Sometime in the 1970s, "Sahel" became a watchword for famine, poverty, and environmental waste. Technically, though, the name refers to the semiarid zone between the Sahara desert and the wet forests of central Africa. Until the 1950s the Sahel was thinly settled. But when a population boom began, people started farming the region more intensively. Problems were masked for a long time by an unusual period of high rainfall. But then came drought. The worst effects came in two waves—one in the early 1970s and a second, even more serious, in the early 1980s—and stretched from Mauritania on the Atlantic to Chad, halfway across Africa. More than 100,000 men, women, and children died in the ensuing famine, probably many more.
"If people had the means to leave, they left," says Mathieu Ouédraogo, a development specialist in Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation in the heart of the Sahel. "The only people who stayed here had nothing—not enough to leave."
Scientists still dispute why the Sahel transformed itself from a savanna into a badland. Suggested causes include random changes in sea-surface temperatures, air pollution that causes clouds to form inopportunely, removal of surface vegetation by farmers moving into the desert periphery—and, of course, global warming. Whatever the cause, the consequences are obvious: Hammered by hot days and harsh winds, much of the soil turns into a stone-hard mass that plant roots and rainwater cannot penetrate. A Sahelian farmer once let me hack at his millet field with a pick. It was like trying to chop up asphalt.
When the drought struck, international aid groups descended on the Sahel by the score. (Ouédraogo, for instance, directed a project for Oxfam in the part of Burkina where he had been born and raised.) Many are still there now; half the signs in Niamey, capital of neighboring Niger, seem to be announcing a new program from the United Nations, a Western government, or a private charity. Among the biggest is the Keita project, established 24 years ago by the Italian government in mountainous central Niger. Its goal: bringing 1,876 square miles of broken, barren earth—now home to 230,000 souls—to ecological, economic, and social health. Italian agronomists and engineers cut 194 miles of road through the slopes, dug 684 wells in the stony land, constructed 52 village schools, and planted more than 18 million trees. With bulldozers and tractors, workers carved 41 dams into the hills to catch water from the summer rains. To cut holes in the ground for tree planting, an Italian named Venanzio Vallerani designed and built two huge plows—"monstrous" was the descriptor used by Amadou Haya, an environmental specialist with the project. Workers hauled the machines to the bare hills, filled their bellies full of fuel, and set them to work. Roaring across the plateaus for months on end, they cut as many as 1,500 holes an hour.
Early one morning Haya took us to a rainwater-storage dam outside the village of Koutki, about 20 minutes down a rutted dirt road from Keita project headquarters. The water, spreading oasis like over several acres, was almost absurdly calm; birds were noisily in evidence. Women waded into the water to fill plastic jerry cans, their brilliant robes floating around their ankles. Twenty-five years ago Koutki was a bit player in the tragedy of the Sahel. Most of its animals had died or been eaten. There was not a scrap of green in sight. No birds sang. People survived on mouthfuls of rice from foreign charities. On the road to Koutki we met a former soldier who had helped distribute the aid. His face froze when he spoke about the starving children he had seen. Today there are barricades of trees to stop the winds, low terraces for planting trees, and lines of stone to interrupt the eroding flow of rainwater. The soil around the dam is still dry and poor, but one can imagine people making a living from it.
Budgeted at more than $100 million, however, the Keita project is expensive—Niger's per capita income, low even for the Sahel, is less than $800 a year. Keita boosters can argue that it costs two-thirds of an F-22 fighter jet. But the Sahel is vast—Niger alone is a thousand miles across. Reclaiming even part of this area would require huge sums if done by Keita methods. In consequence, critics have argued that soil-restoration efforts in the drylands are almost pointless: best turn to more promising ground.