Despite big headlines and big money devoted to massive tree-planting projects that pledge to stave off desertification, the most effective method may be nurturing native seeds, rootstocks, and trees.

Near the start of the rainy season in June 1983, Tony Rinaudo hauled a load of trees in his truck to be planted in remote villages in the Maradi region of Niger. Driving onto sandy soil, Rinaudo stopped to let air out of his tires to get better traction, and was hit by a sense of futility. For years, the Australian missionary had been working to improve the lives of people in one of the poorest countries in Africa by planting trees. But it wasn’t working. Most of the trees died or were pulled out by farmers. Standing beside his truck, all he could see was dusty barren plain, broken by a few scraggly bushes. “It dawned on me that I was wasting my time,” he says.


A man of deep faith, Rinaudo asked God for guidance. In a moment of clarity, his eye caught sight of one of the bushes. At closer look, he realized that it was no mere bush or weed; instead, it was a potentially valuable native tree—if permitted to grow. There was no need to plant trees; they were already there. “At that moment everything changed,” he says. Even a seeming desert harbors tree stumps, roots, and seeds that can be encouraged and nurtured—“a treasure chest waiting to be released,” says Rinaudo. “And if you allow some trees to grow, amazing things happen.”


Rinaudo’s epiphany led local farmers to add at least 200 million trees across more than seven million hectares in Niger—at up to 60 trees per hectare. The crucial twist: They did so without planting any new trees.


The regreening brought “spectacular” results in terms of crop yields and farmers’ incomes, reports a 2019 article (1), and the idea was used in other regions such as northern Ethiopia, where, over the course of several years, long-dormant springs bubbled to life and living standards climbed as nascent forests captured water, improved soil fertility, and boosted crop yields. The collective effort has been one of the most effective responses to the growing problem of the degradation of the world’s drylands (those limited by water scarcity but capable of supporting some vegetation), such as the Sahel region of Africa, says Tim Christophersen, head of United Nations (UN) Environment Programme’s Freshwater, Land, and Climate Branch. “It all came together in a perfect storm of success.”


Yet these results were largely unknown or simply unaccepted for years by governments and international aid organizations in the battle to restore the world’s drylands to fertile lands and to combat so-called “desertification”—the perceived threat of an encroaching desert. Instead, large—and some say flawed—tree-planting efforts often were chosen.


But the idea of nurturing native greenery is now gaining traction—and that, proponents say, will open the door to restoring vast areas of degraded lands, improving livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers, reducing migrations of impoverished populations, and fighting climate change by soaking up carbon dioxide. “We’re passing a tipping point, where the idea of natural regeneration is really beginning to snowball,” says Dennis Garrity, Drylands Ambassador for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.


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