The pattern has been the same throughout the western Sahel: FMNR has spread largely by itself, from farmer to farmer and village to village, as people see the results with their own eyes and move to adopt the practice. Not until Gray Tappan of the U.S. Geological Survey compared aerial photos from 1975 with satellite images of the same region in 2005 was it apparent just how widespread FMNR had become: one could discern the border between Niger and Nigeria from outer space.
On the Niger side, where farmers were allowed to own trees and FMNR was commonplace, there was abundant tree cover; but in Nigeria, the land was barren. Reij, Rinaudo, and other FMNR advocates were surprised by the satellite evidence; they had had no idea so many farmers in so many places had grown so many trees.
"This is probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all of Africa," said Reij. Combining the satellite evidence with ground surveys and anecdotal evidence, Reij estimated that in Niger alone farmers had grown 200 million trees and rehabilitated 12.5 million acres of land. "Many people believe the Sahel is nothing but doom and gloom, and I could tell lots of doom-and-gloom stories myself," he said. "But many farmers in the Sahel are better off now than they were thirty years ago because of the agro-forestry innovations they have made."
What makes FMNR so empowering—and sustainable—Reij added, is that Africans themselves own the technology, which is simply the knowledge that nurturing trees alongside one's crops brings many benefits. "Before this trip, I always thought about what external inputs were required to increase food production," Gabriel Coulibaly said at a debriefing session after our fact-finding expedition. Coulibaly, a Malian who worked as a consultant to the European Union and other international organizations, added, "But now I see that farmers can create solutions themselves, and that is what will make those solutions sustainable. Farmers manage this technology, so no one can take it away from them." After a string of similar comments from other activists—"The farmers understand why they are doing this, so they will defend it," one said—Reij leaned over and, his eyes shining, whispered, "They have been transformed into FMNR champions."
And FMNR's success does not depend on large donations from foreign governments or humanitarian groups—donations that often do not materialize or can be withdrawn when money gets tight. This is one reason Reij sees FMNR as superior to the Millennium Villages model promoted by Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who directs Columbia University's Earth Institute. The Millennium Villages program focuses on twelve villages in various parts of Africa, providing them free of charge with what are said to be the building blocks of development: modern seeds and fertilizer, boreholes for clean water, health clinics. "If you read their website, tears come to your eyes," said Reij. "It's beautiful, their vision of ending hunger in Africa. The problem is, it can only work temporarily for a small number of selected villages. Millennium Villages require continuing external inputs—not just fertilizer and other technology, but the money to pay for them—and that is not a sustainable solution. It's hard to imagine the outside world providing free or subsidized fertilizer and boreholes to every African village that needs them."
Outsiders do have a role to play, however. Overseas governments and NGOs can encourage the necessary policy changes by African governments, such as granting farmers ownership of trees. And they can fund, at very low cost, the grassroots information sharing that has spread FMNR so effectively in the western Sahel. Although farmers have done the most to alert peers to FMNR's benefits, crucial assistance has come from a handful of activists like Reij and Rinaudo and NGOs such as Sahel- Eco and World Vision Australia. These advocates now hope to encourage the adoption of FMNR in other African countries through an initiative called "Re-greening the Sahel," said Reij.