“An inspiring piece about the power of local action tackling global issues”
When a desert is formed it means that its land has transformed from life in verdant bloom into its negation - a dusty, infertile void, absent of fertile soil, thriving plants and human life. For millions of people who rely on soil health directly for their livelihoods, desertification means entering the death spiral. But amidst the world’s increasingly arid conditions, there are the shoots of hope — Desertification can be reversed.
Often it is the simplest traditional techniques, cultivated by indigenous people over thousands of years, which transform these lifeless places back into healthy, life-sustaining habitats.
Stories of community action against desertification, like the work done by the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and Justdiggit, can be found all over the world. One of the most famous examples is Yacouba Sawadogo’s incredible work in Burkina Faso.
In recent years, the northernmost Sahel region of Burkina Faso has undergone a terrible transformation, part of which stemmed from its colonial occupation. In a 2016 Smithsonian article, Jim Morrison wrote that “Farmers in the Sahel had learned from French colonists to clear land for agriculture and keep crops separate from trees. Under French colonial law and new laws that countries adopted after independence, any trees on a farmer’s property belonged to the government. Farmers who cut down a tree for fuel would be threatened with jail. The idea was to preserve forests; it had the opposite effect.” This colonial and governmental interference in farming and land management had damaging long-term effects on a region that was already dealing with external threats.
Throughout history Sahel’s climate has fluctuated between extreme droughts and periods of heavy rainfall. Climate change has exacerbated the damage caused by such fluctuations culminating in the catastrophic 1985 famine where the majority shepherd population lost their livestock, and their livelihoods, to one of the worst droughts in the region’s history. Massive migration followed and the international community began to take notice of the disastrous effects desertification was having on the community.
Yacouba had lived through the effects of climate change first hand, as infrequent rain and drought reduced the land around his house to a barren wasteland. Many people in his community moved away but he stayed, resolutely pursuing different methods to bring life back to his beloved land.
Like the Maasai people in Rainnmakers II rediscovered traditional methods of land management like Olopololi plots, Yacouba experimented with a series of techniques before he came across an ancient farming technique called Zai - where pits are dug into the soil allowing water to flow in and be stored, to make sure crops stay hydrated.
Once Yacouba realised the Zai technique worked, he began to experiment by making the pits bigger and deeper than normal. He then found that adding manure into the pit allowed more water to be stored, whilst improving nutrients in the soil. Yacouba then added a stone wall around crops and planting pits so that water could slowly trickle through and absorb into the soil without causing topsoil loss.
Perhaps the most exciting of his innovations was the addition of termites to the planting pits. As the termites began to break up the soil and provide more nutrients, they dramatically improved the planting conditions for crops and trees. It is yet another example of innovative regenerative, biodiversity boosting techniques stemming from the adoption and adaptation of traditional farming techniques.
After recognising the importance of trees, he began to plant them on his land to boost his crop yield. The trees gave important shade to crops, acted as windbreaks to prevent wind erosion of topsoil and provided natural fertiliser in the form fallen leaves. Trees also help produce rainfall through evapotranspiration, meaning they are essential for crops and reducing the temperature in the area.
On his land alone, Yacouba has regenerated 12 hectares of forest which boost local ecosystems and produce large areas of fertile croplands to plant on. After cultivating his methods, he began hosting bi-yearly “Market days” on his farm where farmers from over 100 villages gather to share seed samples, swap tips, and learn from one another. From the community these days have developed, farmers in the Sahel region have learnt these vital techniques and are beginning to bring life back to their farms, reclaiming land from the desert.
Yacouba now works with Tree Aid on their Growing Food and Incomes Project, where they create ‘nutrition gardens’ to grow and care for moringa and baobab trees, providing nutritious food to 2,000 households. They also work with local authorities to influence policies and laws, helping to protect trees and promote the use of their products to make things like shea butter to sell. Finally they help provide communities with tools, training, and opportunities to sell their products in shops and kiosks. Tree Aid have a number of projects across Burkina Faso and have achieved staggering figures including planting over 1 million trees in the country in 2019/20 in addition to protecting and restoring thousands of hectares of land.
As communities in Burkina Faso and other drought affected areas adapted traditional techniques and knowledge cultivated by local groups, in congruence with the funding, organisation and support of charities like Justdiggit and Tree Aid, the battle against desertification has the chance, not only to revitalise vast swathes of land that seemed to have been lost, but to lift people out of poverty, empower women to pursue careers and revitalise economies founded on sustainable principles.
Beyond the community level, there has been international government action on desertification across the world. The most high profile initiative is the Great Green Wall - an ambitious project that started as a plan to plant a 10 mile wide, 4,350 mile long wall of trees through the heart of the desertified area from Senegal to Djibouti.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who announced The Great Green Wall initiative after a 30 year campaign by a coalition of 11 African countries suffering from Desertification, recently announced extra spending of $14.32bn to accelerate the initiative between 2021 and 2025 in what can tentatively be thought of as a case of environmental reparations. The legacy of French colonialism in central Africa, one of sucking the land of all its value, shipping the spoils back to France and leaving its barren and unarable remains to the survivors of slavery, demands more interventions on this scale to repay the people of former colonies for damage done.
