The advance of the desert: battle-lines are being drawn
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CTA. 1989. The advance of the desert: battle-lines are being drawn. Spore 22. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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For nearly 20 years the Sahel has been suffering terrible drought. Despite many projects and heavy investment, the desert continues its inexorable advance on agricultural land, and seems to be invincible. Recently Segou in Mali was the venue for...
For nearly 20 years the Sahel has been suffering terrible drought. Despite many projects and heavy investment, the desert continues its inexorable advance on agricultural land, and seems to be invincible. Recently Segou in Mali was the venue for rural organizations and government representatives of the states concerned, and funding agencies to meet and take stock of the successes and failures of their projects, and try to work out a concerted and lasting plan of campaign against the desert's advance. The population of the Sahel (some 35 million) is higher than ever before, but in many villages crop yields are falling, and often now it is a question of survival rather than subsistence. In 1984 a CILSS (Comite Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Secheresse au Sahel/Inter-State Anti-Drought Committee in the Sahel) initiative at Nouakchott brought together representatives from all over the Sahel and defined a common strategy:- to attain self-sufficiency in food while keeping intact the ecological and financial resources of the region. To do this they had to be able to count on the active participation of the people, on the support and coordination of outside aid, and on a combined approach to all systems of production. But putting the key points of the Nouakchott agreement into practice turned out to be more complicated than had been forseen. Too many policy-makers, Sahelian and non-Sahelian, maintained a macroeconomic 'productivist' stance which sees smallholders and their land as of only secondary importance in their strategy. All too often there was poor communication among them and information about the success or failure of projects was not properly circulated either among the countries of the Sahel or within them. But rural organizations - with or without the help of outside agencies - have nevertheless managed to push back the advance of the desert in some cases. These small local projects, learning from their own failures, have single-mindedly managed to obtain some amazing results. But this is not the general picture - and overall the desert marches onward. Very much aware of this state of affairs, CILSS and the Club du Sahel brought together funding agencies and the Sahelian states at Segou in May 1989, and organized a dialogue between the protagonists in the Sahelian conflict: the people represented by their rural organizations, the states, and their partners in the international community (public agencies and NGOs). One major queshon springing from their own experience concerned all 130 parhcipants: how to make the Nouakchott strategy viable so that the Sahel can really get to grips with lashng and sustainable development? Restoring the ecological resources The ecology of the Sahel has been severely damaged by untrained smallholder farmers who have for years over-exploited their natural environment to ensure the survival of the ever-increasing populahon. But the damage is not, as yet, irreversible: for the most part the agricultural potential of the land could be restored or even improved and there is a wide range of proven techniques available to do this. The integration of mechanical and biological techniques is being brought on much faster than was thought possible, often with the unexpected support of the local populahon. Cactus can be used to fix dunes but they should be planted close together to prevent damage frorn animals. Senegal has had notable success in fixing coastal dunes with plantations of 'filao' (casuarina equisetifolia) and 'n'guere' (Guiera senegalensis) as wind-breaks; the Mauritanian experience in fixing inland dunes (by mechanical and biological means) is an example to other Sahelian countries; and Cape Verde is skilled in collecting and storing rainwater. But the campaign against the onward march of the desert also means limiting flashflood erosion by means of gullying, and reclaiming land which has been lost to cultivation. In Burkina Faso the filtration dykes built in the Rissiam region have caused an increase in water infiltrahon upstream, with deposits of sand, clay and organic debris. These methods may well preserve the environment, but it should be remembered what villagers want above all is to increase agricultural produchon. More food is their primary need. To achieve this the resources of both water and soil must be maximized - and the ultimate success of any operation depends on this. The extent of adoption of any method will be determined by the degree to which it achieves immediate results. At Tademy in Mali the construction of small dykes with stone overflow spillways and a small dam of gabions to top up the groundwater level has helped water lie in places it has not before. The farmers who have settled here have managed to produce 300kg/ ha of millet on land never before cultivated and yields like this have galvanized the people into achon. But this is not a major victory: it is only the first stage of a programme to restore the ecological resources. Listening to the village communities It is not the techniques themselves which cause delays and problems but the way they are adopted by the local populahon and by the relationships with outside aid agencies. A good technique usually requires a lot of commitment to get it off the ground, and this can jeopardize existing produchon systems. Many projects have failed because they have not won over the people concerned. In Noogo, Yatenga, in Burkina Faso villagers made piles of stones to show how willing they were to build dyke walls, but then FEER (Fonds de l'Eau et de ['Equipment Rural/ Rural Water and Facilities Fund) arrived and built the dykes of earth. The villagers accepted this because 'if someone wants to do something for you, you don't say no', but they didn't maintain them. Fortunately this was put right during the next campaign in Noogo. However, it is skill not enough just to apply appropriate techniques and take into account the needs expressed by the villagers because the best techniques in the world will founder on lack of interest or local hostility. The success of an anti-desertification project lies in the efficiency of its organization and the motivation of the community involved. Training technicians and funding agencies should not see the village solely as some sort of useful focal point which happens to have a chief and an organizing president, but must take note of its way of