Greening Africa: The Practice and Purpose of Sowing Native Seeds

We often think of landscapes as stagnant and unchanging. Covering vast terrain and spanning many countries, the Sahara Desert seems immutable and eternal, yet its boundaries shift like extremely slow-moving tides. This process of fluctuation is natural but has been profoundly influenced by humankind. In the face of growing public awareness of climate change, there have been recent efforts to re-green Sub-Saharan Africa and to halt the long-term trend of the Sahara’s advancing desertification.

On 2002’s World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, in N’djamena, Chad, a vision emerged for a Great Green Wall of trees to halt the Sahara’s southward expansion into Africa’s Sahel belt. Wikipedia notes that the Panafrican Agency of the Great Green Wall’s most important finding was “to understand the need of an integrated multi-sectorial approach for sustainable results. From a tree planting initiative, the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel has evolved into a development programming tool.”

More than a decade later, as part of the ambitious international program AFR100 (the African Restoration Initiative), African nations committed to restore forest on an unprecedented scale as a contribution to the global effort for climate stability. With larger countries taking on more ambitious goals, tiny Uganda promised to restore an impressive 2.5 million hectares of forest.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to huge areas covered by a diversity of forest landscapes
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to huge areas covered by a diversity of forest landscapes

The strategies and skills required to hit this ambitious target largely exist on paper. Where trees have been planted in this once-forested nation, they have mostly been exotics – pine, eucalyptus, and teak. Ecologically speaking, it’s hard to call these commercial plantations “forests”1. Broad experience with restoration in the complicated land tenure system of post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa simply is not there yet. So far, nobody in Uganda has restored a hundred thousand hectares with native trees, let alone the 2.5 million the nation plans to see restored by 2030.

Gratefully, solid, road-ready strategies for restoration are not unknown2. Simple techniques accessible to small farmers and practicable at large scale do exist, thanks to the ingenuity of indigenous agricultural practitioners and scholars alike. Some of the most salient methodologies are:

  • Agroforestry – a catchall term for tree-based agriculture systems, ranging from indigenous household gardens to community food forests to commercial silviculture and beyond, usually refers to production-oriented rather than restoration-oriented systems.
  • Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) – careful management of the abundant volunteer seedlings and re-sprouting stumps found on many farms, a resource-saving strategy that also enhances crop development due to drought-mitigating effects.
  • Native Species Restoration – in Sub-Saharan Africa, as elsewhere, over-exploited native tree species are not being reintroduced into the landscape at a viable replacement rate, with unforeseeable consequences for local ecosystems and landscapes; planting the most utilized tree species as conservation targets a key imperative in any landscape-level interventions.
Lincoln Ocaya, the Forestry Program Manager for Wild Forests and Fauna’s Native Seeds Project, at one of our native species nurseries in Gulu District, Uganda
Lincoln Ocaya, the Forestry Program Manager for Native Seeds Project, at one of our native species nurseries in Gulu District, Uganda

WildFF is proud to be one front-runner in the broader effort to restore forest landscapes in the climate change-vulnerable tropics through native species restoration. The Native Seeds Project’s purpose is to bring back Northern Uganda’s tree cover for the benefit of future generations of human and other biological communities. Last year we piloted a nursery by sowing 25 species of native seeds, rarely planted elsewhere. This year, we look to ways to scale up our activities, planting more tree species and reaching more communities than ever before.

Community ecology practitioners: the Wise Women - Uganda group
Community ecology practitioners: the Wise Women – Uganda group

Together we look toward a greener future for Africa and our planet. We’re grateful to be part of the effort.

Seedlings of Afzelia africana, a tree species from Northern Uganda
Seedlings of Afzelia africana, a tree species from Northern Uganda

1 Chazdon et al, 2015. When is a Forest a Forest? Forest concepts and definitions in the era of forest and landscape restoration. Ambio.

2 Reij, Chris and Robert Winterbottom. Scaling up Regreening: Six Steps to Success. A Practical Approach to Forest and Landscape Restoration. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2015.

About the Author

Robin Van Loon

Robin Van Loon

Robin is the founder and Executive Director of Camino Verde, and has been based in the Tambopata region of the Peruvian Amazon since 2004. A long-time student of traditional and indigenous agricultural and medicinal practices, Robin’s work has focused on developing community-based reforestation strategies to preserve important endangered plants of the Amazon. He is a writer, regenerative designer, and consultant in agroforestry, reforestation, and sustainable development.

1 comment

  1. Dear Robin i come from Gulu.Kindly let me know where to meet this team in Gulu.
    My contacts are +256772212049 or+256702212049

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