Trees and green landscapes as far as the eye can see – that's the view Helvetas wants to make a reality together with farming families in Tanzania. In a drought-stricken valley, multi-layered forest gardens are being created to combat hunger, climate change and poverty.
Pili Mohammed, Fatuma Gwau Kundya and John Minoja live in a remote valley in central Tanzania. Right now, shortly after the rainy season, it glows green. At a second glance, one notices: There are hardly any trees. They have been cut down to make charcoal for cooking.
The soil is dry, wind carries away the sparse earth, and the land quickly becomes arid because there are no tree crowns to protect the soil from the scorching sun, and no roots to help retain moisture. Together with farming families and our partner organization Trees for the Future, Helvetas looked for long-term solutions – forest gardens. This initiative is not about gardens in forests, but about using trees to "heal" the soil and make it fertile again so that it will grow green once more. Fatuma, John and Pili talk about their experiences.
"The advantage of a forest garden is that it lasts for many years. It is sustainable. It helps send the children to school and provide for our basic needs. We really need more forest gardens because it's almost like a desert here. The land is so dry. Where there are such gardens, nature looks better. It has trees again and there are vegetables. In my garden, during the rainy season corn and beans grow. We have papaya, cashew and mango trees. In the dry season we grow okra, onions, hot peppers, amaranth and carrots. And avocado, my favorite. Fruit and crop trees are an additional source of income. We can harvest all the time, not just during the rainy season like before. And we live healthier. But the dry season remains a challenge. There are more and more insects that attack our trees and fruits. Also, corn and beans become weak when they don't have enough water. These are the biggest challenges. The most urgent thing we need is water."
John Minoja is a farmer, and has two large forest gardens that he has been tending for five years.
Fatuma Gwau Kundya
"I now have a natural fence of fast-growing Moringa and Gliricidia trees, thanks to my forest garden. The leaves, roots and seeds of Moringa are good for health. Gliricidia grows fast, improves the soil, gives good food for animals, and offers shade and firewood. Thanks to the trees and bushes, animals can no longer enter the garden. I can now grow vegetables all year-round, from January to December. And they’re better than my neighbor's vegetables, because I use only organic fertilizer that I make myself. I used to be very poor. My life has really changed with the trees and the garden. I used to have to buy everything at the market. Now I don't need to do that anymore. I am very proud of my forest garden because I have learned so much. I now teach my neighbors what they need to do. We need a lot more forest gardens in our village, because we want to be a green village. When I was little, there were lots of trees and lots of rain here. But the trees were cut down to make land and make coal. Now the soil can't store the rain. If we plant more trees, we will have more water."
Fatuma Gwau Kundya is a farmer who started planting her forest garden three years ago.
"We usually eat twice a day. In the morning we eat millet or corn porridge and peanuts or tea and bread patties. In the afternoon, I prepare ugali, a porridge made from cornmeal, with vegetables and beans. In the evening, we sometimes make a stew of corn, beans and coconut milk. I used to only grow millet, corn and peanuts. In the meantime, passion fruit, mango and papaya have been added. More trees will grow to provide fodder, fruit and firewood, and I will also be able to plant vegetables. We will have more choices for food, and if there is too much I can sell it. Nature is not doing well. We need to strengthen it again for the coming generations. We have to learn that trees also bring something to the next generation. If you cut down a tree, you have to plant a new one. I always knew it was important to take care of nature. I didn't know how, though. Now I know."
Pili Mohammed is the technical manager for the forest gardens in her savings and loan group. These groups are encouraged by Helvetas in many projects to build financial security. Pili shares her knowledge with the members of her savings group, but also with others who are interested. She started her forest garden last year.
Forest gardens where there are no trees
Despite their name, forest gardens have nothing to do with forests. The idea is that trees and agriculture are combined. In the first year, fast-growing trees and shrubs are planted. Their leaves nourish the soil in pursuit of the idea of sustainable, organic agriculture. After that, trees that bear fruit are added, as well as vegetables, so that families can feed themselves regularly and healthily, while also earning money. From the third or fourth year, farming families can optimize their gardens, using every bit of soil and combining crops, vegetables, fodder plants and shrubs so that they nourish and protect each other to keep the soil fertile in the long term. Forest gardens are arguably the oldest form of land use in the world, and are considered one of the most resilient agroecosystems. Forest gardens sequester CO2 and therefore help to slow climate change.