Friday, October 30, 2009

Lessons in Adaptation from the Western Sahel

This is an interesting post from Isabella Santoro about positive lessons that can be learned from the drought in the Western Sahel in the 1970s and '80s for people interested in climate adaptation:

On Tuesday, 27 October, Oxfam America hosted a panel discussion on food security and climate change adaptation in the Sahel region of West Africa – a belt of land located on the Southern edge of the Sahara desert. The panelists included farmers, technicians and agricultural innovators from Burkina Faso and Niger who, together with NGOs, universities, and partnerships with private sectors, transformed a large portion of the Sahel desert into arable land. The West Africa Sahel region experienced heavy droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. Wealthier inhabitants relocated to areas with higher rainfall, but local farmers had little choice but to adapt to the harsh and changing environment. The successful adaptations included increasing tree density and practicing sustainable, environmentally friendly, and locally oriented agricultural practices, the farmers were able to transform an arid and windswept landscape into farmland.

One of the panelists, Yacouba Savadogo, is a farmer and community leader from Burkina Faso who learned valuable planting and fertilization techniques through a program sponsored by Oxfam in 1979. Yacouba’s land was transformed into a rich forest, which, in addition to increasing food production, also helped the local population adapt to the changing climate. Ever since then, he has been teaching other farmers in and beyond his community how to increase tree density and practice sustainable agriculture through “study visits,” where farmers observe his farming techniques and then apply them to their own land. Mathieu Ouedraogo, Director of the Africa Re-Greening Initiative, praised Yacouba’s work and stressed the importance of the next step, which is to export these practices to other parts of Africa and to build on the capacities of local organizations to increase food production.

Sakina Mati, also a farmer and community leader in the Maradi Region of Niger, made a similar contribution to food security and climate adaptation by working together with other women farmers in her village to increase tree density. She is now the project leader for six villages, each with more than three thousand inhabitants. She teaches the women how to protect trees, prune them, and conserve firewood so that it does not decay rapidly. These sustainable agricultural techniques have transformed five million hectares of desert into woodland and there are 200 million new trees in Niger. This has increased income for farmers by $300 million a year. Villagers used to walk five to ten kilometers in search of firewood, but now farmers can sell their surplus at the local market. This project has protected the land from wind erosion and increased food production for the entire community. “We are protecting nature for future generations,” stated Ms Mati.

Issa Martin Bikienga, deputy secretary of the Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), talked about the committee’s purpose and goals. CILSS was founded by USAID in 1973 and is comprised of nine countries that work together to strengthen strategy and policy formulations to promote food security, water management, and population control in West Africa. He called for greater financial support from USAID, saying that it is essential the US government continue sponsoring grassroots projects. Countries should build on local methods and resources to increase food security and adapt to climate change. It is thanks to this revolution in agricultural techniques that West Africa has been able to reverse the post-colonial trend of importing food and begin relying on their own land and produce.

Chris Reij, geographer and resource management specialist, said the stories of farmers like Yacouba and Sakina Mati are comparable to the biblical story of David and Goliath. Whether their opponent is a Philistine giant or global warming, all it takes to win the fight is skillful use of the tools at one’s disposal. Climate change threatens to undermine the food and water security of arid regions like the Sahel. This success story shows how local adaptation methods, combined with international funding, can help overcome the challenges looming for regions like the Sahel around the world.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Thanks for posting it.