Regreening Africa | The Nation


Regreening Africa

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Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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The leaders of Britain’s three main parties have committed to it. We can do the same.

The sun is setting on another scorching hot day in the western African nation of Burkina Faso. But here on the farm of Yacouba Sawadogo, the air is noticeably cooler. A hatchet slung over his shoulder, the gray-bearded farmer strides through his woods and fields with the easy grace of a much younger man. "Climate change is a subject I feel I have something to say about," he says in his tribal language, Moré, which he delivers in a deep, unhurried rumble. Though he cannot read or write, Sawadogo is a pioneer of a tree-based approach to farming that has transformed the western Sahel in recent years, while providing one of the most hopeful examples on earth of how even very poor people can adapt to the ravages of climate change.

Wearing a brown cotton robe and white skullcap, Sawadogo sits beneath acacia and zizyphus trees that shade a pen holding about twenty guinea fowl. Two cows doze at his feet; bleats of goats float through the still evening air. His farm is large by local standards--fifty acres--and much of it has been in his family for generations. The rest of his family abandoned it after the terrible drought of 1972-84, when a 20 percent decline in average annual rainfall slashed food production throughout the Sahel, turned vast stretches of savanna into desert and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths from hunger.

For Sawadogo, leaving the farm was unthinkable. "My father is buried here," he says simply. In his mind, the droughts of the 1980s marked the beginning of climate change, a term most people here do not recognize. Sawadogo, however, says he has been adapting to a hotter, drier climate for the past twenty years.

"In the drought years, people found themselves in such a terrible situation they had to think in new ways," says Sawadogo, who prides himself on being an innovator. In this case, he revived a technique local farmers had used for centuries, but he adapted it to the new climate conditions he faced. It had long been the practice among Sahelian farmers to dig zai--shallow pits--that concentrate scarce rainfall onto the roots of crops. Sawadogo increased the size of his zai to capture more rainfall. But his most important innovation, he says, was to add manure to the zai during the dry season, a practice his peers derided as wasteful.

Sawadogo's experiments worked: by concentrating water and fertility in pits, he increased crop yields. But the most significant result was one he hadn't anticipated: tiny trees began to sprout amid his rows of millet and sorghum, thanks to seeds contained in the manure. As one growing season followed another, it became apparent that the trees--now a few feet high--were further increasing crop yields while also restoring soil fertility. "Since I began this technique of rehabilitating degraded land, my family has enjoyed food security in good years and bad," Sawadogo says.

Sawadogo's struggle may seem small, but it is part of the most important test humanity now faces. No matter what happens at Copenhagen or beyond, the world is locked in to decades of temperature rise and the associated climate impacts: deeper droughts, fiercer floods, more pests. How populations in the global South adapt to these changes will help decide whether millions of people live or die.

The tree-based farming that Sawadogo and hundreds of thousands of other poor farmers in the Sahel have adopted could help millions of their counterparts around the world cope with climate change. Already these practices have spread across vast portions of Burkina Faso and neighboring Niger and Mali, turning millions of acres of what had become semi-desert in the 1980s into more productive land. The transformation is so pervasive that the new greenery is visible from outer space via satellite pictures. With climate change, much more of the planet's land will be hot and arid like the Sahel. It only makes sense, then, to learn from the quiet green miracle unfolding there.

"This is probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all of Africa," says Chris Reij, a Dutch geographer who has worked in the region for thirty years. Technically, these methods are known as "agro-forestry" or "farmer managed natural regeneration" (FMNR). Scientific studies confirm what Sawadogo already knows: mixing trees and food crops brings a range of significant benefits. The trees shade crops from overwhelming heat, act as windbreaks that protect young crops and help the soil retain moisture. When their leaves fall to the ground, they act as mulch, boosting soil fertility and providing fodder for livestock. In emergencies, people can even eat the leaves to avoid starvation. "In the past, farmers sometimes had to sow their fields four or five times because winds would blow the seeds away," says Reij, who advocates for FMNR with the zeal of a missionary. "With trees to buffer the wind and anchor the soil, farmers need sow only once."

Equally important, the zai and other water-harvesting techniques have helped recharge underground water tables. "In the 1980s water tables were falling by an average of one meter a year," Reij says. "Since FMNR and the water-harvesting techniques began to take hold, water tables have risen by five meters, despite a growing population." In some areas, the water table has risen by as much as seventeen meters. Some analysts have credited increased rainfall beginning in 1994. Reij says that can't explain it: "The water tables began rising well before that. The effect is felt within one or two years' time." Studies have documented the same replenishing effects in Niger.

Over time, Sawadogo grew more and more enamored of trees; now his land looks less like a farm than a forest, albeit one made up of trees that, to my California eyes, often seem rather thin. "In the beginning I mixed trees and crops," he says. "But later I came to prefer trees, because they provide other benefits." Trees can be harvested--their branches pruned and sold--and then they grow back, and their benefits for the soil make it easier for additional trees to grow. "The more trees you have, the more you get," Sawadogo explains.

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