I am not your typical tree lover, but I work for an organisation that helps people in the northernmost sub-Saharan agricultural zone establish drought-tolerant trees and bushes that bear fruit even in times of need – and I just happen to love my job so very, very much. Knowing the amazing consequences that such long-term and well thought-through work can do in order to help poorest of the poor achieve a sustainable life, I am one of the greatest enthusiasts of drought tolerant fruit-bearing trees and bushes.

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Copyright Eden Foundation 2007

It is with a heavy heart however that I travel elsewhere in West Africa nowadays, for everywhere I look; trees are or have recently been chopped down in order to feed the growing demand of firewood. The following pictures were taken from my recent journey from Kano to Zinder little more than a week ago.

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In every second village, there was firewood for sale. Thick, rich stems that had been chopped down to give way to a growing demand. Trunks that you know have taken years and years to grow.

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I’ve been hearing for a long time now that firewood is getting more and more expensive and that Nigerien firewood is being sold to its ten times more populated neighbour Nigeria. Tree theft is a growing concern and there is no doubt that trees are becoming a valuable asset in this part of the world. At the current rate at which they are going down in the world, trees may one day end up being a source of conflict almost equal to water.

The question Sub-Saharan Africa must ask itself however is whether trees have a higher value dead or alive. The benefits of firewood sales are obvious, but so is the threat of desertification.

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One would think that desertification is a disastrous environmental phenomenon that man cannot protect himself against, but except for a relatively small part of the world which according to UN studies consists of naturally hyperarid deserts, desertification is a man-induced process. In the case of Niger, there is actually a natural green belt protecting the agricultural zone from the vast Sahara desert. In the article Desertification – a Threat to the Sahel, Eden writes:

This zone is species rich and many perennials growing there produce food in abundance. Several species grow larger there despite the lower rainfall than in the agricultural zone. The fauna includes gazelles and desert partridges. The vegetation protects the environment so little wind or water erosion occurs. A UNEP publication confirms that the natural green belt extends across the Sahel. It exists because it is closer to the desert than the agricultural zone and therefore too dry for sustainable millet production. Careless use, however, could easily destroy this zone.

It seems to be a human trait to take things for granted, but the way our world is heading is calling for caution. Unless man makes an effort to re-establish the equal amount of whatever it is that he is taking (whether that be trees, water, oxygen or fauna), he will end up denuding the earth from the riches destined for the next generation. I am glad I am not a child anymore, for I would not want to inherit this world, as so little is left for the future.

I am very proud however of the Eden families in Tanout, for despite their situation, they are among the rare people in this world nowadays to actually do something practical about their situation and to invest in the future of their children. And I’m not talking about “limiting the destruction” as we all too often end up doing in the West, but actually building something from scratch.

Knowing that a tree in Niger takes up to a generation to grow but needs only an hour to be cut down, you may understand the meaning of the following Hausa saying:

He who has sowed a tree has not lived in vain.

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Copyright Eden Foundation 2006

The Eden families of Tanout are my heroes, for they live a life so hard I have never had to endure anything similar, and yet they are doing something about their situation. Seeing the joy of their children as they grow up believing in the future, fills me with such satisfaction that I would not want to be anywhere else doing anything else. I am just grateful that I can be a part of it, and when I travel to other places and see all the trees that have to pay the price for today’s demand of firewood, I remind myself that far north lives a people that are turning the trend. And that fills me with inspiration and joy.