The old trope that we can either have economic development or environmental protection has been pretty much blown out of the water by this point.
Indeed, from the devastating costs of environmental damage in China to the rising death toll of climate change, it's increasingly clear that we will never have long-term economic prosperity unless we learn to manage the resources we rely on for survival.
Nowhere is this more true than the dry lands of Africa, where desertification, resource depletion, climate disruption and political unrest have all taken their toll on communities' ability to survive and thrive. There is, however, plenty to be hopeful about too.
From successfully "regreening" the landscapes of Ethiopia to a one-man mission to protect the soils of the Sahel, there are many success stories that show how stopping and reversing environmental damage can not only result in ecological improvements, but can help advance economic and community development goals too.
Tree Aid, a charity which works with villagers living in the drylands of Africa, has long been at the forefront of this fight. By working cooperatively with villagers and on-the-ground non-profit partners in Africa, the charity doesn't just plant trees, but rather increases villagers' capacity to protect, nurture and utilize trees to protect their soils, increase agricultural yields, and provide a buffer against the drought, floods and failed crops that are predicted to get ever more common with the advance of climate change.
A new free report from the charity, entitled Building Resilience to Climate Shocks, the charity is seeking to spread the word about how trees can be used to both alleviate poverty and protect the environment at the same time. Here are some key takeaways:
Planting trees is not enough
Previous tree planting efforts in the drylands have often failed because they've either focused on the wrong species of trees, or they have failed to take into account the needs, resources and skills of the local population. By working with villagers to both get input on their real-world needs, and to also provide training and resources on how to propagate, nurture and manage their tree resources, Tree Aid is investing in the long-term resilience of the communities it works with.
Unless short-term needs are met, long-term needs are compromized
Planting trees for the future is all well and good, but what if you need fuel wood or agricultural land now? The report explains how Tree Aid has worked with villagers to develop alternatives to ecologically damaging land management practices:
TREE AID provides training for villagers to plan ways to make money in the short-term as well as the long. For example by producing honey from the bees which live on unburnt land and using fallen trees for fuelwood. This gives them enough income to sustain and invest in their futures and environments, as well as preparing themselves for weather extremes.
Build the commons
One of the strategies the charity uses to build climate resilience is to establish "Tree Banks" within a community. These "banks" are essentially mixed-species tree plantings that can provide for a range of needs from fuel wood to animal fodder to fruit or other products. Each community establishes rules and management practices for when and how a Tree Bank may be used, for example some may reserve all harvesting for times of crisis, or there may be a decision to establish on-going harvesting to bolster income or household nutrition.
Protect trees. Empower women.
In the regions that Tree Aid works with, women are often responsible for managing how a family eats. That's why any successful strategy for regreening these regions must work within those cultures to empower and educate women as caretakers of the environment:
When women take part in decision-making there is a long-term positive impact on trees. They become important forest caretakers. Women can be instrumental in creating “tree-banks”, see page, governing and managing productivity and building community climate resilience. Women in the countries we work in tend to have little formal education opportunities for work outside the home. By taking part in TREE AID projects women learn and develop new skills. They have the opportunity to demonstrate to their communities that they can generate income and run successful small businesses.
The ideas presented here are by no means exhaustive, but they are a useful insight into both why tree planting is such an important strategy for community development, and also how such strategies can be successfully implemented on the ground. The threat of climate change is not going away anytime soon, and any response will need to include ambitious plans to restore degraded ecosystems and protect communities from the worst weather extremes. Here's hoping that the international community learns to recognize the potential for tree-based development projects as a powerful tool to both lift communities out of poverty and reverse some of the damage that has already been done.
If you'd like to support the use of trees to eliminate poverty, donate to Tree Aid here.