In the Sahel—the belt of land that stretches across Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara—some of the world’s poorest people have long struggled to farm sandy soil, on land slowly eroded by droughts and harsh winds. In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of devastating droughts in the Sahel caused an environmental and human catastrophe. Farmers faced a simple but dramatic choice: fight back or try to find some other way to eke out a living.
Many gave up on farming, but others, like Yacouba Savadogo, chose to stay and fight, slowly reclaiming land from the encroaching desert. Thirty years later, their work—which has secured 13 million acres of farmland and fed three million people—offers some hope for tackling world hunger.
Trees transform the landscape
How did Savadogo and others restore the land? By rediscovering and improving simple, low-cost methods for managing soil, water, and trees.
In 1979, Savadogo, a farmer and community leader from the village of Gourma, Burkina Faso, observed fellow farmers using innovative growing techniques as part of an Oxfam project. He began to experiment with using planting pits and stone embankments to produce more sorghum and millet on his degraded land.
These efforts yielded surprising results when trees began to grow spontaneously in the planting pits he’d dug for his crops. By digging deeper pits and adding manure, Savadogo found that he could bring dry land back into production. As the trees grew, he began to protect them, turning his barren land into a diverse forest of useful tree species.
In the years since, Savadogo has organized events to exchange seeds and ideas and to train other farmers in these techniques. He’s worked with experts like Mathieu Ouedraogo, a Yatenga-born technician who later became the director of Oxfam’s project in the region, to improve methods, conserve water, and reduce erosion.
Once-barren landscapes in the Sahel are today home to farmland, wells, and livestock. Millions of acres of restored farmland reveal a complex landscape of crops and trees, interlaced with stone embankments and terraces.
These changes have stimulated local markets, supported an ever-growing population, and diversified people’s ways of earning a living. And despite growing populations and the threats of climate change, food security has actually improved in the Sahel region.
Lessons for fighting hunger
This week, Oxfam is hosting Savadogo, Ouedraogo, and other innovators from the Sahel in Washington, DC, for discussions with US legislators about local solutions to food insecurity and climate change.
“With over one billion people worldwide now facing chronic hunger—and climate change further threatening the global food supply—our leaders and aid providers can learn a lot from the efforts of farmers like Savadogo,” says Oxfam trade policy advisor Emily Alpert.
“Africa’s agricultural future rests on broad partnerships and alliances, catalyzed by farmers,” says Alpert. “US Congress can help replicate these successes by passing the 2009 Global Food Security Act (HR 3077), which calls for a coordinated and comprehensive US global food security strategy that leverages partnerships with the private sector, NGOs, and universities. If we’re going to build people’s resilience to poverty, climate change, and conflict, we must work together to invest in agriculture and to conserve our natural resources.”
You can help: Join our online community and tell legislators to stand up for the millions of people around the world who face hunger on a daily basis.