Genet Atabe is 39 and lives in Bongo, Ghana, three years ago she watched the banks of the river in her village crumble into the water and wash away. When she was young her parents used to tell her of a time when life in the village was different. Crops used to flourish. Trees provided income and food for the villagers. The river held the rains long enough for them to be used during the dry season.
Weather extremes have increased globally in recent years as the CO2 in our atmosphere has risen. In Genet's village, increasing drought and hunger meant villagers cut down the trees by the river to sell as firewood and use the land to grow more food. When heavy rains came, the soil, parched by the sun and a lack of vegetation, could no longer absorb the sheer volume of water. The river banks, previously held in place by a network of tree roots, started to crumble and wash away. The river course silted up, leaving less water available for the rest of the year. The harvest suffers and so the cycle of poverty deepens for Genet.
Poor people are disproportionately likely to experience weather extremes, as well as having fewer resources to deal with their impact. My organisation TREE AID works in the northern "drylands" of sub-Saharan Africa; in the scrublands, grasslands and savannahs. Most people living in this region spend their lives extremely poor, with little access to healthcare or social support. During the dry season, the Harmattan wind comes off the Sahara and, without vegetation, the thin top soil can be blown away leaving little for plants to grow in.
The challenges of farming in the drylands are one of the reasons that trees are so important for alleviating poverty and for environmental protection. Trees can reverse existing damage to land and reduce the impact on villagers of future weather extremes. Their roots prevent fertile top soil from being blown away. They stabilise river banks. Their nuts and berries are nutrient rich and less prone to crop failure. And their bark and leaves can be turned into useful products to sell at market. Trees are vital for building resilience to climate shocks . A landscape with more trees will be better able to withstand the impact of weather extremes.
We work with communities to prepare them for climate extremes, training them in how to sustainably manage their trees and generate income from them. We also show people how to set up "tree-banks", a group of established trees from which the nuts, fruit, leaves and wood are reserved for use during weather extremes. Villagers can draw on them in times of hardship to supplement their dwindling stocks of food and to provide ways to make money.
Each village decides when its tree-bank resources can be used, for what purpose and how often. Tree-banking means that communities come together to think through all the potential ways that trees can be used. It empowers local people to take control of protecting and managing tree resources. And it discourages over-use and deforestation because villages see how important the trees will be during times of hardship to come.
The people of dryland Africa are not responsible for climate change. Yet they are being asked to pay the price with their lives. Yes, we must try and reduce the actions that contribute to climate change in industrialised countries. At the same time we have a duty to help those who are suffering the worst impacts of our actions, to be in a better position to face those impacts. We need to give support that helps people in the drylands today as well as tomorrow. Trees take years to grow and become productive, so a big concern for my organisation is showing people ways to make money quickly and sustainably without cutting down existing trees. We use local experts in things like beekeeping, leaf harvesting and nut collection to teach other villagers about how to make a sustainable income now, whilst they wait the four or five years for fruit, nuts and resins to be produced by their trees.
Genet and others from her village worked with TREE AID and our Ghanaian partners to put trees back along the river banks and encourage regeneration of trees elsewhere. Three years later things are going well, "We have learned how to plant and care for trees, and visited some communities that have already transformed their own river banks. The benefits will increase every year as the trees grow, and our children will thank us."
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