Yacouba Sawadogo is a Muslim farmer from the west African nation of Burkina Faso who has been successfully using a traditional farming technique called Zaï to restore soils damaged by desertification and drought. A documentary feature film The Man Who Stopped the Desert (2010) first screened in the UK portrays his life.
He was sent to a religious school where the students often didn't have enough to eat. Being the smallest and youngest, he was the one who had to go without.
The northern portions of Burkina Faso fall in the Sahel Belt, a semi-arid region between the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannahs further south. The region periodically suffers from drought. The most recent major drought in occurred during the 1970s, resulting in a famine which killed a great number of people.
One effect of the drought was widespread desertification. Combined with other factors such as overgrazing, poor land management, and overpopulation, the drought led to a substantial increase in barren land, particularly on slopes, due to the comparative difficulty of cultivating sloping land. Uncultivated, the soil experienced increased erosion and compaction.
Together with Mathieu Ouédraogo, another local farm innovator, Yacouba Sawadogo began experimenting with techniques for rehabilitating damaged soil in about 1980. He relies on simple approaches traditional to the region: cordons pierreux and zaï holes. Both Sawadogo and Ouédraogo have engaged in extension and outreach efforts to spread their techniques throughout the region.
Cordons pierreux are thin lines of fist-sized stones laid across fields. Their purpose is to form a catchment. When rain falls, it pushes silt across the surface of the field, which then fetches up against the cordon. Slowing down the flow of water gives it more time to soak into the earth. The accumulated silt also provides a comparatively fertile spot for seeds of local plants to sprout. The plants slow the water even further in turn, and their roots break up the compacted soil, thereby making it easier for more water to soak in.
Zaï holes also catch water, but take a slightly different approach. They are holes dug in the soil. Traditionally they were used in a limited way to restore barren land. Yacouba Sawadogo introduced the innovation of filling them with manure and other biodegradable waste, in order to provide a source of nutrients for plant life. The manure attracts termites, whose tunnels help break up the soil further. He also increased the size of the holes slightly over the traditional models. Zaï holes have been used to help cultivate trees, sorghum, and millet.
To promote these methods, particularly zaï holes, Yacouba Sawadogo holds bi-yearly "Market Days" at his farm in the village of Gourga. Attendees from over a hundred regional villages come to share seed samples, swap tips, and learn from one another.
Conflict with Burkina Faso Government
Over a period of more than two decades, Yacouba Sawadogo's work with zaï holes allowed him to create a forested area of approximately fifty acres (20 hectares). Recently this area was annexed by the nearby city of Ouahigouya, under the auspices of a government program to increase city revenues. Under the provisions of the program, Yacouba Sawadogo and his immediate family members are each entitled to one tenth of 1-acre (4,000 m2) out of the plot, and do not receive any other compensation.
Sawadogo is attempting to raise $20,000 (USD) to purchase the land.
- Kaboré, Daniel and Chris Reij. "The Emergence and Spreading of an Improved Traditional Soil and Water Conservation Practice in Burkina Faso". International Food Policy Research Institute, February 2004. http://www.ifpri.org/publication/emergence-and-spreading-improved-traditional-soil-and-water-conservation-practice-burkin (last accessed 10 April 2010)
- Mann, Charles C. "Our Good Earth: The future rests on the soil beneath our feet." National Geographic, September 2008. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/soil/mann-text (last accessed 15 September 2008)
- Indigenous Knowledge Notes #77, The World Bank, February 2005. http://www.worldbank.org/afr/ik/iknt77.htm (last accessed 15 September 2008)
- Leonard, Andrew. "How to help Yacouba Sawadogo". Salon.com, Sept. 11, 2008 15:18 PDT. http://www.salon.com/tech/htww/2008/09/11/helping_sawadogo/index.html (last accessed 15 September 2008)