Yacouba Sawadogo is known as “the man who stopped the desert”. Born around 1946 in the province of Yatenga in Northern Burkina Faso, and after attending Koranic school in Mali, Sawadogo returned to Yatenga to work as a salesman at a local market. Severe droughts in the region around 1980 marked a turning point in Sawadogo’s life. When agricultural yields dropped and people died from famine, many left the rural areas to find income opportunities in the cities, while Sawadogo did the opposite – moving back from the city to his rural village, determined to find a solution to the crisis.
Sawadogo’s vision was to cultivate the barren land and make it fertile again. The key to Sawadogo’s success laid in experimentation with traditional Zaï techniques, which proved highly successful, eventually creating a 40 ha forest on what four decades ago was barren and degraded land that no one wanted to farm. The forest now has more than 60 species of trees and bushes as well as a variety of wildlife, and is arguably one of the most diverse forests created and managed by a farmer in the Sahel.
In 1984, Sawadogo began organising “zaï markets” on his land to share his experiences. These started as small events, but steadily grew so that each market day involved representatives from more than 100 villages. Due to the success of these methods, authorities in Burkina Faso, local NGOs, and farmers’ associations have been encouraging other farmers and communities to adopt similar techniques to recover degraded land and to improve crop yield. By 2016, it is estimated that the zaï technique has helped to restore the productive capacity of tens of thousands of hectares in Burkina Faso’s Yatenga and Gourcy provinces alone.
In 2010, Sawadogo’s achievements and his extraordinary life story became the subject of a documentary film, entitled ‘The Man Who Stopped the Desert’, which received numerous awards in 2011. In 2013, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) honoured him as one of its first ever Global Dryland Champions. 2014 saw the publication of a book by journalist Andrea Jeska portraying the achievements of Sawadogo (“Der Mann, der die Wüste aufhielt”). Articles about his work have also been published in The Scientific American (USA), The Nation (USA), Die Zeit (Germany) as well as National Geographic. He has participated in the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in South Korea (2011) and in Namibia (2013).
Credit: The Right Livelihood Award
photo credit: Mark Dodd