The Man Who Stopped the Desert

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By Janeen Madan

When Mark Dodd, an award-winning filmmaker visited Burkina Faso’s Yatenga province, he met Yacouba Sawadogo, a peasant farmer, whose life story Dodd felt compelled to share through film.

Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer in Burkina Faso, has developed an innovative planting technique that is restoring degraded land across Africa’s Sahel region. (Photo credit: Center for International Cooperation)

The Man Who Stopped the Desert, produced by 1080 Films, is an inspiring documentary about Yacouba’s impact on thousands of farmers across Africa’s Sahel region, where desertification poses significant challenges for food security. “Yacouba single-handedly has more impact on conservation than all the national and international researchers combined,” said Dr. Chris Reij, a natural resources management specialist with the Center for International Cooperation (and advisor to the Nourishing the Planet Project), at a recent screening event in Washington D.C.

Between 1975 and 1985, recurrent droughts in the Sahel, a band of dry land stretching between the Sahara desert and the continent’s tropical forests, made this region synonymous with hunger and poverty. At this time, over 25 percent of its population fled in search of more productive land. But away from the television cameras and media reports highlighting negative news of famine, Yacouba was working hard to stop the encroaching desert and transform the degraded land into life-giving soil. 

Reij, who has visited the region regularly over the past 25 years, has seen the significant impact of Yacouba’s work. “Tens of thousands of hectares of land that was completely unproductive has been made productive again thanks to the techniques of Yacouba,” noted Reij.

By reviving an old farming technique called zaï and making it more efficient, Yacouba confronted a problem that eluded the efforts of development organizations, scientists, and international experts. Zaï are planting pits dug through the hard, barren crust. The zaï can retain water, helping crops survive during dry spells. Yacouba suggests that farmers make their zaï bigger and deeper, while also adding manure to make nutrients easily available to plant roots. And with support from Oxfam America, Yacouba is also promoting the use of stone bunds that slow runoff, ensuring water trickles into the soil. This combination has proven to be a highly successful recipe.

Yacouba’s methods defy local practices by preparing the land during the dry season, and he was initially ridiculed by other farmers and land chiefs. But Yacouba persisted, eventually regenerating the forest and bringing people back to the once- abandoned land. “Those who treated him as a madman in the beginning realize today that he is a genius,” says the Prime Minister of Yatenga province in the film.

Yacouba’s 30 acre forest is thriving with over 60 species of trees, in an area that was completely barren 20 years ago. “The rich biodiversity found on his land is truly remarkable, and unlike anything else found across the Sahel region,” said Reij.

Yacouba’s first-hand experience has given him a profound understanding of the challenges that the future will bring, unless we address conservation today. “If you cut down ten trees a day and fail to plant even one a year, we are headed for destruction,” notes Yacouba. He is working hard to pass along his knowledge because, as he says, “if you stay in your own little corner, all your knowledge is of no use to humanity.” Yacouba is conducting workshops to spread his innovative technique and farmers from neighboring villages visit him for advice and good quality seeds.

By showing local knowledge in action, the film defies the notion that Africa’s problems can only be solved by help from outside. According to Reij, “We must stop teaching and telling, and instead start learning and listening to what farmers have to say.” And fortunately, Yacouba’s story is just one among several other inspiring farmer-led innovations working to re-green Africa’s Sahel region.

To learn more about innovations in re-greening the Sahel and efforts to combat land degradation in dry areas, see: Innovation of the Week: “Re-Greening” the Sahel Through Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, Innovation of the Week: Putting a Stop to the Spreading Sands, Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Chris Reij, Partnering for Food Security in Dry Land Areas, and Aid Groups, Farmers Collaborate to Re-Green Sahel.

Successful innovations that combat land degradation will also be featured in “Chapter 8: Coping with Climate Change and Building Resilience” in the forthcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

Janeen Madan is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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