Saturday, February 17, 2007

Renewables and Gao Trees

What sorts of things should we notice? What slight changes ought we to pay attention to? Is there anything we can learn from a farmer in Africa who lives in one of the poorest countries in the world?

The official name is Faidherbia albida. In English it's sometime called the Ana tree. In Setswana, a language spoken in Southern Africa, it's called Mokosho. Most folks in Niger just refer to it as a "gao" tree.

It is an especially good tree in a country like Niger located in the Sahel, where rainfall is limited and the desert always threatens to overrun everything. Niger is not a country most people would choose to live. The Gao tree is a perennial, which makes it a good tree to halt the advancing desert. It's also a nitrogen-fixing tree, which helps fertilize the soil. Its pale gray-green leaves fall off during the rainy season and become organic fertilizer. Most important in this part of the world the Gao tree is not competing with crops for water.

Some 20 years ago a few farmers realized that the cutting down of trees before planting their crops, such as sorghum and peanuts, was only reducing the land's fertility and speeding up desertification. Slowly they began planting their crops around the trees as well as planting new trees. The Gao tree is merely one type albeit highly suitable to the region.

Twenty or so years later millions of acres have been reclaimed in Niger. This has also led to overall improvements in conservation and livestock practices, as well as the government finally recognizing that trees on farmer's property ought to be the property of those farmers. At one time and apparently going back to colonial times, trees were the property of the state and farmers therefore had little incentive to take care of them.

Adequate rainfall is always precarious in the Sahel, but Niger is now better prepared to deal with changes in weather than it once was. Perhaps the point of all this is that slight modifications in human behavior can frequently have a significant impact in improving the surrounding environment as well as increasing productivity. This occurred in Niger without massive foreign assistance or government help.

In the developed world the "hot" word is renewable. What combination of solar, wind power, geothermal will help us keep the global average temperature from rising more than one degree Celsius? Can the U.S. reduce CO2 emissions 60 to 80 percent by 2050? Can we do all this without a carbon tax? Will we have to include nuclear energy in the mix? Is it worth the large taxpayer subsidy ... and on and on and on?

But if a tree grows in Niger, planted by one observant farmer, that ultimately assists in restoring biodiversity, do we all need to notice those smaller things as well--and perhaps first? How do we learn to observe better?


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