The landscapes of the northern Central Plateau are known for their harshness, dominated by rocky plateaus and unproductive soils. Despite this, approximately 50 percent of Burkina’s rural population lives here, coping with unreliable rainfall. The major droughts of the 1970s and 1980s exacerbated the difficult living conditions of rural people across this region, compelling many farm families to leave their villages and to settle in regions of higher rainfall to the south.
Faced with this situation, many villagers took initiatives to fight against environmental degradation and to improve rural living conditions. Few would have predicted that nearly 30 years after the last great drought, with a population density roughly double what it was then, that we would see many examples of land rehabilitation, including productive farming on formerly barren plateaus. Surprisingly, we also see scattered community-managed forests that show the potential of what can be done across the Sahel. Here, we present two examples of the many successes in land management on the Central Plateau.
The first site is an example of a farmer innovator, Ali Ouédraogo, who in 1983 began rehabilitating degraded, barren land west of Gourcy (see image pair above). The comparison of a 1984 aerial photograph and a 2010 satellite image clearly show the dramatic results of Ali’s work. The barren, laterite landscape (at the center and left of center of the photo) is the site of Ali’s future fields. His efforts to rehabilitate this barren land had only just begun. Ali was trained in the layout and construction of contour stone bunds by the Oxfam-funded Agroforestry Project (Reij and Waters-Bayer, 2001). He soon discovered that trees started growing alongside the bunds in his fields because their seeds were deposited there by the runoff water. He protected this natural regeneration, and from 1986 onwards he decided to stimulate the establishment of trees. To grow his crops, he placed his seeds in thousands of planting pits (also known as “zaï”) — the revival of an old practice which also contributed to obtaining good yields of millet, sorghum and cowpea. In 2010, 26 years after Ali’s initial efforts, the barren land had been transformed into productive cropland accompanied by a diverse tree parkland. Ali’s fields and trees dominate the central part of the image, completely rehabilitating the laterite surfaces (top right, above). The zebra stripe pattern is a testament to the vigorous regeneration of trees which take advantage of the favorable microenvironment created by his rock lines which trap soil and seeds, and enhance water infiltration. Practices such as these have helped rehabilitate between 2,000 and 3,000 sq km of land and produce an additional 80,000 tons of food per year (Reij, Tappan and Smale, 2009).
The second site is one of dozens of community-managed forests widely scattered across the dry landscapes of northern Burkina Faso (see image pair above). These forests provide much inspiration, for they prove that forests can and do thrive in the harsh Sahelian environment. One of these community forests is associated with the village of Pouima, near Gourcy. The forest covers about 4.6 hectares, forming a dense woodland of indigenous trees and shrubs characteristic of the Sahel. The forest is quite old, and has been protected and managed by the villagers for at least several generations. A comparison of an aerial photograph taken in 1984 with a satellite image acquired in 2013 shows that the forest has increased in area.
The villagers of Pouima say that the forest continues to benefit from the protection placed upon it by their ancestors. They inherited it, and they feel that they must preserve it for future generations. It continues to serve the community in many ways. Fruit and firewood can be collected only by the older women in the village. However, anyone from the village may harvest fruit when it is ripe. No cutting of wood is allowed. The forest also serves as a site for sacrificial ceremonies, which explains the respect people have for it.