Meet Yacouba Sawadogo, who turned Desert in a Full-fledged Forest

An elderly farmer from Burkina Faso (a country, in the African Sahel) named Yacouba Sawadogo is garnering praises recently for the relentless work he has done to coax a forest out of desert-like soil in the country.

The man who stopped the desert.

The 70-year-old man is hailed as “the man who stopped the desert” for his efforts to bring about greenery in the areas close to the Sahara desert. 

In the 1970s and 80s, a terrible drought left the entire land devoid of water. While many left the villages, Sawadogo stayed back instead. However, it was extremely difficult for him to survive there as wind erosion, water shortages, overgrazing, and rampant population growth degraded the land, making it all the more unsuitable. Being next to the desert made the matters worse as it became completely rain-starved. 

It was then when he decided to grow trees in the area to facilitate hydration. He dug up what is known as ‘Zaï pits’ in which trees were planted to trap water. He also used stones to help and store water inside them. 

What are Zaï Pits or Holes?
Zaï holes are holes dug in the soil. They also catch water, but in a different way. They used to only be used a little bit to make land better for growing plants. Yacouba Sawadogo had the idea to fill the holes with manure and other things to make food for the plants. The manure attracts termites, whose tunnels help break up the soil even more. He also made the holes slightly bigger than the traditional ones. Zaï holes have been used to help cultivate trees, and crops like sorghum and millet.

Yacouba has been working on a 40 hectare piece of abandoned and barren land, he planted many types trees and bushes, which have now become a rich bio diverse forest of 60 species of trees that provides fruits and nuts for his family and the wild life that live there.

Yacoubas forest is considered to be the most diverse forest planted and managed by any farmer in the Sahal and scientists have claimed that his work has done much more than international research.

Yacouba is always eager to share this ancient knowledge and has trained thousands of visitors from the region and beyond, empowering farmers to regenerate their land.
As a result, tens of thousands of hectares of degraded land have been restored to productivity in Burkina Faso helping over 20 million people.

With the help of new technological advancements: The Delfino plough, which creates large half-moon catchments ready for planting seeds, which boosting rainwater harvesting & makes soil more permeable for planting than the traditional and backbreaking method of digging by hand.

The Delfino plough is also extremely efficient covering 15 to 20 hectares in a day compared to one hundred farmers digging half-moon irrigation ditches by hand can cover only a hectare a day.

Once an area is ploughed, the seeds of woody and herbaceous native species are then sown directly. These species are very resilient and work well in degraded land, providing vegetation cover and improving the productivity of previously barren lands.

Thanks to Yacouba bringing back the traditional method of zai a natural low cost way to increase biodiversity, the people of Burkina Faso have been able to transform their lives. This method has now spread benefiting millions of people who live around the Sahara desert.

A 2010 documentary feature film The Man Who Stopped the Desert, first screened in the UK, portrays his life. He is a native speaker of Mossi. In 2018, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. In 2020, he was awarded the Champions of the Earth award.


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