Action Against Desertification

In Burkina Faso, the Great Green Wall is taking shape

Innovative restoration model pioneered by FAO is ready to go to scale


Gargaboulé, Burkina Faso - Two years of restoration work in northern Burkina Faso show that land degradation is not yet irreversible. Rural communities work with FAO’s Action Against Desertification, putting scientific know-how into practice to tackle some of Africa’s drylands long-time woes.

“We have chosen this plot,” says Sawadogo Mahammadi, standing on a field near his natal village of Gargaboulé in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region. “Because it was empty,” the 65-year old farmer adds. “No trees, no grasses, nothing.”

When he was young this was a forest, Sawadogo says. He had to protect the cattle from hyenas and jackals living there. With his friends he used to eat fruit from the shea tree and collect gum Arabic from the acacia. Mixed with charcoal, you can make ink out of the gum, which he used at school for writing.

Over the years though, the trees were cut down. The land was cleared for agriculture, the wood used for cooking, construction or fencing. And with more and more mouths to feed, says Sawadogo, himself a father of 15 children, it got to a point where the soil was totally depleted.

So, when Action Against Desertification came two years ago, the village joined in. Everybody, men and women alike, helped to prepare the terrain, plant trees and sow grass. Now, the soil takes up enough water again and crops are growing. “This plot has been restored,” Sawadogo says.

The proof of concept

Walking through waist-high grass from which young trees emerge, Moctar Sacande, Action Against Desertification’s coordinator, is elated. He estimates that vegetation covers 95% of the plots surface of 200 hectares. “This is the proof of concept!” he exclaims.

Gargaboulé, Sacande explains, is the first site in Burkina Faso, where Action Against Desertification deployed mechanized means to bring restoration to scale, using a specialized plough called Delfino to prepare the land for planting. It’s the only way, he thinks, to halt land degradation around the Sahara, which estimates say would require restoring 10 million hectares a year.

Sacande’s joy is tempered by shock though. Burkina Faso, his native country, is confronted with a sudden rise of terrorism, right here in the north. Schools and hospitals have closed down, as staff were threatened and stayed away. The nearby town of Djibo, one of West-Africa’s main cattle markets, looks like a ghost town.

“The danger is to leave the area,” Sacande says. “It would mean the jihadi’s are winning.”

What the communities need

Action Against Desertification has not left any of the sites it operates northern Burkina – there are 104 in 60 villages. An estimated 14 000 hectares of land are planted and being brought under restoration. And the communities are staying too - a sign that the approach of putting them at the heart of restoration is paying off.

Not only was the plot in Gargaboulé chosen in consultation with the community. The species too were selected based on what the villagers need. Trees like the Acacia or Balanites and fast-growing fodder grasses provide vital services and are also a valuable source of income.

Action Against Desertification helps communities in planting the right species in the right place. The know-how is based on the latest plant science, essential to have an impact in this area, part of Africa’s Great Green Wall, where land is often so severely degraded that nature needs a helping hand to be restored.

Sacande points out some farmers cutting grass and binding it into bales. “You can use grass to feed your animals, or go to the market and sell it,” he says.

Transforming the Sahel

The success in Garbaboulé and the threat of terrorism have reinforced Sacande’s conviction that land restoration is urgent and vital to bring about a transformation that can rid the Sahel from its long-time woes of hunger and poverty, compounded by the challenges of climate change and conflict.

Added to the evidence from the ground here, Action Against Desertification’s most recent study shows that it can be done, he says. The potential for restoration in Burkina’s Sahel region is over 1 million hectares - an area big enough to make the country self-sufficient in food. Any improvement in the condition of that area has multiple benefits – increased biomass, carbon sequestration, employment opportunities - that are vital to improve the lives of rural communities.

And what about the economic returns of developing dryland products? The multiple applications of gum Arabic not only include ink, but soft drinks and candy to name just a few. Or shea butter, widely used in cosmetics?

Overall, it is estimated that Action Against Desertification has brought 53 000 hectares of degraded land under restoration in five years and reached 700 000 small-scale farmers and their families in eight countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Moctar Sacande knows that this is only the beginning. “Now, this model has to be brought to scale,” he says. “We need to mobilise political support to make this a priority and get the necessary investments in place. Then, a big transformation is possible.”