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Today I attended a talk by Dennis Garrity, the UN Drylands Ambassador (who’d have thought it) at SAIS.  Garrity spoke on ‘Dangers and Opportunities in Africa’s Drylands.’  While no bio on Garrity was distributed, one got the impression he had spent some time in the Sahel, particularly Mali.  The Sahel, particularly Mali and Niger, did constitute the bulk of the talk (ironically, I write this as Obama speaks about climate change in the State of the Union).  Ethiopia was mentioned briefly and Somalia and Sudan were basically afterthoughts.

After an awkward acknowledgement of his daughter-in-law, a current USAID employee and recent SAIS grad, in the audience, Garrity launched into his remarks.  Garrity acknowledged that the Sahel faces security and demographic challenges that hinder growth, he even alleged that the inhabitants of this region were subscribing to increasingly conservative Islamic principles that hinder development (although some feeble politically correct qualification immediately followed).

The bulk of Garrity’s talk however flowed from a PowerPoint presentation that he had apparently given to the European Union a few weeks ago in response to their desire to support development efforts in Mali.  Garrity stresses the cultivation of a variety of thorny tree (which caused untold damage to my sandals as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sahel) that improves the quality of soil and increases crop production and pointed to specific documentation of its success in Niger.

I can recall the farmers in the rural village where I was posted as a Peace Corps volunteer agreeing with this view (though I suspect my friends who made a living by making wooden mortar and pestles would disagree).  I certainly agree with Garrity’s argument that one tackle economic and land degradation issues simultaneously through ecological measures.

Unfortunately, the Ambassador’s extreme emphasis on this lone species of tree struck me as being a bit simplistic.  Just as I doubt that a cell phone can radically change the life of a rural African, I fail to see how the demographic, economic, and security issues that Garrity mentioned at the opening of his remarks can be comprehensively eliminated by reforestation alone.