I Speak for the Trees: Private Property Rights Help Save Niger’s Environment

There’s a great story about environmental progress in today’s New York Times. The African nation Niger has reversed desertification and ecological decline by expanding private property rights for its farmers:

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 this by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money off the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because these sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

The greening began in the mid-1980s, Dr. Reij said, “and every time we went back to Niger, the scale increased.”

“The density is so spectacular,” he said.

Mahamane Larwanou, a forestry expert at the University of Niamey in Niger’s capital, said the regrowth of trees had transformed rural life in Niger.

It’s a pretty happy story and it holds lessons for Americans concerned about the environmental abuses that often result here from government subsidies and misguided pricing and incentives for mining, ranching, and logging on public lands.