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West Africa: Impressions and interviews

Henri Chazine

Henri Chazine is a former information Officer with FAO's Regional Office for Europe.

Sahelian tree species growing spontaneously in areas formerly humid; dense forests under threat, with no more than eight or nine years of life left; alarming climatic changes associated with the drying up of rivers - such are the signs pointing to a rapidly advancing degradation. What drastic measures can be applied? What chance is there of success? It is these questions - and others - that this journalistic inquiry, conducted in three West African countries, attempts to answer. Included are the testimony and experience of political leaders, rural villagers and international experts.

LIVING ON MINIMAL RESOURCES a great need to conserve what is left

"When you see their will to fight, particularly the determination of the foresters, it gives you heart"

· Shortly before our arrival in Dakar, the cabin crew announced that the city was all but obscured by a sandstorm and we might not be able to land. But with their customary prowess, the pilots slipped the enormous airbus onto the runway with no mishaps.

When you see their will to fight, particularly the determination of the foresters, it gives you heart

I subsequently learned in Dakar that sandstorms are increasingly frequent, often withering the market gardens that surround and feed the city. Once away from the streets of the city centre, constantly swept by a fleet of motor cycles and automobiles, one drives through a landscape of white and ochre-coloured dunes. The suburbs look more like oases in the midst of the desert than the normal outskirts of a capital city. The few remaining wood-lots are hard put to survive. There is no way to water them, as even metropolitan Dakar is currently suffering from a water shortage - the supply can meet only about two-thirds of the demand.

At the Ministry for the Protection of Nature, and later in the field, authorities confirmed the fact that below-average rainfall readings have long since exceeded the drought-warning stage. The conditions that create deserts are now the norm, not only in Dakar but further south as well, where the desert now extends to the Kaolack region.

FAO experts were avowedly pessimistic. One commented that the region, which formerly enjoyed a Sudano-Guinean climate, is now a Sahelo-Sudanian climate zone. Tree species like eucalypts are already springing up spontaneously in the Kaolack and Kaffrine regions and even as far south as the Gambia. This is matched by a certain decline in local species, increasing the pressures on people and livestock.

Another FAO expert had grave reservations about the future of the forest in the region. He emphasized that after all the research that has been done, "We still haven't found the solution. I really can't imagine anyone who today could say: 'This is what we have to do.' So we run trials. Not just any trial. We think about it before we act. But I can see this is going to be a really tough problem. People in Europe don't really realize what desertification in Africa means. Of course they are terribly moved when they see images of the Sahel, but it's like an earthquake in Chile. People feel pity, but as soon as they turn off the TV they think about something else. The first reaction of someone actually on the spot who sees the enormity of the problem is to lose heart. But when you see the Senegalese will to fight, particularly the determination of the foresters, it gives you heart."

The battle, one soon realizes, is being fought on all fronts. It ranges from the little village wood-lot, somehow kept alive through great effort with the scarce water available and protected after a fashion by thorn hedges, to the revitalization of what remains of the natural forests. No one can doubt that the peasants of the Sahel are very aware of the mortal danger of creeping desertification to their fields and to themselves. They carefully follow the instructions and advice of forestry experts, those modern lay missionaries come to show by example what must be done - and, above all, what must not be done.

Another FAO expert, in a village south of St Louis du Senegal, one of the regions most affected by desertification, noted that the peasants quickly tire of the large government-organized tree-planting programmes but tend their own small plots with great care. The women will cover great distances in search of water for the trees: no trees mean no fuelwood and therefore nothing to cook with. The up-keep of houses is also done by the women, and here too they need wood, to repair walls and roofs.

"What matters today is to pursue our struggle against the advance of the Sahel unfailingly and not let reforestation efforts slide."

The FAO expert comments that there is a sort of spontaneous "people's monitoring" to offset any possible depredations of the wood-lot-lot.. But even speaking as a forester, he thinks that food production has priority over reforestation. "There are families here who eat only once a day... when they do eat," he explains. "So it is imperative that people learn to intercrop food species with trees."

What matters today is to pursue our struggle against the advance of the Sahel unfailingly and not let reforestation efforts slide.

This is already happening in another FAO project in Benin, where maize is thriving between carefully spaced rows of eucalypts. Of course Benin does not have the same climate as the Sahel. Benin is in the wet belt. And yet, even here, the experts view with alarm such forerunners of desertification as a substantial rise in temperature, trees typical of the Sahel spontaneously taking root, and small patches of land becoming unproductive almost overnight.

"Your first impression", the head of the forest service in the People's Republic of Benin explained to me, "is probably that the drought has spared Benin because the vegetation is still exuberant, the climate is typically hot, wet and tropical, and it seems to rain torrents every day. And yet, in the past five years, the country has been unusually dry. In 1983, for example, rainfall was 40 percent less than normal. Moreover, this dryness is deceptive. The rains come early, too early, then stop suddenly, throwing farmers' production schedules off and lowering agricultural productivity. Not only are the rains early; their onslaught is sudden, and there is not even time to set up the usual services for farmers."

