Back in the village, we examined the granaries, which were built by layering mud over stick frames. Oblong in shape, the structures had sides that were six feet wide and fifteen feet tall. A notched tree trunk served as a ladder to an opening near the top. Reij was the first to climb, serenaded by jovial laughter from the crowd below; it was not often these villagers got to see a white man make a spectacle of himself. Reij played to the crowd, joking about being too clumsy to manage such a steep ladder and asking one of the grannies to help him. After inspecting all four granaries, the Dutchman descended, turned to me, and exclaimed, "This is thrilling." Pointing to the closest granary, he said, "This one still has a little millet in it. The next one is more than half full, the third is totally full, and the last is a third full. What that means is, this farmer has tremendous food security. It is now May. Harvest will be in November. So he has plenty to last his family until then and even some in reserve."
As word of such successes travels, FMNR has spread throughout the region, according to Salif Ali, a neighboring farmer. "Twenty years ago, after the drought, our situation here was quite desperate, but now we live much better," he said. "Before, most families had only one granary each. Now, they have three or four, though the land they cultivate has not increased. And we have more livestock as well." After extolling the many benefits trees have provided—shade, livestock fodder, drought protection, firewood, even the return of hares and other small wildlife—Salif was asked by one member of our group, almost in disbelief, "Can we find anyone around here who doesn't practice this type of agro-forestry?"
"Good luck," he replied. "Nowadays, everyone does it this way."
These farmers were not planting these trees, as Nobel Prize–winning activist Wangari Maathai has promoted in Kenya. Planting trees is much too expensive and risky for poor farmers, Reij said, adding, "Studies in the western Sahel have found that 80 percent of planted trees die within a year or two." By contrast, trees that sprout naturally are native species and more resilient. And, of course, such trees cost the farmers nothing.
Even naturally sprouting trees were off-limits to farmers until laws were changed to recognize their property rights. Tree management was traditionally part of normal agricultural practice here, Salif explained; it was encouraged by the Barahogon, a voluntary association of farmers to which both Salif and his father belonged. But the practice was largely abandoned after first colonial and later African governments declared that all trees belonged to the state, a policy that gave officials the opportunity to sell timber rights to business people. Under this system, farmers were punished if they were caught cutting trees, so to avoid hassles they often uprooted seedlings as soon as they sprouted. In the early 1990s, a new Malian government, mindful that forestry agency officials had been killed in some villages by farmers furious about illegal burning of trees by forestry agents, passed a law giving farmers legal ownership of trees on their land (though farmers did not hear about the law until NGOs mounted a campaign to inform them via radio and word of mouth). Since then, FMNR has spread rapidly. Recently, farmers even shared their knowledge with officials visiting from Burkina Faso—twenty mayors and provincial directors of agricultural and environmental agencies. "They seemed astonished to hear our story and see the evidence," Salif recalled. "They asked, 'Is this really possible?'"
Recognizing farmers' property rights was equally crucial in Niger, according to Tony Rinaudo, an Australian missionary and development worker who was one of the original champions of FMNR. "The great thing about FMNR is that it's free for farmers," Rinaudo told me. "They stop seeing trees as weeds and start seeing them as assets." But only if they're not penalized for doing so. In Niger, said Rinaudo, FMNR had a hard time gaining traction until he and others convinced government officials to suspend enforcement of the regulations against cutting trees. "Once farmers felt they owned the trees in their fields, FMNR took off,"