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The infinite win

Flore de Préneuf's picture

A year-long drought has transformed farmers into full-time charcoal burners in the part of Eastern Kenya I visited last week. Delayed rains have also had an impact on farmers in greener parts of the country where land degradation and over-exploited soils are dragging yields down.

But the story that emerges from this man-altered landscape is not all bleak. A range of actors, energized by the food and climate crisis, are taking measures to restore the balance between productive land use and functioning ecosystems, in ways that enhance the resilience of both. 

Kenya's parliament recently requested that farmers put 10% of their farmland under tree cover. Rwanda announced in February a program to reverse the degradation of its soil, water, land and forest resources by 2035. Development partners like the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility have invested millions of dollars in improving the management of ecosystems to protect livelihoods, biodiversity, water access, and other vital services. The World Resources Institute has painstakingly mapped over 450 million hectares of degraded forest landscapes in Africa that could be restored (See map). In fact, the urge to heal the planet's sores has given birth to a booming ecosystem of NGOs, partnerships, social enterprises and research initiatives that build on each others' successes and share a broad vision for positive change.


We know how to triple maize yields using fertilizer trees. We know how to harvest water, slow erosion and store carbon. We even know how to get more milk out of cows by feeding them leaves from trees that stock carbon, provide firewood, fix nitrogen and retain soil moisture – in a changing climate! All the while, those practices help farmers feed their families, attract wildlife, build assets and pay for school fees... 

So why is this kind of "infinite win" work not happening on a more meaningful scale? The organizers of a three-day Investment Forum on Mobilizing Private Investment in Trees and Landscape Restoration in Africa this week in Nairobi are hoping to lift the veil on some of the constraints to sustainable tree-based investment and provoke more synergies between public and private interests.

The Forum, organized by a partnership led by the World Bank, hosted by the World Agroforestry Center, and cosponsored by the World Bank, the World Agroforestry Center, PROFOR, IUCN, TerrAfrica, and EcoAgriculture Partners,  includes an unlikely smattering of plantation owners, loggers, food and furniture processors, equity investors, carbon off-setters, people who swear by the properties of baobab powder, and healthy skeptics with an eye permanently trained on the bottom-line. Although plenty of private farmers and businesses have already embraced tree-based approaches (witness Niger's re-greening or tree planting by tea growers), there's a feeling in the room that much more could be done to align policy incentives, infrastructure, marketing, land tenure and tree technologies for optimal results in different national contexts. 

The Forum follows on the Hague Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change in October 2010, where 60 Agriculture Ministers worked together with partners to define a Roadmap for action on climate-smart agriculture. The topic is expected to gain prominence at the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, in December, as negotiators ponder how to link agriculture to the climate convention.