Mr. Sawadogo lives in Gourga, a village in northwestern Burkina Faso’s Yatenga province. This is the Sahel, where land is dry and degraded. Little grows here. Famine has been an issue in Mali and Burkina Faso and many people leave the region.
But Mr. Sawadogo sought to change this, to restore the degraded lands. Over the past 40 years, he has transformed 40 hectares of bare land into a forest with 90 species of trees, many of which are useful for traditional medicines.
He has been called “the man who planted trees,” and in 2018 won the Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel Prize.
The 72-year-old explains, “Before, this was completely bare and arid land that no one wanted. It was so hot that we could not find a single ant here. But today, this land is full of life.”
What was the strategy that won him recognition at home and abroad? Zai pits. This is a traditional technique used in West Africa to recover degraded lands and make them more fertile for planting.
To make a zai pit, you build a strong rock barrier to reduce and capture water runoff and allow water to seep into the soil, which prevents erosion.
Then you dig planting holes and place fertilizer in the holes. Then trees or cereals are planted in the holes.
Trees not only provide shade for the soil; they also provide valuable resources to people living in the area. Mr. Sawadogo explains: “I quickly grasped the importance of trees. At one time, from this village to Mali, there was not a single health centre. Instead, people were treated with products from the trees. When someone was sick, no matter what the disease was, we knew which tree could be used to treat it.”
Despite caution and criticism, Mr. Sawadogo has been sharing this traditional knowledge, and many rural people across the Sahel are also making zai pits.
He adds, “Land does not only belong to one person, but to several generations. That’s why we have to take care of it and not just think about ourselves individually.”
Because Mr. Sawadogo is concerned with the legacy of his labour, he is training others to take up his mantle so that more people benefit. He is considering passing the baton of leadership to his youngest son. Two of his sons are following in his footsteps and learning to understand the value of trees beyond just shade and wood.
He tells his sons: “You must know [the tree’s] name, know what it can treat, what its seeds can treat as a disease. This is how you will know its true value. If you learn that you will die tomorrow, then plant a tree today. In so doing, you will leave a foundation of wealth to future generations.”
This story is based on a video called “Climate change and indigenous knowledge: An unknown asset,” which was originally published by AgribusinessTV with support from CTA, the Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Co-operation. To see the full video, go to: http://agribusinesstv.info/en/climate-change-and-indigenous-knowledge-an-unknown-asset/
Photo credit Mark Dodd