In the popular imagination, “desertification” in the Sahara conjures up an image of inexorable walls of sand advancing, as the climate warms, southwards into the Sahel.
In reality, the situation is more complex. Climate change does have an impact on land degradation in the semi-arid belt that skirts the desert: but it is only part of the picture. Global warming increases the frequency of droughts in a fragile ecosystem; these accelerate the process of land degradation caused by unsustainable farming techniques. Population growth further strains limited resources.
by Alasdair MacKinnon
Droughts in the 70’s and 80’s drew widespread attention to the Sahel – and to the work of such people as Yacouba Sawadogo, who regenerated desertified areas by adapting traditional Burkinabé farming techniques.
Trees are central to preserving the fertility of farmland. Their roots bind the soil; their leaves fertilise it; their fruit, bark and leaves provide food and medicines in hard times. Working with “zaï holes”, small pits traditionally used to restore barren land, Sawadogo managed to reforest an area of fifty acres. Every other year, he holds “Market Days” in his village of Gorga to teach others about his techniques.
In 2002 the colossal idea of building a Great Green Wall of trees, 15km wide and 7,100km long, from Dakar to Djibouti, surfaced at a summit in N’Djamena. The plan has developed since then, however – taking in the successes and failures of similar projects in Algeria and China.
What these projects lacked was local knowledge and involvement; a grassroots approach, which the Great Green Wall has embraced, in its mission to support “local communities in the sustainable management and use of their forests”.
What is clear is that this patchwork of local initiatives will require extensive co-ordination, through rural connectivity and EdTech programmes. Already the World Wide Web foundation has committed itself to creating ways in which farmers across this remote region can learn from each other. Innovations and successes must be helped to spread throughout this vast region.
But what are the trees that hold most promise to the people of the Sahara? On this UN International Day of Forests and the Tree, we take a look at the most remarkable trees of the Sahara; trees that record the cultural history of the desert, and give hope for its future.
†World Wide Web Foundation