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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: ENQUÊTE : La résistible avancée du désert

by Damien Roustel

Inquiry: The Resistible Advance of the Desert

Translated Saturday 2 September 2006, by Henry Crapo

The United Nations has declared 2006 "International Year of the Deserts and Desertification". Desertification affects 480 million persons in the world, 160 million in the Sahara, causing famines and exodus. Reports from Burkina Faso and Niger.

Tikaré (Burkina Faso), by special correspondent

"It started here forty years ago." Eighty-six years of age, Ningwende Sawadogo is the living memory of Tanmiougou, a village of 1500 inhabitants in the department of Rouko, some sixty miles north of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. With dark glasses too big for him perched on his nose, a stick that serves for a cane, he sits enthroned in an old chair, surrounded by villagers who listen religiously. Seated in a spot protected from the blazing heat, in a lightly shaded spot that serves as village square, the "old man" tells his tale. "About fifty years ago, there were only two families living here. It was all forested. You could be eaten by lions. Today the animals have fled, and the trees have disappeared", he says.

Lost in the middle of a vast region of quasi-desert, with a cover of vegetation becoming thinner every year, the inhabitants of Tanmiougou are directly affected by the desertification taking place in Burkina Faso. Vultures have replaced the wild life. "Many inhabitants have fled the village because of the advancing desert. They have gone further west, toward the forest zones that are more propitious for cultivation," continues Ningwende Sawadogo. "Here, the soil has become dry. There are no longer any herbaceous plants. It’s because there is no longer enough rain, and because of the population explosion. The increase in population brings with it the clearing of new fields. People cut the trees. Without the trees, the soil no longer remains fertile," he explains. "The people here are afraid of starving to death. Even myself, I wonder whether I will end my days in Tanmiougou," he asks himself.

In the image of this locality in Burkina Faso, it is the entire region of the Sahel that is directly affected by the desertification, meaning 160 million people divided into thirteen countries. Over the course of the last ten years, 160,000 square miles of arable land have disappeared, covered up by the Sahara. That’s an area two-thirds the size of France! "In thirty years, the rainfall has decreased by 30% in the countries of the Sahel, rendering crops uncertain. This situation is extremely critical for a population living mainly on growing field crops and herding animals," points out the volunteer organization SOS Sahel International. And this is not getting any better. According to the group of inter-governmental experts on climate change, the GIEC, temperatures should rise another 5 to 7 degrees in the deserts, and rains decrease by 5% to 15% in the thirty final years of this century.

In total, this desertification concerns 480 million people on the planet. According to the United Nations, one billion two hundred million persons (one fifth of the world’s population) living in 110 of the world’s poorest countries are endangered. It’s because the desertification is not merely the natural extension of the desert. It is also primarily the degradation of the soil in zones characterized as arid, semi-arid, and under-moist dry. In the United States, more than 30% of the soils are affected by this degradation. Latin America and the Caribbean are at least 25% composed of desert and arid zones. In Spain, almost a third of the land is threatened with desertification. The Gobi desert is approaching Peking, a city that must frequently come to terms with sand storms. "If we do nothing, if present tendencies continue, 60 million people will have left the desert regions of the sub-Sahara before the year 2020, reaching North Africa and Europe. In the world, some 135 million people will be on the verge of being uprooted," warns Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, on the day devoted world-wide to the struggle against desertification, last 17 June.

Often presented as inexorable, the advance of the desert is nevertheless resistible. Mouni Konombo, coordinator of the project "durable management of human reseouces" for SOS Sahel, is a living proof. This lively and outspoken little man, bubbling with energy, agricultural expert by profession, has seen to it that 53 villages spread over three departments (Tikaré, Guibaré et Rouko) have been able to re-conquer arable land from the desert. He endeavors to increase the sensibility of the villagers to the preservation of their environment, and teaches them simple and accessible methods. Like those of the barriers of stones and the zaï. 8 to 12 inches in height, the rows of stones slow the run-off of rain without stopping it. Some of the rain water is trapped in holes called zaï. These holes, 8 to 12 inches in diameter and 2 to 6 inches in depth, laid out in a line or at random, permits one, with the addition of a bit of manure covered by a thin layer of soil, to grow millet or sorghum, once the zaï has received enough rain. Thanks to this method, we can double the production per acre. Without the zaï, it’s all over. You can’t live here," explains Mouni Konombo.

On the flank of a hill outside Tikaré, a big village of 5000 inhabitants, Assane Sawadogo is very proud of his field, with its vegetation cover contrasting with the ambient desolation. "When we arrived here seven years ago, there wasn’t a single tree," he recalls. Thanks to aid from SOS Sahel, which furnished him the pick-axes and iron bars for breaking the stones, he and his wife were able patiently to construct stone barriers as far as you can see, and to dig an incalculable number of zaï. A colossal labor for three years! "Before, I was able to harvest the contents of one wagon Last year, I filled five wagons full. I no longer need to buy millet to feed my family", rejoices this forty-eight year old farmer.

While they bring hope, the actions of the volunteer organizations represent but some drops of water in the desert. The annual cost of the battle against desertification is estimated at 2.4 billion dollars. Twelve years after its adoption, in Paris, of the international convention on the fight against desertification remains a dead letter, and the United Nations has decided to raise its voice. The United Nations has declared 2006 the international year on deserts and desertification. A summit of heads of state and of governments will assemble in October in Algiers. The Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, will propose to his fellow leaders "a many-faceted plan to defeat desertification".

In the meanwhile, Assane Sawadogo looks up in the sky. It is the end of June, and the rainy season has not yet even started in the north of Burkina Faso: A disquieting situation for this inhabitant of Tikaré. "With or without the zaï, if there is not enough rain, I will lose my crop. We will have to eat the leaves of the trees, and then leave.

Damien Roustel

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