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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel, and this music signals another installment in Climate Connections - our yearlong project with National Geographic. We're traveling the globe to learn about the impact of climate change and the impact that people are having on the climate.

This month, we're stopping in West Africa. And while you rarely hear much good news out of the poorest parts of Africa, today's story bucks the trend.

BLOCK: Scientists studying the broad arid region just south of the Sahara desert have discovered that trees are growing like crazy there. It's not known whether global warming will bring further drought to this impoverished region. But it is clear that these trees will help people cope.

NPR's Richard Harris traveled to Niger and filed this report.

RICHARD HARRIS: Niger is a landlocked country in West Africa. A huge chunk is Sahara desert, what's not outright desert gets just a smattering of rain - comparable to Tucson. What you don't expect to see is a lot of trees.

(Soundbite of paper rustling)

Mr. GRAY TAPPAN (Geographer): Wow.

HARRIS: But that's exactly what Mahamane Larwanou and Gray Tappan see when they roll out a satellite photo of central Niger. Larwanou is a Nigerian ecologist; Tappan is an American geographer. Both are passionate about understanding why trees are making a big comeback in many parts of Niger.

Mr. TAPPAN: Boy, the regeneration here is among the most spectacular that we've seen.

Mr. MAHAMANE LARWANOU (Ecologist): Yeah.

HARRIS: Tappan and Larwanou meet at the University of Niamey in Niger's capital. They're planning a two-week road trip, paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development. They're eyeing study sites around the towns of Adouna, Laba and Galma.

Mr. TAPPAN: The striking thing is that if you look at the '60s and the 70s, through photography, those were the very small villages.

Mr. LARWANOU: Very small villages and then there's no vegetations.

HARRIS: Right. No vegetations.

Mr. TAPPAN: Very, very little vegetation. And so this is one of the more striking areas of transformation, you know. This is - it's really remarkable.

Mr. LARWANOU: Oh no, no. It's fantastic.

HARRIS: In Niger, trees aren't just aesthetic. They are essential. For starters, 90 percent of the nation's energy comes in the form of firewood. Trees also feed animals, nourish the soil, provide wood for construction, and they bear fruit and lucrative products, like gum arabic. And unlike most crops, trees can survive the inevitable hard times when the climate suddenly turns even drier and more hostile.

Mr. TAPPAN: Small bags, measuring tape.

HARRIS: So to get a closer look at the hopeful trend in tree growth, Larwanou and Tappan pack up a couple of four-wheel-drive trucks with gear, food and helpers and head east out of the capital city.

Mr. LARWANOU: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of engine starting)

(Soundbite of door closing)

HARRIS: As we wind through broad agricultural areas and across rocky plateaus, it's the same thing everywhere - trees: acacias, gum arabic, ebony, tamarind. As we cross a plateau, Larwanou marvels that there's actually greenery dotted around us.

Mr. LARWANOU: There they are. Before, it was unproductive area. There was no tree, no single tree.

HARRIS: So there was nothing here at all?

Mr. LARWANOU: Nothing, nothing. Only stones.

HARRIS: We descend off the plateaus and wend our way to the town of Adouna.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. LARWANOU: Gray?

HARRIS: Larwanou and Tappan stop on the outskirts of town to measure the trees and figure out how much wood they're producing. Something they can't do simply by looking at satellite images.

Mr. TAPPAN: If we know the amount of wood that is being produced by these trees, we'll get a good idea of how much you can harvest these trees without degrading the system. We can figure out what is the sustainable rate of harvest of the wood, let's say, for firewood.

(Soundbite of hammering)

HARRIS: First they set up their study plot.

Mr. TAPPAN: So this is - the circumference of our one-hectare circle, circular plot.

HARRIS: Then they go about measuring the height and width of each tree and bush, using a simple device called a Biltmore stick. They hold it up at arms length and read measurements off its scale.

Mr. LARWANOU: The height?

Mr. TAPPAN: Height - seven meters.

Mr. LARWANOU: Seven. Diameter?

