Known as ‘the man who stopped the desert,’ Yacouba Sawadogo experimented with ancient farming techniques in his native northern Burkina Faso to combat the devastating effects of a 12-year drought. The result was remarkable: what four decades ago was barren and degraded land that no one wanted to farm transformed into a 40-hectare forest.
The forest now has more than 60 species of trees and bushes as well as a variety of wildlife. It is arguably one of the most diverse forests created and managed by a farmer in the Sahel, a semi-arid region between the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannahs further south.
Together with Mathieu Ouédraogo, another local farm innovator, Sawadogo employed two simple approaches to rehabilitating soil damaged by drought, overgrazing and poor land management.
The first was cordons pierreux, or stony cords, which are thin lines of small stones laid across fields to form a catchment. When rain falls, it pushes silt across the surface of the field, which then accumulates against the stones. 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, and their roots break up the compacted soil, easing the way for water to soak in.
The second approach was zaï holes, pits dug in the hardened soil to catch water in barren landscapes. Sawadogo introduced the innovation of filling these pits with manure and other biodegradable waste to provide a source of nutrients for plant life. The manure attracts termites, whose tunnels help break up the soil further. Zaï holes have been used to help cultivate trees, sorghum and millet.
In 1984, Sawadogo began organising ‘zaï markets’ on his land to share his experiences. These started as small events, but steadily grew so that each market day involved representatives from more than 100 villages. Due to the success of these methods, authorities in Burkina Faso, local NGOs, and farmers’ associations have been encouraging other farmers and communities to adopt similar practices. By 2016, it is estimated that the zaï technique has helped to restore the productive capacity of tens of thousands of hectares in Burkina Faso’s Yatenga and Gourcy provinces alone.
Those who adopt Sawadogo’s techniques often become food secure, as zaï help to conserve rainwater and improve soil fertility. This allows farmers to produce crops even in years of drought. Trees planted together with the crops enrich the soil, produce fodder for livestock and create business opportunities like beekeeping. This helps farmers adapt to climate change, reduce rural poverty and prevent local resource and water-related conflicts.
His extraordinary life has been enshrined in the arts and awards alike. In 2010, Sawadogo’s he was the subject of a documentary film that spawned his nickname, and 2014 saw the publication of a biography by journalist Andrea Jeska. In 2013, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) honored him as one of its first ever Global Dryland Champions. And in September of this year, Sawadogo won the Right Livelihood Award, known more widely as the alternative Nobel Prize.
“Yacouba Sawadogo vowed to stop the desert – and he made it,” said Ole von Uexkull, executive director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation.
“If local communities and international experts are ready to learn from his wisdom, it will be possible to regenerate large areas of degraded land, decrease forced migration and build peace in the Sahel.”