working and its dynamics. Now development institutions are slowly changing their approach: GRID did a survey of eight villages in the Maradi department of Niger to find out more on both agro-pastoral production capacity, and the organizational abilities of the local communities. In Ranawa, a village on the Mossi plateau, new techniques coupled with efficient village organization have put the village back on its feet again - though the annual rainfall has dropped from 800 to 500mm during the past 20 years and the population has continued to grow, despite seasonal emigration. The Patenga Agroforestry Project (PAF) in collaboration with the Water and Forests Department has managed to persuade the local communities to construct stone dykes which follow the contour levels, to plant trees for fruit and forage, and adopt the ageold 'zai' method (shallow basins for water dug into the hillsides). All of this was carried out by the smallholders and their families who formed a Revolutionary Village Group (GVR). But in Ranawa, which is considered to be an active village, too many organizations want to take part without any common plan of action. Now a management committee to deal with the improvements has been formed within the GVR - on the suggestion of PAF. It has initiated a cereals rota fund, from which any individual or group can borrow cereals when they wish to undertake anti-erosion measures. Regular repayments have been made for four years now at harvest-time. The committee decides each year's programme taking everyone's needs into consideration Improving women's role Villagers do understand the power that these organizations give them, but they also know that they must find their own people who will take charge of them and must also resolve their internal difficulties. Ranawa's renaissance may be well on the way, but for women there are still many problems: their access to the land, water and trees is limited. All too often it is the women who 'cut too much wood and have too many children' and are blamed for the process of desertification. In fact it was the Sahelian women who were the first to be worried by it. Their lives are a long hard struggle to find enough food for tomorrow, to keep their men in the village - or get them to come back - and give their children a future. Their persistence in staying on land long abandoned by the men should prehaps give them the right to become preferential partners in any project. The campaign against desertification must aim to help the cause of women generally, not just use them as labour. The failure of the great shemes for dyke construction where women worked in return for food aid illustrates the fact that if women are not consulted at the planning stage, the projects will not be maintained. These programmes have focused attention on the problem of land ownership for women - the right to reclaimed land and to the trees planted there. Frequently the ownership of the land is not clearly defined: modern law and traditional law are often found operating side-by-side, though they say different things. A clarification is needed of the legislation which would bring together both the legislators and those affected. Any undertaking that seeks to exploit women's labour potential without involving them more fully risks apathy and failure. Some very recent projects (notably agroforestry) have sought to further women's socio-economic position. Before any agroforestry project can get off the ground, the women must be consulted, then their knowledge and experience and their needs can be taken into consideration. Foresters must learn to work with women. and the appointment of female forestry agents should be considered - such as the 'forest women smallholders' of the Village Wood Project in Kaya. Pushing back the desert can also be achieved by controlling population growth. Contrary to popular belief, rural women are not opposed to birth control when it works to the good of the whole community and safeguards the environment. Resistance to family planning comes from the men, and has its roots in ignorance and in the lack of modern methods of contraception among the rural populations. According to a CILSS/ Club du Sahel survey, rural women are ready to control their fertility, but still need more help to do so. Involving everyone in the dialogue Even with the willing and informed participation of local communities, both male and female, these projects would still not be enough to stop the onward march of the desert. Outside aid, both financial and technical, is vital, because on its own voluntary work is too limited. This is an opportunity for funding agencies and agricultural training organizations to learn the lessons of past failures and work out new ways of tackling the problems in cooperation with smallholder organizations. Smallholders themselves look for quick profit since for their livelihoods it is a queshon of survival but the restorahon of the land needs longterm investment. Incentives - from gifts of wheelbarrows to income support schemes - should give the farmers the necessary encouragement to support the projects. Does all this mean the reintroduchon of onerous rural credit schemes? Smallholders need cheap credit spread over a long period - which is just what states in financial crisis cannot provide. State support for savings and credit schemes through rural organizations would help to reduce intermediary costs and to introduce less onerous credit schemes. One of the most innovatory experiments is the Village Development Fund in the Segou, started by IFAD in 1984 (See Speakers Corner, Spore No.21). Those villages in this northern part of Mali which are willing to work have created a Village Savings Pund and a Village Credit Committee. The constituhon of a collective savings fund deposited in the Banque Nationale de Developpememt Agricole determines how credit is granted. At the end of 1987 the total savings deposited by the 85 participahng villages was considerably greater than one million francs CFA per village, and all loans have been repaid to the BNDA This project, which must not necessarily be taken as representative, illustrates the dynamism of communities determined to win this life- and-death battle against the desert. During the regional meeting in Segou the participants did not agree on all points - far from it - but each one gained greater awareness of the potential and the limitations of his partners. A three-way dialogue was established, which was sometimes difficult but always rewarding. In view of past experiences it was certainly necessary. None of the three great 'families' of rural development (rural organizations, the states concerned, and funding agencies) could by itself mobilize a sustainable campaign against the desertification of the Sahel. An old Mossi proverb puts it well: 'You can't pick up rice off the mat with one hand.'
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