As trees rise, parched African landscapes spring back to life

When Yeshitila Haile looks up at the hillside behind his farmstead, he puts his hand on his heart and speaks with great satisfaction about how he has helped to transform the landscape in which he grew up. 

“That hill, this village, including our yard, used to have no trees at all. Now I can’t believe how this barren land has become so green,” he says. “I feel like these hills are like my family, a source of great wealth.” 

Haile lives in Sire, a rural district of Ethiopia about 130 kilometres southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa. The land, situated at an altitude of 1,800 metres on an escarpment above the Awash River, is mainly a patchwork of fields sown with crops such as wheat, corn and teff. 

But the landscape is also scarred by numerous deep gullies, evidence of how alternating droughts and floods coupled with deforestation and unsustainable farming practices have degraded the soil on which the community depends. Climate change, as it is in many places, is amplifying those challenges.  

Two people walking in front a tree
Through Regreening Africa, an award-winning initiative, Ethiopian villagers have replanted trees and shrubs, which are helping to counter desertification. Credit: CIFOR-ICRAF  

Sire’s inhabitants have not given up or moved away. Instead, they are taking action to restore their environment with support from an Africa-wide initiative to make the livelihoods of rural communities more resilient, including by nurturing more trees across the continent. 

The effort, Regreening Africa has restored more than 350,000 hectares across Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal and Somalia. It has done so by reaching more than 600,000 households through its training and tree-growing efforts. 

The initiative has been recognised as a United Nations World Restoration Flagship. The award, presented as part of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, showcases outstanding initiatives to restore ecosystems for the sake of people and wildlife. 

“The good news is restoration works and can bring major benefits to communities – from supporting smallholder farmers to helping raise household incomes,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which coordinates the UN Decade along with the Food and Agriculture Organisation. 

“As people begin to quickly recognise the benefits of ecosystem restoration, it makes perfect sense to extend regreening practices to more lands and kickstart a renaissance of nature,” she added. 

Regreening a continent 

Desertification affects around 45 percent of Africa’s land, with 55 percent of this area considered at “high” or “very high” risk of further degradation. That is a huge threat to food security and sustainable development on a continent whose population is expected to grow by nearly 1 billion by 2050. On 17 June, the Government of Germany will host Desertification and Drought Day, which this year spotlights sustainable land management to counter land degradation and drought.  

A man and woman plant a tree
More than 600,000 households have benefited from restoration efforts in eight African countries. Credit: UNEP/Frank Machiya

Regreening Africa, an initiative co-led by the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), is countering that risk by restoring landscapes across eight countries. The initiative emphasises agroforestry—the integration of trees into landscapes and farming systems. 

The approach involves working closely with communities to build on their knowledge, understand their needs and identify the best restoration options for the local context. At the same time, working across multiple countries helps to identify solutions that can be adapted and scaled across locations facing similar challenges. 

The initiative has also launched a smartphone app so community members can enter data that is useful for monitoring and fine-tuning restoration interventions. 

Local solutions 

In Sire, where the regreening initiative is supported by the non-governmental organizations Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, restoration has involved a wide range of activities that are helping the community to face the future with optimism. 

To address soil erosion, villagers have halted farming, grazing and wood harvesting on steep ground, and built terraces and small dams to slow runoff during rainstorms. Grasses, shrubs and trees—some planted, some regenerating—naturally have re-asserted themselves. 

The regreening of the hills has also improved groundwater filtration, soaking up heavy rainfall before it can threaten fields and homesteads, and sustaining the flow of water in streams and springs for longer during the dry season. 

Several people don beekeeping suits 
Through the Regreening Africa initiative, Ethiopian farmers have learned to keep bees, whose honey has become a key source of income. Credit: UNEP/Frank Machiya 

At the same time, the initiative has supplied families with thousands of saplings, including fruit trees, like papaya, avocado and guava, to establish home gardens. Community members have also received beehives for the production of honey, an important source of food and income, especially when drought or some other calamity strikes. 

The initiative has provided training in sustainable agriculture, showing residents how to rotate crops, nurture native trees that boost soil fertility, and replace costly and environment-harming chemical fertilisers with compost. 

Shewaye Gina, another farmer from Sire, says villagers were willing to work on rehabilitating the hills  once the benefits for them were clear. Some of the trees are now big enough to be pruned for firewood and timber, and the grass that grows beneath them is harvested for fodder. 

“We’ve seen significant improvements. We’re overcoming the initial hurdles and our children are learning sustainable practices from us,” Gina said. 

Future ambition 

Funded by the European Union, the initiative expects to restore 1.35 million hectares by 2030. Its recognition as a Restoration Flagship means it is eligible for UN technical and financial assistance. And with additional investment, it has the ambition to bring almost 5 million hectares under restoration, an area twice the size of Rwanda. 

A man hold some fruit in a basket
Families have been provided with thousands of saplings, including fruit trees, like papaya, avocado and guava, to establish home gardens. Credit: UNEP/Frank Machiya 

“Restoring land—bringing back trees, shrubs and grasses, building and conserving soils and water—is critical to improving ecosystem function and supporting livelihoods and food security,” said Éliane Ubaljoro, the CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF. 

Referencing the work of Regreening Africa, she added: “We hope the recognition as a global restoration flagship will further propel these efforts.”  – UN Environment Programme

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