Mr. TAPPAN: Seven.

Mr. LARWANOU: Seven.

HARRIS: Eventually, they'll be able to extrapolate these readings to measure tree growth over an area of Niger the size of West Virginia.

Mr. LARWANOU: Two-sixty.

HARRIS: That's a lot of wood.

Mr. TAPPAN: Larwanou, I'm going to check to see if you got that tree right.

Mr. LARWANOU: Okay.

Mr. TAPPAN: All right?

Mr. LARWANOU: Good.

Mr. TAPPAN: Species…

HARRIS: Tappan works for SAIC, a contractor that helps the U.S. Geological Survey run a remote sensing center in South Dakota.

Mr. TAPPAN: Height…

HARRIS: He's precise and a bit reserved, especially in contrast to Larwanou, who is everybody's instant friend. Larwanou's face is adorned with tribal markings that look like whiskers.

Mr. LARWANOU: (Singing) If you want a song, I can sing to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LARWANOU: Gray? Now, sing it.

HARRIS: That gregarious quality serves Larwanou well, because the researchers don't just want to measure tree growth. They want to understand what people are doing to encourage trees. And to do that, Larwanou talks to the locals.

(Soundbite of people talking)

(Soundbite of chopping)

HARRIS: We wander up a slope overlooking the study plot to talk to three women who have been looking down on us and laughing at the strange activity they see. The women are chopping up a branch that had been lopped off a tree. First, goats and sheep had a chance to eat the leaves, now the women are taking the rest for firewood.

Mr. LARWANOU: (Speaking foreign language)

OOMAH (Niger Woman): (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. LARWANOU: (Speaking foreign language)

OOMAH: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: The first thing we learn is these trees aren't all that old. Oomah, the oldest woman, tell us that, long ago, this area was dotted with trees. But during the early 1970s, there was a horrible drought throughout this region of West Africa.

OOMAH: (Through translator) People suffered in a way that cannot be described. At that time, most people left. People were displaced by that crazy drought. Those who dared to stay cut down the trees and took them to the markets to sell. That was their only way to get food. They cut down the trees or sold them. That's what you had to do to feed yourself and your family.

HARRIS: Even so, the drought killed hundreds of thousands of people throughout Niger and other parts of West Africa.

Gray Tappan picks up the story from there.

Mr. TAPPAN: And when the people were hit by a second drought within their living memory in the '80s, first we got in the '70s then in the '80s, they realized that they need to look - consider other options to survive the next drought. Everybody knows drought is a natural part of this environment here. It's only a matter of time when we see another drought.

HARRIS: Aid groups from Europe and the United States knew that trees could help people adapt during the bad years. So they planted trees extensively starting in the 1980s. This explains part of the story.

Another thing, the government of Niger also changed its policies and let local people take ownership of the trees. And that has encouraged farmers to let the trees grow. These days, they prune them for wood rather than chopping them down altogether.

Mr. LARWANOU: They know the importance of trees. If there are no trees here, they are in trouble. That's end of their lives.

HARRIS: Here in Adouna, there's an extra twist to the story. Larwanou seeks out the village chief. It turns out, he's at a horse race in the next village. But we find the chief's brother tending his vegetable plot. He greets us warmly.

Mr. LARWANOU: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. ALHAJA ISHMAILA (Brother to Adouna's chief): (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. LARWANOU: This is very funny story that I heard for the very first time.

Mr. ISHMAILA: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: The chief's brother, Alhaja Ishmaila, explains that the village had been surrounded by sand dunes. And after the trees were cut down in the 1970s, the dunes started to creep up on the village.

Mr. LARWANOU: Sand dunes that were moving. They were moving.

HARRIS: He says the dunes were moving so quickly people in the village were on the verge of abandoning the town altogether.

Mr. LARWANOU: And then there was a project that comes, and said please we want to help you but you have to help yourself.

HARRIS: A European aid group said, look, we'll help you plant trees to stabilize the dunes, but you also need to build fences and you need to keep out the camels, and the donkeys, and the sheep and the goats. And that's exactly, what the people did. Trees saved the town.

