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How Tuaregs, Hausas are avoiding another Darfur

Often at odds, farmers and herders in Niger are now working together to stop the advance of the Sahara Desert.

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The key to this small success is time – and patience. These local committees have taken shape over 10 years learning to manage the land to everyone's benefit and to do so without the constant support of Western technicians and money.

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This is not the usual method of 'in and out' development with a limited lifespan tied to a specific project, says Vogt, a Dutchman who has lived in Niger for 13 years with his Scottish wife and Hausa-speaking children. "It is difficult for donors to put money into social investment [like this] because it is difficult to see the results immediately," he explains.

Conservation is saving lives

While the replanting of this Sahelian forest with its sparse scattering of thorny acacias, hardy bushes, and clumps of grass is driven by pragmatic and economic reasoning, conservation is a useful byproduct that can quite literally save lives.

Lack of tree cover makes the Sahel vulnerable to the flooding that afflicted swaths of East and West Africa in September forcing 1.5 million people in 17 countries from their homes and leaving up to 300 dead. Without trees' roots to keep water in the ground, the rain runs across the bone dry earth, flooding villages and washing away crops.

Population growth compounds risks

At a United Nations conference held in Madrid in early September to discuss ways of combating desertification, experts warned that the same regions expected to get drier due to climate change are also those with the highest population growth rates. Zafar Adeel, author of a recent UN study on desertification told reporters, "This is a recipe for trouble brewing if we continue on our present path."

Mr. Adeel's warning could be tailor-made for Niger whose population has doubled in the last two decades to reach 13 million, helping to keep the country at the bottom of the UN human development index.

The last time Niger hit the headlines was in 2005, a year of Old Testament catastrophe in the country: it suffered a drought, a locust swarm, and a famine that threatened the lives of millions.

A large-scale international humanitarian response stopped the immediate suffering, and good rains have meant better harvests in the years since. Nevertheless, this arid part of Africa is extremely vulnerable and climate change is a very real threat to already tenuous existences.

"A repeat of [the famine of] two years ago is inevitable," says Vogt. "In different pockets you always have food crises; 2005 was worse than usual and a lot of quick-fix cash came in but that treated the symptoms, not the causes."

He believes that long-term social investment is what's needed and that greater understanding between the peoples might mean less conflict in the future.

In fact, there's already evidence that it's bringing farmers and herders together.

As one Hausa committee member said: "We never used to attend [nomad] weddings; now we do."