Yacouba Sawadogo, the African farmer who stopped the desert:

The popular pop encyclopaedia site, Wikipedia tells us that “terraforming” or terraformation (literally, “Earth-shaping”) of a planet, moon, or other body is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be similar to the environment of Earth to make it habitable by Earth-like life. The concept of terraforming developed from both science fiction and actual science. The term was coined by Jack Williamson in a science-fiction short story (“Collision Orbit”) published during 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction, but the concept may pre-date this work. The point though is, the term stuck. 

This has long been the ultimate wet dream of space “adventurism” so popular expressed in countless science fiction movies. It is assumed that with billions of dollars of NASA type investments, international scientific collaboration, and the genius of our brightest minds; would aid us in finding, adapting or terraforming a planet to accommodate. We have completely missed the staggering irony of it all; if colonisation didn’t work on the earth how in the hell, forgive the pun, could it work for us on another planet?  

The double entendre is that colonisation has massively added the industrialisation of our planet, contributed to the near exhaustion of our natural resources, precipitated climate change and fast-tracked the disappearance of the local and indigenous knowledge of the environment. It is indeed this very precious resource of a lost indigenous technical knowledge, so often used to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of white people that provided the answers to problems white people have arguably caused in the first place.  

Yacouba Sawadogo, an illiterate peasant farmer from Burkina Faso, stopped desertification in his village by working together with his family to plant trees which have now grown into a vast forest. This in response to a long dry spell that, coupled with over-farming, over-grazing and over-population were plaguing the northern part of the country. Initially, farmers in his community ridiculed him and thought he was going mad. 

Reviving the forest with ancient techniques

With no access to modern tools and lack of education, he started using ancient African farming practice called Zai, which leads to forest growth and improved soil quality. Gradually, the barren land was transformed into a forty-hectare forest containing over 96 tree and 66 plant species, many of which edible and medicinal, as well as several animals.

Quote, “Thomas Sankara (who was President of Burkina Faso between 1983 and 1987, editor’s note) launched an appeal to develop initiatives to stop the advancement of the desert – Sawadogo recounts – and when he came to see my work, he asked me what technique I was using and I told him it was Zai. That’s why I’m also known as Yacouba Zai,” Unquote 

After embarking on such ground-breaking work in the semi-arid African desert, Sawadogo was featured in a 2010 documentary, “The Man who Stopped the Desert,” becoming famous around the world. Additionally, he was conferred the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the “alternative Nobel Prize” in 2018, “for turning barren land into forest and demonstrating how farmers can regenerate their soil with the revival and innovative use of indigenous and local knowledge”.

The technique he utilises, Zai, has also spread to neighbouring Mali, and he teaches it to the many people who come to learn from him. “I want to design a training programme that will be the starting point for many fruitful exchanges across the region, and there are so many farmers from neighbouring villages that visit me for advice on good quality seeds to plant,” Sawadogo says. “I’ve chosen not to keep my farming methods as secrets to myself”.

Even the Centre on International Cooperation (CIC), a foreign policy think tank based in New York University, proposes to encourage millions of Western Africa farmers to invest in trees. This will help them improve their food security and in climate change adaptation, according to natural resources management specialist Chris Reij. 

“Yacouba, singlehandedly has had more impact on soil conservation in the Sahel than all the national and international researchers combined” –Dr Chris Reij, Vrije University, Amsterdam 

Source: some information drawn from the Lifegate Magazine