Nelly Bassily | September 13, 2010
Green fields, healthy trees and lush vegetation. The 150-hectare experimental farm in the village of Guié, Burkina Faso, contrasts sharply with the stony, bare fields of the surrounding villages. Farmers have reintroduced agriculture to these long-abandoned drylands. They are using a combination of well-known practices, including zai planting holes, composting and fallows. Living fences, which farmers plant around their fields, play a key role in reinvigorating local soils and agriculture.
Guié is a small village 60 kilometres south of Ouagadougou, on Burkina Faso’s central plateau. The region receives less than 650 millimetres of rainfall per year. Thirty years ago, the land around Guié looked just like the land in neighbouring villages. Yields were low. Farmers had abandoned their fields. Famine was chronic.
Wango Sawadogo, a farmer in his 60s, remembers those days with bitterness: “In the 1970s, we had abandoned our fields because of drought and poor yields. I could not even properly feed my family with my crops.” Today, his fields are fertile. “With the fenced farmlands, I now obtain a yield of four tons per hectare,” he says happily. “My family has enough to eat and I can sell the surplus.”
The transformation is a direct result of the lines of trees and shrubs that border planting areas, a practice known as le bocage in French. This soil recovery and fertility technique proceeds in several steps. First, the farmer marks out the entire production area and surrounds it with a live fence. Then, he or she divides the production area into separate quarter-hectare parcels with rows of shrubs such as Cassia sieberiana. A few months before the rainy season, the farmer digs zai holes. The round holes are 20 centimetres in diameter and 15 centimetres deep. The farmer fills the zai holes with compost made from animal manure. Sowing is done just before the first rains. The zai holes collect rainwater and runoff, helping plants to germinate and flourish.
Every three years, local farmers prune the trees and hedges, then spread the branches over the ground. These branches break down slowly and serve as a natural fertilizer. To avoid soil depletion, farmers rotate the crops they plant every two years. They leave their fields fallow in the third year. Animals graze on the fallows. To complement these techniques, farmers grow pigeon pea to fertilize the soil.
Using these techniques, farmers have recovered nearly 150 hectares of land in Guié. Their medium-term goal is to double this area. Local farmers are convinced they can end drought and hunger in Guié. The results so far show give little reason for doubt.
For more information and resources on compost and soil fertility, please refer to the Soil Health Issue Pack, July 2010: http://farmradio.org/english/radio-scripts/91-9script_en.asp.
More information (in French) about this initiative can be found at: http://www.azn-guie-burkina.org/fr/agro-environnement/le-bocage-sah%C3%A9lien.