not be farming; they’d have to leave to find work to buy food.

Second man: Another benefit of the cereal bank is that it helps keep the price of grain down.

Reij: In a sea of difficulty, we find here examples that a grain surplus has been produced in the drought year 2011.

Reporter: Throughout southern Niger, Reij says re-greening has increased food production by about 500,000 tons per year – enough to feed 2½ million people. The challenge is to scale it up for a population of 16 million and that sea of difficulty. It will require education – everything from farming know-how to account keeping at the grain bank – and access to family planning. Literacy is just 30 percent, and the average woman bears seven children, a rate that will triple the number of mouths to feed by 2050.

And the gains have yet to reach vast numbers of people, especially children like Amina with immediate, pressing needs. U.S. Ambassador Williams is optimistic Niger can make progress over the long term, and also that a catastrophe can be avoided from this year’s famine. But she says it won’t be easy.

Williams: There are at least 15 percent of children under 2 that are really, really hungry, so you are right, there is no magic bullet. It’s not – this is not something that has a quick fix to it. Development by its nature is a long-term process. Everyone knows that this can’t be resolved by internationals. They are going to have to be embraced and be local, and I think that is what we are seeing in Niger.

Reporter: For his part, President Issoufou says he’s acutely aware of Niger’s chronic neediness and of so-called donor fatigue.

Issoufou: I understand why donors would be tired of supporting our population. We ourselves are tired of needing the help, of not being able to feed our own people. For us in Niger, it’s a matter of shame not to be able to feed our children. That’s why we say, “Please, don’t give us fish to eat. Teach us to fish for ourselves.” That’s why we need to escape from emergency aid. We need to help our population produce and provide for itself.

Reporter: Niger does have a reason for hope. Remember this 1975 satellite picture? This is a more recent one from 2005. Chris Reij says Niger has grown 200 million trees over the past two decades, the only country in Africa to have actually added forest cover to its land in the period. 

Reporter: Fred de Sam Lazaro

Producer/tape editor: Nicole See

Camera: Tom Adair

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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.