TITAO, Burkina Faso, 31 July 2002 -- The precious rains, which come infrequently to the Sahel, used to run off this rocky, parched land in roaring flash floods, leaving the high ground bone dry by the next day. Village farmers, unable to make a living on the degraded soil, left for the more fertile savannah in the southeast or to work in neighbouring countries. This strip of northern Burkina Faso, only 200 kilometres south of the Sahara, was turning to desert.

In 1992, an FAO project financed by Italy, began to rehabilitate the land here and in similarly degraded areas of Mali and Cape Verde. The project in Burkina Faso introduced improved varieties of millet, sorghum and beans. It also provided agricultural training and put US$11 000 of seed money into revolving funds in 20 villages to finance money-generating microprojects, such as livestock raising for women.

The project, which finished in July 2000, brought in large tractors with heavy ploughs to rip furrows into the rock-hard earth at right angles to the slope of the land. Rain still runs down the hills, but now it is trapped in the furrows, where it nourishes grasses and 40 000 acacia, neem and eucalpytus trees provided by the project.

"Farmers will eventually cultivate one-hectare parcels of the land, and the rest of the reclaimed land will be set aside for grazing," says Moussa Barry, president of the village project group, as he stands amid knee-high trees and strips of green and yellow grass.
"We want the project to continue and break more land," he says. "The tractor is still here but we need fuel, parts and a driver. The soil is too hard to dig by ourselves."

A boy leads his sheep and zebu cows along a dirt road that runs through the reclaimed zone. Heading for distant pastures, Saidou Ma´ga says he is tempted to let his animal graze on the new grass "but it is forbidden. I remember when this area was barren. It was only in 1997." He adds with a smile, "I never thought it could look like this."