For a long time Niger has been regarded by Western governments and aid groups as a basket case, one of the absolute poorest countries in the world and the epitome of Third World problems of disease, poverty, and environmental decay. But according to The New York Times, something surprising is happening in one very poor region of the country: the population is growing but the economic and environmental situation is improving (contrary to the conventional wisdom). In one previously hard-hit village, not a single child has died from malnutrition since 2005.
How is this happening? Trees are returning in great numbers. Why? Rainfall has increased, and farmers are no longer ploughing trees under when they plant crops but are keeping and cultivating them, which has a tremendous effect on soil conservation. What has caused this change in behavior? Surprise, surprise:
Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.
It bears repeating: economic growth is the best weapon against problems of poverty and the environment in poor countries, and property rights are the key to economic growth. How long will it take for securing property rights to be high on the agenda for international aid groups?