The man who pushed back the desert

  • By Morgane Le Cam
  • 12/12/2016

Yacouba Sawadogo in Gourga, Yatenga province, northern Burkina Faso, november 29, 2016. TRF/Morgane Le Cam


GOURGA, Burkina Faso - A green island in the middle of the desert. A forest of more than 25 hectares in the Sahel, about 60 km from the Malian border. 

Ninety tree species grow in the black, burned and cracked soil that is typical of northern Burkina Faso. 

A miracle? “No, just hard work. When you want something, you can do it,” said Yacouba Sawadogo, in the middle of the forest. 

Over 40 years ago, the farmer – who lives in Gourga, outside the town of Ouahigouya in Yatenga province –  said “it rained more, there were trees. Food was abundant for both animals and people.”

But climate change made rains rarer and the desert bigger.

During his trips along the Malian border, Sawadogo saw sand dunes engulfing his neighbours’ land. “That’s when I said to myself, ‘we have to roll back the sand, at all costs’,” he said, his eyes sparkling with excitement.

So he took his daba – a traditional farming tool– and began digging small holes on his land, one every 40 cm. 

He then filled the holes with compost and sowed his crops of maize and sorghum. Very quickly, to his neighbours’ astonishment, his land grew greener. 

Sawadogo had been mulling the idea over since childhood. The son and grandson of farmers, he had heard his parents speak of zaï, this old technique which growers had almost completely abandoned years ago.

Because digging holes is hard work and takes a long time: “A technique to be used only in cases of extreme necessity,” he added.

In Mooré, one of the most common dialects in Burkina Faso, zaï means “to take hold fast”. 

Zaï “reinforces the soil – insects dig tunnels through the soil to reach and eat the compost,” explained Maïmouna Bari, an official from the Ouahigouya provincial agriculture service. 

“Then when the rain comes, the water seeps in and is better preserved. The soil becomes like a sponge.”

“In the beginning, villagers thought I was mad,” he said, smiling. “But now almost all the Ouahigouya farmers use zaï.”

“Planting trees has changed everything in our lives,” Sawadogo said. “Now, everyone has enough to eat.” 

Word has spread that he is an old man who teaches his techniques to farmers who come from all over the country.

Today, zaï is practised in several provinces of Burkina Faso, and Sawadogo travels the world over to talk about his fight against the desert. The local authorities, like the provincial agriculture service where Bari works, offer Sawadogo logistical support. 


But a new threat is looming: concrete. 

All around Sawadogo’s green island of green, dozens of red brick houses are being built. The land was always meant for farming, but people are moving to cities and selling their plots for housing.

“I haven’t been able to spread my forest further for the past four years,” he sighed. “It’s not growing any bigger because I am trapped,” he said, looking at the piles of bricks dumped a few centimetres from his land. 

“I’m the only one who is worried,” Sawadogo added. “The problem is serious, though. If we carry on like this, we will run short of food because we won’t have enough land to grow it on.” 

Mayors, community leaders… – Sawadogo meets with as many people as possible to convince the authorities to take action, but without luck.  

Only two weeks ago, he found some people on his land in the middle of the night. They wanted to take over a part of his forest to build on the land.

Since then, Sawadogo watches over his land every night to protect his life’s work.  

For the time being, though, Sawadogo has won his battle. He is now called “the man who rolled back the desert.” 



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