Offering solutions to the world | Story

Offering solutions to the world 

Offering solutions to the world

Prosopis juliflora is commonly known as the mesquite tree and its remarkable properties can offer solutions to some of the greatest problems on our planet. 25 percent of the earth’s land surface, home to 500 million people who belong to some of the world’s poorest communities, is made up of arid areas where other trees cannot grow. Some of these areas are found in sub-Saharan Africa, Peru, Central and South America, and certain parts of the Indian subcontinent. The environment-enriching mesquite tree, which will grow anywhere, has been introduced into these arid areas. Its ten-foot roots reduce the salinity of the soil, its decaying leaves fertilize the earth, its leaf canopy provides much-needed shelter, and its seed pods produce food for both people and their livestock. Also, its wood is tough, burns slowly, and produces a valuable charcoal crop. 

These areas have benefited enormously from the introduction of this generous tree. In north-western Argentina, 140,000 tons of Prosopis logs are harvested annually for furniture and high-quality flooring. In Mexico and Peru, over 100,000 tons of Prosopis pods are used annually for livestock feed. In Gujarat, India, 9,000,000 kilos of Prosopis charcoal are produced for sale in Indian cities, whilst in Haiti, the charcoal industry supports 150,000 people. And so, when it was introduced from Mexico in the 1970s, the mesquite tree seemed to be the answer to the acute problems in Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. It was to provide shade from the fierce, relentless African sun, materials for building homes and fencing, firewood, and; charcoal. Why then, thirty years on, do the Afar people in Ethiopia call the tree, which was intended to be their savior, “The Devil Tree’ 

With no other tree species providing any competition, the mesquite has thrust its long roots deep into the African earth, grown to a great height in a short period, and formed vast canopies of interlocking overhead branches and leaves. Cattle, wild animals, and birds have helped to spread the seeds and promote further growth. But for some people in Ethiopia, this is not quite the success story that it seems. To the Afar people whose poor livelihoods depend on grazing their livestock, the tree is more a curse than the intended force for good. The roots and shoots have indeed grown prodigiously: so much so that they push their way up through the floors of their huts. And these unwelcome intruders are ineradicable-cutting them back merely encourages further growth. 

But that is not all. Prosopis produces gigantic thorns three to four inches long which grow on ground-level tendrils. Both people and animals receive painful injuries from treading on these thorns, which are exacerbated by the fact that the wounds inflicted become infected very quickly. Even more disastrous for these people, however, is the loss of their grazing land. In some countries, the people have found that the sheltered areas under the Prosopis canopies have become home to useful creatures and insects, but the Afar people lament the loss of the plants which, denied essential light, no longer grow there and, in particular, the grasses on which they depend for grazing their animals. They are having to walk further and further every day with their animals in an increasingly desperate and exhausting attempt to find grazing. 

Ahmedu Koka is one such farmer who has given up the daily struggle to find the ever-decreasing grazing land. He has turned to produce charcoal from burning the mesquite. For centuries his ancestors have lived as herders in this inhospitable region, roaming hundreds of miles every week to find grazing for their cattle, camels, and goats. ‘It is my tradition, it is my life. I prefer livestock to wood,’ he says, ‘but I can no longer find enough grass for my cattle.’ Ahmedu used to have thirty cows to keep his wife and eight children. He now has two and makes just enough money to keep his family by cutting Prosopis and producing charcoal. It is not enough money to enable any of his children to go to school, but it is enough for food. 

Ethiopia is not alone in finding serious disadvantages to the Prosopis invasion. In New Mexico, the capacity of arable land has been reduced by 75 percent. In northern Australia, Prosopis has colonized over 800,000 hectares of arable land where it has been found almost impossible to eradicate: chemical solutions have failed, and only controlled burning has helped to stop its spread. In Ethiopia, a non-governmental organization, Farm Africa, is working towards finding a viable solution to the seemingly insoluble problems raised by the Prosopis invasion. ‘It is difficult for the indigenous Afar people,’ said one Farm Africa program manager. ‘The way of life of these pastoral people is molded to the ecosystem in which they live, and now Prosopis has become part of that ecosystem, so they want it eradicated. That is not the way forward. We cannot eradicate it; we must understand its uses and turn them to the advantage of these people.’ 

The best solution seems to be efforts to turn what for many has become an affliction to advantage by building up a market for mesquite products. The government has provided some crushing machines for communities. The Afar people collect the seed pods and operate the machines themselves, a process which helps to reduce the mesquite propagation, and also produces protein-rich cattle feed on the crushed pods, which the communities can use and sell. Charcoal production in Ethiopia is currently illegal because the country’s precious neem and acacia forests have been virtually wiped out, but the government has allowed a charcoal business to be set up in the area where Prosopis has propagated most fiercely. Living on the land is all about adapting to change. The old ways will change, but by learning to work with the invader rather than against it, the people will be able to reap its benefits.