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Looking for Famine in Niger and Finding Seeds of Progress

Fatouma Ide is among thousands of Nigerien farmers working in temporary public works jobs to tide them through the hunger season. Photo by Fred de Sam Lazaro.

The first question a journalist asks when deciding whether to report a story is: “What’s new?” That can be a challenge when it comes to famine in Africa.

The looming crisis in the Sahel region is clearly newsworthy — after all, tens of millions of lives are imperiled. But how is it different from the famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011? Or, for that matter, the Sahel famine of 2010?

One thing about the current situation was new and notable: relief agencies and the government of Niger, the most affected country, sounded an early alarm and called for help. That created a different challenge for a television journalist like me: the prospect of doing a famine story with no pictures of hungry people. It can feel almost predatory to seek images of human suffering, but when appropriately and accurately used, they are critical to conveying a story’s urgency.

Once in Niger, it was clear that we needn’t have fretted about compelling images. The famine is not expected to peak until August, but even in “good” years, there is no shortage of malnourished people in Niger. For decades, Nigeriens have endured an annual hunger season, as reserves from the previous harvest are exhausted and the wait — weeks or even months — begins for the next one.

In the end, we returned with a report that looks beyond the urgent news to a promising effort to address a root cause of chronic famine in Niger — the steady southward creep of the Sahara desert. In particular we look at an approach development experts now call Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, or FMNR, that was developed in the ’80s by an enterprising farmer in Burkina Faso, Niger’s western neighbor.

Yacouba Sawadogo used simple techniques to trap moisture and seeds blown across his land. He allowed the vegetation that sprouted naturally — native trees and brush — to grow alongside his planted crops. For decades until then trees had been cleared off the land for various reasons. Sawadogo and soon his neighbors began to show that, when protected and pruned, trees not only enrich the soil to improve crop production but also provide livestock fodder and firewood and cooler “microclimate” around them.

Farmers have been encouraged to protect trees that grow naturally on their land, improving soil fertility and producing an abundance of firewood, the main cooking fuel, and livestock fodder. Here, farmers tend a field of millet, a staple crop. Photo by Fred de Sam Lazaro.

International aid groups like World Vision and scientists like Chris Reij, both featured in our broadcast report, have tried to spread the gospel of FMNR as widely as possible. So far, Niger has seen the most success, boosting its annual food production by 500,000 tons, according to one study. That’s sufficient to feed about 2.5 million people. It’s a small but significant step that could eventually lead to food self-sufficiency, Reij said.

But for each step forward, population growth takes Niger two steps back. Some development experts say the country’s world-leading fertility rate — Nigerien women bear seven children on average — is the gravest threat.

“The failure to invest in family planning in the past is reaping huge suffering,” said Dr. Malcolm Potts at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “But, as the Africans say, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is today.'”

President Mahamadou Issoufou, democratically elected in early 2011, has set an ambitious agenda in which “birth spacing” is a priority. Based on his government’s proactive response to the current food crisis, U.S. Ambassador Bisa Williams said she is hopeful that Niger can break out of its perennial ranking as one of the world’s poorest nations.

Re-greening has given it a head start. Reij noted that there are 200 million more trees in Niger today than 20 years ago. I think that qualifies as both new and newsworthy.

On Thursday’s NewsHour: Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro’s full report on Niger’s pending famine.

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