Nomadism is becoming current among certain population groups, he went on. Environmental degradation forces people to leave their native soil in an attempt to find fertile farmland elsewhere. The ones mainly affected are northern peoples who come south, exerting further pressure on the land. The final result may well be soil degradation in southern Benin.

"We are conscious of just how serious a problem this is. We are telling all our people that the desert is now on our doorstep and we must react. We have projects now that are helping to thwart the march of the desert, though this is not their direct objective. These are mainly reforestation projects with a five-year target of 12000 hectares for an investment of roughly 14 000 million CFA francs (about US$31.5 million). This is still a limited effort given the size of the problem, but the Government is counting a great deal on people's participation to help reforest. We also have the cooperation of the international agencies, particularly FAO, which began in 1980 to help implement a project for the development of forest resources. It is still too early to say whether we shall win our struggle against the advance of the Sahara. But what matters today is to pursue it unfailingly and not let reforestation efforts slide."

As an illustration of the statement of this top Beninese official, the FAO expert took me to a village remote from the main highway where rural men, women and students from the local school were caring for a fine eucalyptus nursery and several rows of already impressive trees. I asked them: "After you have actually planted the trees, how do you follow it up?"

The answer was prompt and revealing: "We scrupulously respect and maintain village plantations. We are less interested in the vast state operations, as Beninese like to own their own plantations - ones they have established themselves."

Toward social agriculture

The expert who accompanied me to Benin is actually a forester, but I soon realized that he was also, and primarily, a psychologist and sociologist. His personal experience sheds light on many little-known aspects of the work of agriculture in tropical countries.

He stresses that the first thing that has to be faced is the human, element inherent in the rural sector: "First you have to know what the rural people need. They probably know themselves what they need, but they don't always say it. So the expert has to be able to find out. Next, solutions must be proposed. Silviculture, for instance, is a technique that takes little account of the farmer, who consequently, shows little interest in it. The human element is lacking. That's why the trend is toward social forestry. This kind of forestry is very important in Africa."

"Concerning desertification, I in no way wish to be associated with the Malthusian concept some people have who recommend that the Sahel be abandoned - a monstrous policy, both economically and socially."

The speaker is very insistent about the importance of people's own efforts. "Official bodies, governments as well as international agencies, can never alone save a country from desertification, even a country like Benin which has still not been really hard-hit by the drought. You have to have the people behind you. Equally, the people have to be really aware of what is happening. We have done surveys on what rural people are thinking. They show that some people are confusing cause and effect. They see that yields are dwindling. Some understand that yields are falling because they are using the wrong methods, but others need to be convinced that they are responsible for the decline. In my view, any programme without the people behind it is doomed to failure. Information and education are therefore the first and most urgent priority to save Africa."

Toward social agriculture

Information and education, the basis of rehabilitation

I found everywhere this need for informing and educating the public. First and foremost was the serious problem of brush fires, the scourge of tropical lands. The Ivory Coast, in particular, has attacked this problem with the same determination as it has shown in tackling its other problems having to do with the forest.

In July 1984, the Government of the Ivory Coast appointed a committee for brush fire control under the forestry division of the Ministry of Agriculture. This agency, thanks mainly to Canadian aid, has already trained experts. Centres will be set up throughout the country which will direct village "fire brigade" committees.

"Although resources are so scarce now, the need is so urgent, we felt we had to act," the general secretary of the committee explained to me. "So we focused our action on creating awareness among village people. One way to do this is the traditional big campaign with posters, lectures, TV and radio programmes, films, etc. But that takes a lot of money and we thought our presence in the field would be much more important. We don't think an awareness campaign can be run from behind a desk. This is why our action consists in going to these areas to talk to the villagers themselves in their own language. We tell them: Look, you set fires for various reasons. We can't forbid you to use fire in every case. It would be impossible to enforce anyway, since firing is an age-old tradition. One can't just stop doing it one day. But when you do prepare the land for your crops, remove the branches, prune the trees, make small brush piles. If you burn, don't leave the site until you're sure the fires are all out. Don't leave this job to children. If you have big plots, at least try to limit the fires by crisscrossing the site with fire-breaks."

"We don't think an awareness campaign can be run from behind a desk. This is why our action consists in going into the villages."

I was to learn that this job was made easier by the catastrophe that hit the Ivory Coast two years ago when a number of cacao plantations burned. Now the peasants know more about what needs to be done to avoid losing everything. They are now aware of the danger of brush fires.

The FAO expert accompanying me introduced me to a village in central Ivory Coast, far from major roads, deep in a once dense forest. The young people there have formed a fire brigade. They received me under the village palaver tree proudly wearing their voluntary service uniform consisting of a green helmet and a red jacket. I had already learned that a dense forest will virtually not burn as long as it remains intact. The fire risk occurs when loggers or peasants make clandestine clearings in the forest - the loggers to reach high-value species and the peasants to grow food.

