Fighting back the desert with the zai holes of Yacouba Sawadogo
Around 1980, Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer in the parched Yatenga region of Burkina Faso, started experimenting with the ancient local tradition of “zai holes” or planting pits, as a way of restoring limited fertility to utterly degraded land. He increased their dimensions to about 10 inches wide and 8 inches deep and stuffed them full of organic fertilizer such as manure and crop residues.
The manure attracted termites, which dug tunnels that helped break up the soil, allowing rainfall to flow through the ground and collect in the zai basin. The result, according to researchers who have studied the spread of zai hole planting practices throughout the region, has been extraordinary. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of semi-arid land that could no longer be cultivated have been restored to productive use.
Sawadogo’s initial plan was to reclaim land for sorghum cultivation. But he discovered that tree seeds tended to end up germinating in the zai holes, and over time, he and other Burkina Faso farmers have begun a slow but steady process of successful reforestation.
The practice has spread throughout the Sahel region of West Africa, helped along by the Association for the Promotion of Zai, founded by Sawadogo, and development NGOs that support “farmer managed natural regeneration” agricultural methods. At a symposium in Niger last week sponsored by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Chris Reij, a Dutch expert in West Africa who has spent the last 25 years working in the region, presented the results of astonishing levels of reforestation in Niger: Some 3 million hectares of “degraded semi-arid land in Niger have been rehabilitated by farmers on their own initiative.” (Thanks to SciDev.Net for the tip.) Farmers have been digging zai holes to puncture through the desert crust, planting trees, and bit by bit, reclaiming land once considered lost for good.
Reij was one of the first researchers to call attention to Yacouba Sawadogo’s innovations. A paper that he co-authored on the topic with Daniel Kabore in 2000 is a riveting read, if you care about the issue of sustainable development in Africa.
In the late 1970s, when the problems of desertification, combined with population growth, drought and grinding poverty in West Africa first began to get sustained global attention, the prognosis was mostly gloom and doom. And as has been well documented, foreign aid has been less than successful in improving matters. In Yahenga, Reij and Fabore note, efforts to modernize agriculture through large-scale mechanized operations usually failed, for a variety of reasons. The spread of zai hole planting spearheaded by Sawadogo was mostly carried out by the local farmers themselves, with limited support from the government or foreign donors. Those with access to labor dug the holes, and used local sources of organic manure to fill them.
But that’s not to say there is no role at all for foreign aid. Reij and Fabore speculate that Sawadogo might have gotten his original ideas as a result of an Oxfam-sponsored and -funded trip that paid for several Burkina Faso farmers to travel to Mali to learn from agricultural practices there. And development NGOs have indisputably helped in spreading the news of what started in Yahenga to farmers elsewhere in the Sahel. Today, as evidenced by the Niger symposium last week, there is a concerted effort to figure out how to channel donor money and expertise into strategies that have been proven to work.
The news from Africa is usually bad. But there are smart people, both locally and abroad, working hard to solve its problems. The reports of reforestation and land reclamation in the Sahel are encouraging. Regions that looked like moonscapes 20 or 30 years ago, where virtually nothing grew, and no amount of lying fallow would rehabilitate, are now covered with trees, and providing livelihoods for local farmers. The challenges ahead are daunting: Global warming, for example, could render the efforts of even the most determined digger of zai holes irrelevant. But perhaps somewhere on this planet, there is a Yacouba Sawadogo who will figure out a way to cope with that, too.
More Related Stories
- Former IRS commissioner to testify on Capitol Hill
- Aloof, shifty Obama: Nixon times ten thousand!
- Anyone regret slashing National Weather Service budget now?
- Limbaugh: No one willing to impeach the first black president
- Top White House aides knew about IRS probe but didn't tell Obama
- Gohmert: IRS would've "probably shot the Boston Tea Party participants"
- Oregon senator proposes appeal to Monsanto Protection Act
- Supreme Court to rule on prayer at government meetings
- Beltway scandal machine breaks, knows nothing about America
- Top GOP official: "Sometimes our party does not value" women "as much"
- Colorado Dems fight back against GOP's Voter ID measures
- Watchdogs: ABC "in danger of losing a lot of credibility" on Benghazi saga
- Father of gay high school student arrested for dating classmate speaks out
- IRS meltdown was long overdue
- Can a liberal wonk save the Senate?
- Arkansas treasurer charged with extortion
- Corporate greed is poisoning America -- literally
- The new geography of poverty
- Barack Obama: Incidental black man?
- Obama to all-male university graduates: Be the best husband to "your boyfriend or partner"
- Big Soda SNAP-ing up billions off government programs
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11