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trees of life are a vital food source

Food insecurity is a defining characteristic of life for many of the world's poorest people, exacerbated now by climate change and the rise in food prices.

Emergency food aid has been the staple of international responses to crises, such as drought and famine, for decades. However, it is much better that the emergency is addressed before it happens.

Communities living in countries most affected by food shortages have long known about the key role that trees can play in reducing the need for conventional aid. Recognition of this by the international community, and practical support for a localised tree-based solution is urgently needed.

Farmer Arzouma Thiombiano from eastern Burkina Faso, recalls how trees saved lives in the mid ‘80s. "Over 20 years ago, a big famine came but people escaped starvation by eating baobab leaves and fruit," he says.

Food for thought

Following last year’s crisis in the horn of Africa, widespread droughts and erratic rains have since resulted in poor harvests and water shortages throughout the Sahel. It is expected that the region will face a serious food crisis that could affect up to 12 million people in 2012.

The effects of climate change are making droughts more of a norm than an exception. This is a pattern that places some of the most vulnerable communities in an increasingly precarious position when it comes to meeting basic food needs.

In Burkina Faso in West Africa, food insecurity affects 50% of households and the nutritional status of children under five is a real concern. Climate change is further impacting on already fragile agricultural lands, and high food costs are affecting people's health.

By the time shortages and hunger in countries like Burkina Faso reach "emergency" levels and warrant aid, families, communities, agricultural practices and lands will have suffered greatly.

The European Commission has recently announced it is increasing its humanitarian assistance to €123.5 million for the Sahel region to contain the impending food crisis.

However this is a short-term solution and one that needs to be balanced with long-term programmes in which the root causes of the crisis are addressed.

What is missing is an understanding of the vital role that trees can play in providing food security.

"Conventional" crops are often not native and require expensive inputs, significant irrigation and land preparation in order to produce a successful harvest. This means that they are more vulnerable to droughts. For smallholder farmers in Africa's drylands, a failed harvest can mean months of malnutrition and hardship.

Trees, on the other hand, often survive when other crops fail. Commonly seen by smallholder farmers as "famine foods", tree foods already form a significant part of daily diets across rural Africa. Trees provide fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, sepals, even sap, which can all be used as food.

This existing, localised "emergency relief", is what the international community must seek to strengthen.


The fight against hunger, especially in drought-hit times, must target those at the epicentre of world poverty – smallholder farmers in rural Africa.

They need support to adopt agro-forestry techniques, which boost soil fertility and provide tree food crops to supplement nutrition. They need the right environment to invest in their land, the ability to share information, and modest support at grass roots level.

Training and support can help villagers earn money from things that grow on trees. This income can give them food-purchasing power when crops fail, and access to vital services, such as healthcare and education.

This approach can increase self-sufficiency for both rural communities and national economies. It can increase environmental security, diversify livelihood options and reduce the vulnerability of poor households to climate change and external shocks.

It can bring real, sustainable long-term returns.

In Dongo, a village in Burkina Faso, ASFG member TREE AID's Village Tree Enterprise project aims to help villagers generate income from tree products. All of the participants are women.

One of their husbands explained: "During the last drought period, when my granary was empty, my wife's income contributed more than 50% of the household's income."

Projects like these provide communities with the skills and support to manage their trees. They enable people like the group in Dongo to improve their own resilience to drought, crop failure, and higher food prices.

It is time for the value of trees to be recognised at all levels internationally.

The international community must make a commitment to developing the enormous potential of agro-forestry. In so doing they present a joined up approach to resolving two of the key issues facing the world today.

They will simultaneously alleviate poverty and food insecurity for people who need it most, while tackling the impact of climate change by encouraging the protection and planting of trees.

Donate now to TREE AID’s appeal and help protect thousands of families living in the Sahel from future droughts, failed harvests and erratic rainfall through access to trees and training.


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