Yacouba Sawadogo, the African farmer who stopped the desert

Reforestation and soil conservation. This is how Yacouba Sawadogo, a simple farmer, and his family solved the desertification crisis in his village.

Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer from Burkina Faso, stopped desertification in his village by working together with his family to plant trees which have now grown into a vast forest. This in response to a long dry spell that, coupled with over-farming, over-grazing and over-population was plaguing the northern part of the country. Initially, farmers in his community ridiculed him and thought he was going mad.

Reviving the forest with ancient techniques

With no access to modern tools and lack of education, he started using an ancient African farming practice called zai, which leads to forest growth and improved soil quality. Gradually, the barren land was transformed into a forty-hectare forest containing over 96 tree and 66 plant species, many of which edible and medicinal, as well as a number of animals.

Thomas Sankara (who was President of Burkina Faso between 1983 and 1987, editor’s note) launched an appeal to develop initiatives to stop the advancement of the desert – Sawadogo recounts – and when he came to see my work, he asked me what technique I was using and I told him it was zai. That’s why I’m also known as Yacoub Zai”.

Yacouba Sawadogo Right Livelihood Award farmer burkina faso man who stopped the desert
Yacouba Sawadogo, the farmer from Burkina Faso who stopped the advance of desertification by reviving the forest using the ancient African practice of zai © Marco Simoncelli

The Man Who Stopped the Desert, the documentary

After embarking on such ground-breaking work in the semi-arid African desert, Sawadogo was featured in a 2010 documentary, The Man Who Stopped the Desert, becoming famous around the world. In addition, he was conferred the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the “alternative Nobel Prize” in 2018, “for turning barren land into forest and demonstrating how farmers can regenerate their soil with innovative use of indigenous and local knowledge”.

Partners coming on board

The technique he utilises, zai, has also spread to neighbouring Mali, and he teaches it to the many people who come to learn from him. “I want to design a training programme that will be the starting point for many fruitful exchanges across the region and there are so many farmers from neighbouring villages that visit me for advice on good quality seeds to plant,” Sawadogo says. “I’ve chosen not to keep my farming methods as secrets to myself”.

Even the Centre on International Cooperation (CIC), a foreign policy think tank based in New York University, proposes to encourage millions of Western Africa famers to invest in trees. This will help them improve their food security and in climate change adaptation, according to natural resources management specialist Chris Reji.

drought burkina faso
Suzanne Ouedrago, a farmer from Burkina Faso shows the type of leaves she was left to feed her family with as a result of drought, bad crops and rising food prices © Oxfam International/Flickr

Threats to the forest haven’t stopped hope

Today, Sawadogo is facing serious problems from several quarters. Northern Burkina Faso has become increasingly volatile due to incursions by jihadist groups and inter-communal conflict, which have brought insurgent attacks and social unrest. An expansion project in the area has taken up a considerable portion of the forest he spent years growing: homes have been built on his land, with little compensation being offered. In addition, the entire family is on guard to protect the area from people wanting to steal wood.

However, the farmer’s message about the future of the environment and conservation remains profound. “If you cut down ten trees a day and fail to plant even one a year, we’re headed for destruction”.

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