The village chief explains: "Generally, country people respect what they have planted, whether trees, cacao or coffee. But when we discover that someone has turned a protected forest site into fields for cash crops, we let them gather the harvest and then we expel them. Then we plant trees all around the site and reforest." Those expelled are given a piece of land elsewhere, and the UN/FAO World Food Programme provides them with food for the first year.

But the biggest problem is still brush fires. They're part of our tradition. The older people are in the habit of firing their fields to clear them. This is a lot quicker than cutting brush by hand. But our young people are now successfully building awareness among the older ones. It is now forbidden to start fires during the dry season. The young people in the fire brigade patrol the forest and note any sign of smoke. They administer fines, and people do not like that.

"People now wait for the first rains before they light their first fires. But we point out to them that fire in the forest doesn't settle anything; in fact it makes things worse - particularly in the newly reforested areas which constitute the capital of our children and descendants. The young trees are unable to withstand the heat. They may die even if the fire takes place far from them. This includes even the teak trees used as fire-breaks."

FIGHTING A BUSH FIRE IN CHAD a perennial African problem

Never say die

The FAO forest protection mission leader in the Ivory Coast points out that wood exports rank as the fourth biggest earner of foreign exchange. All studies indicate that this resource may well be exhausted in a very few years. The government wisely decided therefore to make sure that wood would be a lasting source of income. It launched industrial-scale reforestation, voluntarily curtailing exports until such time as reforestation can restore former trade levels.

"Surveys by FAO and other organizations show that over 300 000 ha of forest are being destroyed in the Ivory Coast every year," the project leader told me. "There were 16 million hectares of forest at the turn of the century, but now only two and a half million are left. At the rate of 300 000 hectares a year, without reforestation, the remaining forest would have a life expectancy of eight or nine years at most," he emphasized.

So the Ivory Coast is not laying down its arms. The country is working non-stop to save what can be saved and to make a better life for future generations. The visitor leaves the Ivory Coast with the definite impression that the country is coping well with present adversities, and that it is off to a good start.

Nor did I find any traces of pessimism in Benin, though its ecological problems are much more serious. The FAO Representative shared the fruits of his experience in Africa with me:

"Concerning desertification, I in no way wish to be associated with the Malthusian concept some people have who recommended that the Sahel be abandoned - a monstrous policy, both economically and socially. But I am convinced that urgent priority should be devoted to as-yet-unaffected zones, in the hope of halting the advance of the desert and, eventually, gradually reversing the situation. Why not?"

"In my view, any programme without the people behind it is doomed to failure. Information and education are therefore the first and most urgent priority to save Africa."

This will to act and determination to fight back against a suddenly unkind nature had triumphed, I found, in the northern part of Senegal.

The President and Director-General of SAED (Société d'aménagement et d'exploitation des terres du fleuve Sénégal et des vallées du fleuve Sénégal) received us in his office in the charming city of St Louis du Sénégal. Without preamble, he set forth his company's objectives: to replant a wide band of land along the banks of the Sénégal from the mouth of the river to the east of the country. The project involves more than 600 000 farmers and livestock owners. These people are now making a good living. SAED plans to reforest the entire region once the present cropping phase is over. The peasants easily adapt to the new (to them) irrigated cropping methods, as they can see the advantages. Indeed, they have now been growing rice for several years.

To realize the full extent of SAED's achievement, you would have to have seen these now desolate lands in northern Senegal:, the desolation dotted here and there by several square metres of market garden crops. I found it so incredible that I went into the field to check whether these rice paddies were as productive as we had been told in St Louis. A few kilometres east of this pretty little town, in the midst of vast horizons of nothing but ochre and white sand and abandoned villages with tumbledown huts, I could see bands of green. They weren't very wide but they were certainly well kept, nicely fenced off by thorn barriers to keep the sandstorms from wiping out the work the people had done. And these green bands ran for several hundred kilometres.

I stopped near Podor, on the Mauritanian border. The local adviser is quite proud of his plot. The main crop is rice, the staple food of the Senegalese people. Of course the region is in the front line of the war against the Sahara, but the fact that it has now been planted certainly seems to be driving the desert back - you can see this with your own eyes.

But not completely back, he went on: "The drop in the level of the river makes it impossible to irrigate as we would like. It's so bad that the off-season crops are in jeopardy, and this season we'll have to make do with just one harvest. But the project has gone so well it has managed to half the flight to the cities and even emigration abroad, which was considerable. Today, between our new irrigation schemes and the economic problems some countries are experiencing, we're even seeing a reverse flow of people - people who had left to seek their fortune elsewhere."

Who should we believe? The expert who has still not found the right tree to stop the desert? Or the unbridled optimist who uses whatever can be used to get food produced? And at what cost? I was unable to get a precise answer.

SAHELIAN WOMAN AT WORK optimism is still alive

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