A tree grows in the Sahel

Fighting back the desert with the zai holes of Yacouba Sawadogo

Published October 4, 2006 6:22PM (EDT)

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.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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