Chris Reij, Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute

Chris Reij is a Sustainable Land Management specialist, with decades of experience on the restoration of degraded land in semi-arid regions, farmer innovation in agriculture, long-term trends in agriculture and environment and analysis of successes in agriculture and land management in Africa. He is also a Senior Fellow of the World Resources Institute in Washington and currently active in WRI's Global Restoration Initiative (see links below).

The World Resources Institute is an independent, non-governmental global research organization focused on sustainable natural resource management, with forests being one of their 6 key focus areas. WRI employs over 450 experts and staff, with activities in more than 50 countries.

1. Which main lessons can be taken from your long experience with these topics, including challenges, setbacks and mistakes that should be considered in similar efforts? In your opinion, what is necessary to make these results sustainable? How much is the continued involvement from non-local people a critical factor?

I've had a focus on the West African Sahel since 1978. This region has suffered from drought and degradation and around 1980 crop yields were low and declining. Much has happened since then. New soil and water conservation techniques were developed by farmers and by NGO staff. These techniques were simple, low-cost and had an immediate positive impact on crop yields. In Niger and Burkina Faso at least 500,000 ha of very degraded land has been restored to productivity since the early 1980s.

But an even bigger success story has emerged: since the middle of the 1980s, smallholder farmers in densely populated parts of Niger have begun to protect and manage woody species which regenerated spontaneously on their farmland. They have done so on 5 million ha, and they have added at least 200 million new trees without planting one. Similar stories at smaller scale can be found in other African countries. In June 2016 I travelled through Malawi with my colleague Bob Winterbottom and to our surprise we observed that also in Malawi smallholder farmers had begun to protect and manage woody species regenerating on their farmland and they had done so on at least one million ha.

An important lesson that can be drawn from this is that farmers are willing to invest in on-farm trees if they perceive they have a right to these trees and if environmental degradation has put them with their backs against the wall. They add trees to their farming system not for environmental beauty, but for the intensification of their agricultural production system. Trees provide soil fertility, fodder for livestock, firewood for household energy, fruit for consumption or for commerce and many other benefits.

Another lesson is that the protection and management of trees which regenerate spontaneously on farmlands produces better results more quickly and at lower costs than tree planting. During the last 30 years much has been invested in tree planting in the Sahel as well as in other regions, but the question is...how many trees have survived planting? The answer is...not so many. Mortality rates of tree plantations have often been in the order of 80% or even higher. One reason is that ownership of trees has not always been defined before the trees were planted.

Interestingly, the large-scale protection and management of on-farm trees in Niger, Malawi and other countries has been catalysed or supported by outside intervention. In Niger, Tony Rinaudo, an Australian agronomist, catalysed the process in the Maradi Region in 1984 after he had for several years tried in vain to plant trees. When farmers observed the multiple impacts of natural regeneration, many spontaneously adopted the practice.

2. From your experience, which conditions are necessary when trying to promote or support solutions where the local populations can help themselves and simultaneously contribute for the restoration and sustainable use of local ecosystems? Which role should external parties have and which obstacles should be considered?

Land users will invest in trees when they perceive ownership of the trees they protect or plant, whether it is on-farm or off-farm. This means that governments have to get forestry legislation right. Forest laws should explicitly mention farmers’ rights to trees and it helps if they are informed about their rights. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in all countries.

Another condition is that farmers should be aware that the protection and management of on-farm trees begins producing benefits quite quickly. In the past, it was often mentioned that if someone plants a tree now, the benefits will be for the next generation. Even under the dry conditions in the Sahel we often find that young trees need to be pruned to develop a trunk and a canopy. Farmers begin to prune in year 2 or 3 and the pruning provide some household energy and the leaves add to soil organic matter. It shows that benefits from trees emerge much quicker than often assumed.

3. Which topics and regions/countries do you consider to be currently under-served and waiting for similar efforts, or simply present good opportunities for intervention?

A topic that needs to be urgently addressed is how can the increasingly ambitious tree-based restoration targets be implemented? In September 2014, the New York Forest Declaration stated the need to reduce the loss of natural vegetation to 0 ha, but it also mentioned that 350 million ha of degraded forests need to be restored by 2030. Until now, too little though has gone into how can we multiply the current rate of tree based restoration without multiplying the costs. Such ambitious forest restoration targets will never be achieved by 2030 with a business-as-usual approach, which is tree planting. Current yearly rates of tree planting often are a few thousand ha or at best several tens of thousands of hectares. That is not going to help us achieve our forest restoration targets. Unless the accent shifts to the promotion of low cost natural regeneration of woody species on-farm and off-farm, it won't be possible to set the process in motion to restore 350 million ha of degraded forest land. Scaling the tree-based restoration successes that we now know in each country, is the way forward.

To get back to earlier mentioned examples...if farmers in Niger have built new agroforestry systems on 5 million ha in 20 years, what needs to be done to quickly move from 5 million to 7 or 8 million ha? If farmers in Malawi have protected and managed natural regeneration on 1 million ha. how can this be scaled quickly to 3 or 4 million ha? The World Resources Institute has published a report in 2015, which addresses the issue of what can be done to scale existing re-greening successes and how to do it. Even if our current knowledge is not perfect, we know enough to move forward.

One more inspiring example, Northern Ethiopia is now greener than it has ever been during the last 145 years. This is not because rainfall has increased, but because human investment in restoration has overcome the impacts of climate change.


a) The 2015 study mentioned above, called "Scaling up Regreening: Six Steps to Success" is freely available in English and French at: http://www.wri.org/publication/scaling-regreening-six-steps-success.

b) The successes of Ethiopia, and a link to an award-winning documentary, are further detailed in a blog post by Chris Reij: http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/07/how-ethiopia-went-famine-crisis-green-revolution

Partnerships & Collaborations

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Sustinova is a non-profit organisation based in Zurich, Switzerland, and devoted to promoting Sustainability in the NGO area.

As a partner, Sustinova provides operational support to Reforestation World in its public activities.

ETH Zurich - Chair of Ecosystem Management

The Chair of Ecosystem management at the ETH Zürich is organising the Latsis Symposium ETH 2018 “Scaling-up forest Restoration”, on June 6-7 & 9.

Reforestation World is assisting with the link to NGOs, practitioners and others stakeholders in the field of forest restoration.