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Putting Trees At The Heart Of Development 

By David Akana in Nairobi*

As governments and the international community grapple with the crucial challenges of global warming and hunger, an international research institution known as the World Agroforestry Centre, ICRAF, is calling for tree planting as a means of fighting the current global development problems. Tree planting across farm land, ICRAF argues, has potential to increase food productivity, combat climate change and increase income for farmers particularly in Africa.

Speaking during an international gathering of more than 1000 delegates in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Monday, August 24, the Director of the World Agroforestry Centre, Dr Dennis Garrity said: "Trees throughout the world provide new opportunities for farmers to generate cash by growing fruit trees and other high value trees for both local and international markets. In addition to income generation, we have a food crisis in Africa. We are emphasising that the right kind of trees in the right place can be enormously important for helping to increase the yield of fruit crops."

On how trees can combat climate change, Dr Garrity said: "What is important about trees today is that we have to adapt to climate change." Trees have deep roots and so they are more adapted to climate change generally than food crops or annual crops. Farmers, he said, can turn to trees for more stable income in times when there is drought, floods, high temperatures or when they are faced with other adverse environmental conditions that may kill their crops.

As ICRAF pushes the world community to put trees at the centre of major development efforts, current research from the institution has also confirmed that trees on farm land are on the increase while tree cover in forest areas is on the decline. The World Agroforestry Centre even goes further to argue that while farmers are frequently blamed for forest loss, a study published on August 24 in Nairobi shows that about half of farmlands worldwide have significant tree cover. "Farmers are now part of the solution to deforestation rather than the problem," said Dr Garrity.

Several other world environment leaders, notably the 2004 Nobel  Peace Prize Winner, Wangari Maathai from Kenya, and United Nations Environment Programme Director, Achim Steiner, have joined in the call for trees to be put at the heart of the development agenda.

According to the Noble Prize laureate, trees on farms would make a huge positive impact on the environment and related global problems. While commending UNEP and ICRAF for planting more than 5 billion trees since the "Plant A Billion Trees" campaign was launched in 2006, Wangari regretted that in some parts of Kenya, the eucalyptus tree was still being planted – thus drinking water away from the soil.

Tree Specie Improving Food Production

During the past several years, an African indigenous tree specie has been used experimentally in various corners of Africa and proven to be extremely useful in increasing food production. Scientifically called faidherbia albida, this tree sheds its leaves during the rainy season and retains them during the dry season so that it does not compete with crops for light.
In Zambia, for instance, research conducted with faidherbia albida over several years shows mature trees can sustain maize yields of as much as four tonnes per hectare as opposed to one tonne per hectare in traditional systems.

Faidherbia albida has also been experimented in 12 African countries notably Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Malawi and Zambia, and it has proven very successful particularly in fighting the advancing Sahara Desert in Niger and countries threatened by the desert.
Faidherbia albida is native to Africa. It can grow 3 – 30 metres tall and could be up to two metres in trunk. Its deep penetrating tap roots make it highly resistant to drought.

David Akana is a 2009 Climate Change Media Partnership Fellow

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