10/08/2013 11:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Truffula' Trees, The IPCC and Climate Change

The IPCC's latest findings on climate change confirm what we already know. Global warming is real, caused by humans, continued unabated -- and its impacts vary by climatic region.

The West African Sahel, for example, a region of harsh drylands and desperate poverty that stretches across Africa south of the Sahara, is experiencing a greater frequency and intensity of drought as temperatures rise. That spells potential disaster for the region's 58 million, largely agrarian people who already suffer from high levels of chronic hunger and malnutrition.

For decades, Sahelian trees -- the Gum, Shea, Baobab and Acacia -- have been clear-cut to expand cattle and agricultural land or provide firewood, accelerating the region's harsh conditions. But the Sahel's native trees -- like Dr. Seuss' fantastical, colorful truffula trees in his tale The Lorax -- are far more than they appear. Efforts to conserve them today and harvest their products offer hope for not only attenuating climate change impacts, but for providing economic security and better livelihoods for some of the world's poorest farmers.

Take the Gum Arabic and Gum Karaya trees of southern Mali. For generations, villagers cleared the trees for cattle land. Since 2008, an agricultural business named Produits du Sud, has trained village youth to conserve and tap the trees for their high-value resins, which it exports to Europe, to meet rising demand for their use in products from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics to baked goods.

Produits de Sud works with village leaders to train unemployed youth, creating an entirely new stream of income for rural Malians to supplement subsistence millet farming and pay for school fees, medical needs and food in the lean months between harvests.

Behind Produits du Sud are two local entrepreneurs, Amidou Sissako and Charles Ndoye, who are so successful, they've exceeded even their own expectations for growth. With Root Capital financing, they've been able to expand exports to Europe tenfold while payments to tree tappers have jumped from $17,000 in 2008 to more than $1 million in 2012. The company also expanded its workforce from fewer than three-dozen farmers in five villages to 2,500 farmers in 200 villages in just a few short years.

Produit du Sud's farmers have been stunned to realize the seemingly ordinary trees of the Sahel are drivers of economic growth. "It's amazing when you talk to the villagers," says Diaka Sall, Root Capital's Dakar-based Credit Manager for West Africa. "They had no idea that there was 'gold' in the trees they'd grown up with all their lives."


Conserving the gum trees provides myriad benefits that help mitigate climate change, from absorbing carbon to creating feedback loops that increase the amount of rainfall. As Andy Coghlan described in the New Scientist,

Trees create a virtuous circle of benefits. Leaves and fruits provide food, fodder [for livestock] and organic matter to fortify the soil. More livestock means more manure, which further enriches the soil enabling crops to be grown and spreads tree seeds so new trees grow. The trees also provide shelter for crops and help prevent soil erosion. In times of drought, firewood can be sold and food purchased to tide families over.

Conserving gum trees contributes to an overall vision of creating a "green wall" across the Sahel to serve as a barrier, protecting the semi-arid agricultural lands from the Sahara desert's southward creep.

But there's more. Conserving and wild-harvesting the products of the Sahel's trees also offers a path for peace and prosperity in a highly troubled region. Though the conflict that ripped apart Mali earlier this year had deep political and ethnic roots, it was fueled by decades of drought, food insecurity and poverty.

As Chris Reij of the World Resources Institute recently put it: "The pattern for terrorism overlaps perfectly with the drylands. These regions are at the bottom of the human development index and the bottom of the hydrological index."

Agricultural development, including wild-harvesting in conflict areas like Mali, is one of the best opportunities for employing would-be combatants, strengthening household incomes and food security and stimulating sustainable, economic growth in remote rural areas.

And Produits du Sud is but one example of an enterprise investing in wild harvesting and tree conservation. Other enterprises producing agroforestry crops from the Sahel, like the Baobab, Shea nut and cashew trees -- other such truffula-like trees -- offer similar potential. Just think of what hundreds more Produits du Sud could do to offer a bulwark against climate change while building lasting peace and prosperity in the world's most impoverished and troubled regions.