Yesterday I learned about Yacouba Sawadogo, the man who stopped the desert! A simple farmer from Burkina Faso, he noticed that modern farming techniques were ruining the land.
Northern Burkina Faso sits in the Sahel, a delicate arid region that lies between the Sahara and the tropical central African jungles. For centuries the Sahel has been under attack by the Sahara and the communities who depend on farming have been decimated by drought.
Population pressure has led to deforestation in the region. In the absence of trees the little rain that falls quickly runs off or evaporates. Rain washes nutrients out of the soil, turning it into desert hard-pan that can break ploughs. High winds drive sharp sand and grit at 100km/h over the surface, shredding young seedlings.
Yacouba experimented with some old fashioned farming techniques. He updated them and made them more effective.
Cordons Pierreaux (Stone Bands)
These low mounds of stone don’t look like much. But they serve a number of very important roles. The wind blows dust and sand across the ground and it drifts up against the cordons. When it rains the silt is stopped by the cordons and cannot wash easily away off the top of the soil. This accumulation of silt and grit makes the cordon a barrier to the water which is held longer in place, allowing more rain to soak into the soil. Over time seeds settle into the grit at the foot of the cordon. Native plants grow and the roots bind the cordon and the soil, making the whole thing into a type of ditch. These then serve as reservoirs for native plants and animals, improving the biodiversity of the area.
A plough is highly destructive in the Sahel. It breaks the delicate soils and allows them to blow away. It provides channels for rain water to run off and take the good soil with it. Zai holes avoid these problems. They capture water in the place where it is used by the plant. It protects the young seedling from winds until the plant is firmly established.
Yacouba found that by making the traditional Zai holes a little bigger he could improve upon them. Then he started introducing a handful of manure to the zai hole over the winter. Termites were attracted to the manure, and would burrow into the soil beneath. This helped break up the hard pan and made the Zai hole even more productive when it was planted in spring.
Zai holes use less manure per crop, and the manure is less likely to blow away in the wind. As a result the yields from Zai fields are 3 to 4 times higher than those in ploughed fields. This ratio is even greater in drought years.
The other two techniques pioneered by Yacouba are reforestation and education. Reforestation provides wind breaks, bio-diversity and supplies charcoal for cooking. Forests provide shade, soil stability and a water sponge. In the forest you get a variety of other plants between the trees providing good grazing for browsing animals such as goats and antelope.
Education spreads the message. Yacouba started off by going to marts, markets and fairs to tell anyone who would listen. As his techniques proved themselves the message spread. Oxfam even brought Yacouba to Washinton DC to advise US and UN food programmes.
His techniques are being practiced all across the Sahel from Mauritania to Ethiopia and even as far afield as India. Wherever desertification is a problem his techniques offer a solution.
So you would imagine a man like Yacouba would be a hero in Burkina Faso. Sadly not. In his early days of experimentation a village elder told him that “a man who digs holes is as useful as a man who hangs himself”. This rejection of the new resulted in locals setting his fields and forests on fire while he was meeting government officials. They considered him a madman.
But now, with his theories proven, surely these attitudes have changed? Well, the Burkina Faso government decided to expand the city of Ouahigouya. They are seizing the Sawadogo lands with a compulsory purchase order and they intend to pave his farm over with tarmac and concrete. When Jesus said you can’t be a prophet in your own country really hit the nail on the head this time.
The following passage from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran could have been written for Yacouba himself.
On Human Unity: I
Power sows in the depths of my heart, and I reap and gather in the grain, bestowing it lavishly upon the starving. Spirit revives this small vine, and I crush its bunches of grapes and pour out the juice for the thirsty. The sky fills this lamp with oil, and I light it and place it in the window of my house for those who pass by in the black of night. I do these things because I live thereby, and when the days prevent me from doing so and the nights shackle my hand, I shall seek death. For death most resembles a prophet who is without honor in his own land or a poet who is a stranger among his people.
Human beings clamor like a tempest while I sigh in silence, for I have found that the violence of the storm subsides and the abyss of time swallows it, whereas a sigh endures as long as God.
Human beings cling to matter that is cold as snow whereas I seek the flame of love so that I might place it in my breast, where it will devour my ribs and destroy my insides. For I have discovered that matter kills painlessly, but love revives us through torments.
Human beings separate into factions and tribes and adhere to countries and regions whereas I see my essence as foreign to any one land and alien to any single people. The entire earth is my homeland and the human family is my clan. For I have found human beings to be weak, and it is small-minded for them to divide themselves up; the earth is cramped, so that only ignorance leads people to partition it into realms and principalities.
Human beings unite in destroying the temples of the spirit and cooperate in building the edifices of the body. I alone celebrate in elegies. For I listen and hear from within me a voice of hope saying, “Just as love restores life to the human heart through pain, so foolishness teaches the paths to knowledge. Pain and foolishness lead to great bliss and complete knowledge, for Eternal Wisdom created nothing under the sun in vain.”