But international aid is not as virtuous as it seems. Macron has been accused of having neocolonial motives by groups who claim he is using these massive aid projects to maintain francophone influences in Africa and other former colonies. It is unknown whether those motivations were a factor in Macron pushing for the Great Green Wall initiative, but it is clear that the project’s early failures paved the way for an environmental justice based approach to regeneration.
After local scientists pointed out that initial plans failed to take into account the need for unrealistic levels of man power to manage maintenance of the trees in unpopulated areas, the Great Green Wall initiative has morphed from a necessary if slightly symbolic greening, into a more people-focused land management initiative. Not unlike many interventionist policies, it initially lacked a full understanding of the structures that needed to be changed to really impact the continent. But since this transition towards a more systemic approach that constructs sustainable regeneration systems aligned with the needs of local communities helping produce economies and prosperity, its projects have had astounding effects including the restoration of 15 million hectares in Ethiopia and 12 million drought resistant trees being planted in Senegal.
The United Nations’s Action Against Desertification initiative was launched in 2014 to partner with the Green Wall initiative to “put rural communities at the heart of restoration and upscaling interventions to meet the massive needs.” As Maman Adda, Director of the national seed centre in Niger explains, the UN philosophy on restoration is that “If local people are not involved, you will fail. But if you involve them from the beginning through to the end, then it will succeed because they feel like it is theirs. They are actors, not observers.” This ideology indicates a move towards abandonment of ineffective white saviourism as both big government initiatives and NGOs like Justdiggit integrate community enhancement and traditional techniques into scalable visions of regeneration.
The issue is whether the initiative will meet its target - to regenerate around 65 million hectares of land - by 2030 whilst maintaining the livelihoods of the communities who inhabit those areas. The rate of regeneration needs to speed up to meet the target of 5 million hectares per year. The recent Great Green Wall Accelerator cash injection must be utilised to provide communities with the necessary tools or machinery to carry out these massive scale projects efficiently whilst helping provide communities with the tools and skills they need to maintain the land in the future.
Another example of land regeneration for the people is The Green Belt Movement (GBM), an environmental organisation formed by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate professor Wangari Maathai to empower communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods in Kenya. Since 1977, GBM communities have planted over 51 million trees in Kenya which are used to sustainably support and diversify sources of income for the communities neighbouring the forest, generating income from tree planting activities and promoting alternative and profitable use of the forest.
Their work has transformed Kenya environmentally and socially, improving access to clean water and planting trees to rehabilitate the Maasai Mau. Organisations like GBM should be key players in large international projects like the great green wall initiative, as they are best positioned to effectively direct massive amounts of funds to the right places and ensure they are used to create sustainable solutions that benefit land and local communities alike.
Despite the exciting progress at community and government levels, the fact remains that even the best land management techniques will be futile if we exceed 2°C of warming and continue to drive other fertile areas to desertification through bad agricultural practices.
To reorganise our farming system, the solution is to aid soil health by adopting regenerative farming and agroforestry methods on a massive scale. Through a combination of deforestation, pesticide use and over-grazing, our current methods of mass agriculture degrade fertile soil at a rate of 24bn tonnes a year. We must stop these destructive practices and turn global agriculture’s demand for land into a tool to rebuild biodiverse ecosystems. From supporting the Pesticide Action Network’s campaign to ban harmful pesticides and fertilisers, to taking Kiss the Ground’s soil advocate training there are things we can do to turn farming into a holistic process that supports soil health, crops and ecosystems. We can fuel this transition by supporting farmer led campaigns to break farmers union ties with big pesticide and fertiliser companies, in tandem with organising a grassroots movement calling for governments to institute incentives for farmers if they adopt restorative techniques.
As temperatures rise, the risks of aridity and wildfires increase dramatically. We must act now to stop rising temperatures before it is too late. To ensure the transition away from fossil fuels and remodel our economic system, we need a mixture of people-led, bottom up movements and swift, top-down government legislation. Campaigns to eliminate fossil fuels and ban new build coal and oil power stations must be explicitly linked to the work of anti-desertification projects to demonstrate the effects that climate change has on land. Divestment campaigns and shareholder activism, led by organisations like 350 Action and ShareAction, can force companies to move away from fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
Help convince your company/organisation to partner with Justdiggit to help boost their ESGs and fund vital regreening projects, helping Justdiggit regenerate land and cool the planet. Organise an international seed distribution mail out where seeds are bought and sent to communities regenerating land so that they can profit from regeneration and improve their livelihoods.