The Soguksu reforested National Park in Ankara, Turkey is a vast area of once semi-arid region completely transformed into a lively rich biodiversity now playing a decisive role in ending hunger, migration, conflict, improving livelihoods and combating climate change. It measures 943 hectares of forest area and 250 hectares of open area on a hilly landscape of 1733 meters.

Half a century ago, this stretch of land in the Anatolia region of Turkey was largely denuded of trees.

The same scenario at the 1,200-hectare Lake Abant Nature Park which today is rich of verdant blend of fir, yellow pine, oak, chestnut, beech and hornbeam trees, replanted with community labor and using dams like the Kurtboğaz to capture water for irrigation and ensure a supply throughout the year.

Forest experts at the ongoing reforestation gathering in Ankara, Turkey say the reforestation model in Turkey if replicated in Arid Africa could improve livelihood, fight hunger, end migration and combat climate change.

The experts called for a strong commitment by countries in Arid Africa to embrace innovative reforestation programs to enable forests contribute in improving food security and better livelihoods.

“Africa especially Sahel Africa should invest in forests and trees which if integrated with other land uses such as agriculture can better address the problems of hunger, land-related conflict, migration and climate change,” says Annette Cowie of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility.

She says the sustainable management of forest and vast reforestation program with the involvement of local communities could bring a lasting solution to combating climate change, strengthen adaptation resilience of forest communities and optimize their ability to fight against poverty.

Turkish forest experts say they use innovative methods in reforestation that have proven to improve and restore soil productivity and fight hunger.

“We use roots of trees instead of stones to create solid walls to channel water into the dam to prevent any overflow during floods,” said Ersan Kabakci, a forest expert in Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs.

Today three dams linked with the lake capture fresh water for drinking and supply water to 13 villages and 4,000 hectares of farm fields, Kabakci said – and the park has become a tourist attraction.

The reforestation project “has strengthened the adaptive capacity of the local communities to the effects of climate change,’’ she said.

Turkey’s government says reforesting once denuded areas in Turkey such as Lake Abant have helped stem desertification, improve water supplies, build tourist attractions and support local communities, including in efforts to deal with climate change.

Increasingly, local people are taking part in decision-making and planning process in forest management, government officials say.

“Local people now consult with the government in the use of forest resources like grazing animals and collecting non-wood forest products (NWFP). There is an accepted participatory forest management approach with local councils benefiting from revenues from protected areas like parks,’’ Kabakci said.

In the last 12 years, the country has planted almost 3 billion trees. Each year, an additional 250 million trees are planted, said Veysel Eroglu, Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs.

“As a result of good practices, forestland in Turkey has increased by 900,000 hectares. Over 4.2 million hectares of degraded land has been rehabilitated or turned into arable land by 2014,” he said.

Since the 1970s, the rate of soil loss has fallen by nearly two thirds, said Kabakci, a change largely attributable to replanting of forests.

By 2050, “forests are envisioned to stretch across over four-fifths of the country’s territory,” said Turkish minister Eroglu at this week’s meeting of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), held in Ankara.

Model for Africa?

Monique Barbut, the UNCCD Executive Secretary, said Turkey’s reforestation suggests what might be possible in other dry regions of the world. “I think the Turkish example has shown the world, especially desert-prone regions like the Sahel in Africa, that restoration of even a severely degraded world is possible,” she said.

“It has also shown that the role of government in creating the right policy incentives is cardinal and it is time we start thinking outside our traditional boxes regarding land stewardship – how we value, manage and invest in it.”

Around the world, experts at the conference said, desertification and strengthening climate change impacts are causing widespread loss of arable land, as well as growing displacement and hunger problems in some regions. Such problems may play a role in aggravating conflicts, they say.

“For over 15 years Sudan has been in conflict because of poverty caused by arid land,” suggested Mohamed Elfadl, originally from Sudan and now teaching at the University of Helsinki. “I think the Turkish example can help the situation in Sudan,’’ he added.

At the conference, Turkey pledged $5 million to African countries to help combat desertification, a contribution Eroglu said he hoped would be the start of a new international fund for work on curbing desertification.

Farmers around Lake Abant said community reforestation efforts there and improved access to irrigation water have reshaped their efforts to improve food security.

“I plant beans and maize around the project area, thanks to the supply of water from the dam,” said one 58-year-old farmer. “Before the dam, I could cultivate only two acres of land but today I have over 30 acres,” he said.