The stories vary from one village to the next, but Gray Tappan says the result is the same: large swaths of Niger are getting greener.

Mr. TAPPAN: As we go from village to village, what we're hearing from farmers is that they consider themselves better off today than they did 20 years ago. Land is more productive. They've diversified their income. And one indication of that also is that we see less and less out migration of youth to the capital city or to other countries. The youth are staying more and more on the land because they can make a living on the land today.

HARRIS: Trees here are really another crop. Farmers generally encourage them to grow scattered throughout their land, so there's still enough light and space to grow grains on the same plot. But Tappan and Larwanou have also noticed a few curious places in the aerial imagery where trees are growing back much more densely.

Mr. TAPPAN: This is a literal forest, not just an open one - a real forest on either side of this dry riverbed. And that was not there in 1975, so it's a…

Mr. LARWANOU: It wasn't there in 1975.

Mr. TAPPAN: And here, it looks like a closed forest. I mean it is really the densest stand of vegetation we have anywhere in this village area. So that's worth seeing.

HARRIS: So we pile back into the trucks, pass some nomads who are riding camels, and head out - slowly - across deeply rutted fields.

(Soundbite of door closing)

HARRIS: So this is what we're seeing on the map that - this is the edge of that huge green expanse around the dry river.

Mr. TAPPAN: Right. We need to go to the edge and look into the dry riverbed.

HARRIS: Okay.

We head across the sandy soil on foot.

Mr. TAPPAN: There's a parrot.

HARRIS: Parrot? Where?

Mr. TAPPAN: Yeah. There it is crossing the bough.

HARRIS: Across the river, the scene is not at all what Gray Tappan and Mahamane Larwanou expected. The farmer who owns this land has recently chopped down most of his trees.

Mr. TAPPAN: This was all forest a year and a half ago. Look at all the stumps. Look hard, Larwanou. The forest was here also they have cut on the big trees. Yeah, they've taken all the trees.

Mr. LARWANOU: (Unintelligible) to farm. Yeah, they cut everything.

HARRIS: And this looks burned.

Mr. LARWANOU: In fact, it's to avoid sprouting. So it will not sprout.

HARRIS: I see. So he was clearing this not only to sell the woods, but to plant this land.

Mr. TAPPAN: Yeah.

Mr. LARWANOU: Yeah, to plant this land. Yeah.

HARRIS: Are you disappointed to find that these trees are cut down?

Mr. LARWANOU: Yeah, I'm highly disappointed. But, if he - I am an ecologist. I would like to see everything green. But the farmer has an objective. He has to eat.

HARRIS: He not only needs to eat, he needs to make his land produce more and more food every single year. That's because the population here is growing at an astounding pace. It's doubling every 20 years.

Mr. LARWANOU: What they're producing is not really sufficient due to the number of people, the increase in number of the population.

HARRIS: It's hard to get ahead in those circumstances. But Larwanou says there might be a way. What if Niger could earn some money for the trees they plant? After all, they are soaking up the carbon dioxide that rich countries are producing.

Mr. LARWANOU: You guys are polluting. We are doing efforts to plant trees and to stock the carbon that you have given us.

HARRIS: So we should pay you? Yeah.

Mr. LARWANOU: But you, you have to pay us. That's how you do this kind of transactions, you know. I mean, it is conventional transaction. How can we do it? We don't have the data to convince you that this what do we have.

HARRIS: But you're going to get it, huh?

Mr. LARWANOU: We're going to get it, going to get it. Yeah.

HARRIS: Already, the World Bank is funding a few tree plantations in Niger so the country can earn cash for taking carbon out of the atmosphere. It's hard to see how individual subsistence farmers could benefit as well. But if Larwanou can find a way, that would be yet another reason for the people in towns like Adouna to let their trees grow tall.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Richard Harris also filmed the changing landscape of Niger for Public Television's "Wild Chronicle" series and you can see that video at our Web site, npr.org/climateconnections.

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