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Rehabilitation of Burkina's fragile soils

Burkina Faso is known as 'the land of 8,000 villages' (Self Help Africa)
Burkina Faso is known as 'the land of 8,000 villages'
Self Help Africa

Clinging to the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life is relentlessly harsh for its people; one in five children die before their fifth birthday. For decades Burkina Faso's agricultural land has been seriously degraded, as widespread mono-cropping and the heavy reliance of rural communities on their small plots has leached the soil of nutrients. However, with continuing support from various national and international organisations, over 200,000 hectares have been 're-greened' by farmers across the Central Plateau.

Burkina Faso is known as 'the land of 8,000 villages', a network of small communities dotted around the country who rely on their own ingenuity for survival. However, pressure on the land is growing: a population fractionally more than 9 million a decade ago, is predicted to more than double to over 20 million by 2020.

Moreover, Burkina's fragile soils are under stress: at times scorched by temperatures that can reach the high 40°Cs, they are vulnerable also to seasonal rains which can become a deluge. In 2009 alone, destructive flooding washed away the homes of 50,000 people, and with them much of the fine sandy soil in which they grow their crops.

Restoration processes

However, soil and water conservation techniques introduced in the 1980s are still being promoted and adopted. Fields that were once completely barren with no vegetation have been rehabilitated to Sahelian 'parkland', areas where multipurpose trees, including the indigenous Faidherbia albida, and Azadirachta indica (neem), are being actively managed by farmers.

Crop yields have also increased, as demonstrated by the community of Sika village in Bam Province. With a population of around 800 people, the villagers have rehabilitated more than 36 hectares of farmland in the past 18 months, and are ready to continue their efforts - after their sorghum, millet and beans yielded three to four times more than before.

<em>Zai</em> holes are individually packed with organic compost and manure (Self Help Africa)
Zai holes are individually packed with organic compost and manure
Self Help Africa

The community has been supported by the development agency Self Help Africa in collaboration with local NGO partner PER (Association Projet Ecologie et Reboisement). "It's labour intensive work," says programme co-ordinator Jean Claude Wedraogo, remarking on the process that requires farmers to hand dig thousands of small holes (known as zai) in the soil, before individually packing each one with organic compost and manure.

Although digging zai holes is not a new concept, Self Help Africa and PER have run a series of training courses to help promote this and other techniques, including building stone bunds (walls) to stabilise the soil and 'demi lunes', half moon soil constructions which help retain water. Crop rotations, new and improved seed varieties, and use of fertilisers have also been introduced, and households are now growing a range of crops including groundnuts and early-maturing millet.

Households have also established their own covered compost pits, using organic waste, leaves, millet stems and dung. Once decomposed, the organic manure is placed in the zai holes. "In the past the community used to burn the straw from their fields, but they now collect it for compost, and put it back onto the fields as fertilizer," says Wedraogo. "As a result, the villagers are seeing an increase in crop yields, and are now constantly digging zai to restore their farmland."

Spreading and documenting success

To increase awareness of the soil and water conservation techniques, a series of 'exposure visits' have been arranged during 2010 for farmers from neighbouring villages, and over 100 representatives from nearly a dozen outlying communities have attended practical demonstrations organised by PER and the villagers at Sika and Loagha. Wedrago explains that although some have already heard of these techniques, and some may even be practising them, very few farmers have received training or support.

Villagers are seeing an increase in crop yields (Self Help Africa)
Villagers are seeing an increase in crop yields
Self Help Africa

"Once we have introduced the activities and shown that the techniques can have a practical and positive impact, we are keen to share the knowledge with others," he says. "Exposure visits are the first step to raising awareness of what is possible for subsistence farmers in this region."

Self Help Africa and PER are only two of a number of organisations across Burkina Faso that have promoted these techniques during recent years. Further evidence is documented in a new film and accompanying booklet, More People, More Trees*. Returning to communities that began using these approaches in the early 1990s, the film dramatically reveals through the testimonies of communities and development workers how more trees have been planted and protected by people, aided and encouraged by continuing community projects.

Whilst concerns remain over land degradation, the research evidence presented in More People, More Trees, shows, as reviewer Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies states, that: "Small investments can result in huge changes, if appropriate technologies are used and if farmers are fully involved in the development process."

*More People, More Trees is a booklet and film produced in English and French which presents two decades of progress in addressing soil erosion in Burkina Faso and Kenya

Written in collaboration with George Jacob, Self Help Africa

Date published: November 2010


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