Approaching the village of Guiè, some 60 km from the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, the atmosphere of despair is profound: searing heat, dusty air, fierce and unrelenting winds, and wilting plants suggest that this area is undergoing a terrible change.
Nothing breaks the expanse of sparse vegetation but the occasional withered tree and stunted shrubs.
A country of some 20 million inhabitants, Burkina Faso is in a full-blown climate emergency: a third of the national territory is degraded. Between 2002 and 2013, 5. 6 million hectares of arable land or 19% of the national territory were lost, according to the country’s Environment Ministry.
The United Nations estimates that land degradation in Burkina Faso is leading to the loss of 360,000 hectares of land every year. It’s been worsened by a 15% decrease in rainfall between 2000 and 2009, with average temperatures rising by o.8 degrees from 1970.
A community initiative in Guiè village could change the picture.
Some 30 years ago, French man Henri Girard brought together farmers from 11 villages in the Central Plateau of the West African country, and they formed an association known as the Zoramb Naagtaaba Association (AZN), to experiment with an integrated agricultural approach that combines agriculture, livestock farming and environmental protection: called the Sahelian bocage. Mr. Girard says the system is meant to “reconcile the Sahelian farmer with his environment.”
Seydou Kabore, the director of the association told Timescape Magazine that the system is based on a simple premise: no drop of rainwater should be allowed to run off the farm.
“The concept aims to draw maximum benefit from the rainy season. To do that, we develop what we call a bocage perimeter whose objective is to keep water on farms. It is a space, preferably 100 hectares with an agro-sylvo-pastoral vocation, fenced off and developed so that rainwater is stopped from escaping into rivers, and agriculture, forestry and livestock can be combined,” he said.
“The major concern of farmers in the Sahel is not so much the scarcity or insufficiency of rainfall, but the retention of the rainwater that falls on the soil,” Kaboré told Timescape Magazine.
“Bocage development aims to overcome this constraint; it is based on the principle of ‘zero water run-off’ and consists of ensuring that not a single drop of rainwater that falls on the field leaves it; the maximum amount of water must remain there and infiltrate the soil,” he explained.
In the absolutely searing heat of the Sahel, Sipiwa Awa is digging holes on her 1.5-hectare farm. She is one of the more than 500 people who have benefitted from the new land management system. She says the holes will hold water when the first rains come, and her plants will therefore not wither.
“I have been farming on this piece of land for a long time, but at no time have I had the kind of yields I have had over the past two years,” Sipiwa told Timescape Magazine.
“Last year, I harvested 9 cartloads of millet. As far as I can remember, the highest I ever got from this very piece of land was about 3 cart-loads. It was always a problem of water, but now, I no longer have crop failures, my yields are much better.”
Kabore says over 700,000 hectares of degraded land have been restored, with yields improving from 700 kg per hectare to over two tons. But it’s more about environmental protection and climate change mitigation, says Louis Zapfack, Professor of Systemic Ecology, Biomass and Carbon Stock Evaluation at the University of Yaounde.
“The reality of climate change in the Sahel is that there aren’t many trees to capture carbon, to sequester carbon,” Zapfack told Timescape Magazine.
“We note that this farming method has led to the planting of so many species, and those species have the first characteristic to capture the carbon from the atmosphere.”
It’s a development that fits the template of the Africa Great Green Wall – the African Union-led initiative that aims to grow an 8000km “green wall’ of vegetation across the entire width of the Continent in order to transform the lives of millions living on the frontlines of climate change.
Dr. Elvis Tangem, Coordinator for the Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWSSI) at the African Union Commission told Timescape Magazinethat it’s an ambitious project, but one that needs to be carried through.
“We are talking about trying to restore almost 800 million hectares of land in the Sahel region. And the Sahara region we are looking at about 760 million hectares of land. That is more than twice the size of India.”
He said an assessment report in 2020 showed that about 18% of the targeted 100 million hectares by 2030 had been restored.
“Here we mean activities like forestry, agroforestry, land management, climate-smart agriculture, water management, renewable energy, pastoral livestock, so the Great Green Wall became an integrated mosaic of various sustainable land management and restoration initiatives.”
Tangem qualified the 18% as “significant” because “we are dealing in an area of extreme weather conditions. You can have rain for about 1-2 months and then the rest of the ten months you have a serious drought. For instance, there are places we are working in Mauritania that have not had a single drop of rain for the past five years. And the villages are disappearing. People are losing everything. So, there is a dire need to restore these landscapes.”
He said if the 100 million hectares of land are restored by 2030, it will bring forth significant improvements not only to people’s lives but also to the environment.
“If we restore that 100 million hectares of land that we are targeting by 2030, one, we are going to create 10 million decent jobs. Two, we are going to sequester 250 million tons of carbon from land degradation neutrality and avoided degradation and deforestation. And then we are going to create wealth of over 3-5 billion USD. So, if you extrapolate to Agenda 2063 of the African Union, you will realize that if we can restore 900 million hectares of land including the Southern African region, we will create more than 100 million jobs.”
He said this will be done not only by planting trees but also by giving people alternatives to reduce their dependence on forests. These include adding value to non-timber forest products, resorting to biofuels as well as developing fuel-efficient wood stoves.
Already, significant progress has been made. Tangem said a 2020 report indicates that the development of value chains for non-timber forest products created “more than 800,000 decent jobs, generating about 9 million Dollars of household income, stabilizing the communities.”
But it will take the commitment of farmers like Sipiwa Awa to change the dynamics of climate change and the resultant conflicts and hunger in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa.