BAMAKO - Drissa Bouare has been selling charcoal in Mali’s capital, Bamako, for almost two decades, but has never had more trouble finding supplies of the fuel than in the last few years.
Mali’s efforts to restore its forests mean many farmers are preserving the trees on their land instead of cutting them down to turn into charcoal, he said. And that leaves less for his customers.
“Of course, I’m worried about the disappearance of trees on a large scale in rural areas,” Bouare said. “But people don’t have access to alternative energy sources like natural gas and electric stoves.”
For many farmers, stopping the production and sale of charcoal would dent their incomes.
But a rising number are turning to a sustainable method that allows them to keep up tree growth on their farms while also using those trees for fuel.
Called “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” (FMNR), the technique makes use of felled tree stumps and underground root systems usually burned or dug up to make way for crops.
By cultivating those parts of the tree and managing when and how many branches are cut - instead of taking down whole trees - farmers can maintain a steady source of income, say advocates.
Seydou Keita, a 53-year-old farmer in Kolokani, southwest Mali, turned to the technique seven years ago, when it became clear he could not earn enough growing maize and millet.
Now he has 380 wild jujube trees growing among the cereal crops on his 4 hectares (10 acres) of land, each earning him up to 5,000 West African francs ($8.50) per month during harvest time.
The extra income means he can finally hire help.
“I make much more money out of jujube berries than I earn from staple cereals,” he said. “I’m employing a worker, and I pay him without any difficulty.”
Firewood and charcoal account for about 78% of energy use in Mali’s households, according to a 2015 study by the African Development Bank.
The country’s environment ministry has said rampant felling of trees for fuel, building materials and other purposes accounts for the loss of 100,000 hectares of forest each year.
In July, environment minister Housseini Amion Guindo told reporters that of the 32 million hectares of forest the government recorded in the country in 2002, almost half had disappeared as a result of logging, drought and desert creep.
But for many Malian farmers who sell charcoal to supplement their incomes, conservation efforts take a back seat.
Recognizing the need for a solution allowing farmers to keep their land covered with trees while continuing to use wood for fuel and food, Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo pioneered Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration in Niger in the early 1980s.
It entails growing shoots out of living stumps, then trimming off branches as needed while leaving others to grow.
Rinaudo, whose work has earned him the Right Livelihood Award, known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel prize, has worked with aid group World Vision to spread the technique to Mali in the last five years, as well as other parts of West Africa.
According to Ezekiel Dembele, World Vision project manager for the Kolokani area, the technique is cheaper than the traditional method of felling trees, which includes buying and planting seeds and maintaining a nursery.
“All of this takes time, and costs money and energy,” he said.
The FMNR method also helps farmers protect their other sources of income, Dembele explained, by providing tree shade for their food crops, slowing the evaporation of water from the soil and introducing nutritious nitrogen into the soil.
And in countries where farmers have ownership rights to the trees on their land, FMNR also gives them an ongoing financial incentive to look after those trees, Rinaudo said by email.
“Once (farmers) have assurance that they will benefit from protecting and growing trees, they will be the fiercest defenders of those trees - against illegal cutting and forest fires,” he added.
Rinaudo pointed to Niger, where in 2004 the government loosened its grip on the use of natural resources and started giving citizens more rights to decide what to do with trees on their land.
“Almost overnight, after (farmers) secured ownership rights to the trees, land which had been cleared of trees for decades became reforested,” he said.
Besides World Vision, other groups - such as Malian charity Sahel Eco and Blumont International, a U.S.-based non-profit - are promoting the technique under climate change adaptation projects in other parts of the Sahel and Southeast Asia.
In Niger, Rinaudo’s method has helped regenerate at least 5 million hectares of degraded farmland since he started promoting it, according to World Vision’s website.
World Vision project manager Dembele said about 41,000 farmers had implemented the technique in Mali’s Diema and Kolokani districts alone, covering a total of 23,500 hectares.
While supporters hold up the method as the answer to making and using charcoal and fuel wood without destroying forests, Dembele pointed out it is just as vulnerable to climate change-related drought as many other farming techniques.
Unusually dry spells can temporarily reduce farmers’ stock of trees and force them to revert to their old ways, he noted.
“Indeed, in years of drought many farmers, especially the poor, have to cut trees to survive,” Dembele said. But those tree stocks usually bounce back once the rains return, he added.
In some parts of Mali, religious leaders and village chiefs are joining the drive to protect forests through FMNR, Dembele told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
They hold local farmers responsible for keeping at least 80 trees on each hectare of their land, the minimum amount required for the method to stay sustainable, he explained.
In Gouba Inna, a village southwest of Bamako, the technique has even helped build peace between herders and farmers who traditionally clash over land and grazing rights, Dembele added.
Both groups have committed to protecting trees that are part of the village project, by agreeing neither group will cut or let their animals graze on the young, green branches, he said.
For Rinaudo, the method’s ability to bring communities together to preserve their forests is one of its biggest successes.
“It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for forest departments in developing countries to protect trees (on their own),” he said.