Wrong, says Chris Reij, a geographer at VU (Free University) Amsterdam. Having worked with Sahelian colleagues for more than 30 years, Reij has come to believe that farmers themselves have beaten back the desert in vast areas. "It is one of Africa's greatest ecological success stories," he says, "a model for the rest of the world." But almost nobody outside has paid attention; if soil is MEGO, soil in Africa is MEGO squared.
In Burkina, Mathieu Ouédraogo was there from the beginning. He assembled the farmers in his area, and by 1981 they were experimenting together with techniques to restore the soil, some of them traditions that Ouédraogo had heard about in school. One of them was cordons pierreux: long lines of stones, each perhaps the size of a big fist. Snagged by the cordon, rains washing over crusty Sahelian soil pause long enough to percolate. Suspended silt falls to the bottom, along with seeds that sprout in this slightly richer environment. The line of stones becomes a line of plants that slows the water further. More seeds sprout at the upstream edge. Grasses are replaced by shrubs and trees, which enrich the soil with falling leaves. In a few years a simple line of rocks can restore an entire field.
For a time Ouédraogo worked with a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo. Innovative and independent-minded, he wanted to stay on his farm with his three wives and 31 children. "From my grandfather's grandfather's grandfather, we were always here," he says. Sawadogo, too, laid cordons pierreux across his fields. But during the dry season he also hacked thousands of foot-deep holes in his fields—zaï, as they are called, a technique he had heard about from his parents. Sawadogo salted each pit with manure, which attracted termites. The termites digested the organic matter, making its nutrients more readily available to plants. Equally important, the insects dug channels in the soil. When the rains came, water trickled through the termite holes into the ground. In each hole Sawadogo planted trees. "Without trees, no soil," he says. The trees thrived in the looser, wetter soil in each zai. Stone by stone, hole by hole, Sawadogo turned 50 acres of wasteland into the biggest private forest for hundreds of miles.
Using the zaï, Sawadogo says, he became almost "the only farmer from here to Mali who had any millet." His neighbors, not surprisingly, noticed. Sawadogo formed a zaï association, which promotes the technique at an annual show in his family compound. Hundreds of farmers have come to watch him hack out zai with his hoe. The new techniques, simple and inexpensive, spread far and wide. The more people worked the soil, the richer it became. Higher rainfall was responsible for part of the regrowth (though it never returned to the level of the 1950s). But mostly it was due to millions of men and women intensively working the land.
Last year Reij made a thousand-mile trek across Mali and then into southwestern Burkina with Edwige Botoni, a researcher at the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel, a regional policy center in Burkina. They saw "millions of hectares" of restored land, Botoni says, "more than I had believed possible." Next door in Niger is an even greater success, says Mahamane Larwanou, a forester at Abdou Moumouni Dioffo University in Niamey. Almost without any support or direction from governments or aid agencies, local farmers have used picks and shovels to regenerate more than 19,000 square miles of land.
Economics as much as ecology is key to Niger's success, Larwanou says. In the 1990s the Niger government, which distributed land in orthodox totalitarian fashion, began to let villagers have more control over their plots. People came to believe that they could invest in their land with little risk that it would be arbitrarily taken away. Combined with techniques like the zaï and cordons pierreux, land reform has helped villagers become less vulnerable to climate fluctuations. Even if there were a severe drought, Larwanou says, Nigeriens "would not feel the impact the way they did in 1973 or 1984."
Burkina Faso has not recovered as much as Niger. Sawadogo's story suggests one reason why. While villagers in Niger have gained control over their land, smallholders in Burkina still lease it, often for no charge, from landowners who can revoke the lease at the end of any term. To provide income for Burkina's cities, the central government let them annex and then sell land on their peripheries—without fairly compensating the people who already lived there. Sawadogo's village is a few miles away from Ouahigouya, a city of 64,000 people. Among the richest properties in Ouahigouya's newly annexed land was Sawadogo's forest, a storehouse of timber. Surveyors went through the property, slicing it into tenth-of-an-acre parcels marked by heavy stakes. As the original owner, Sawadogo will be allotted one parcel; his older children will also each receive land. Everything else will be sold off, probably next year. He watched helplessly as city officials pounded a stake in his bedroom floor. Another lot line cut through his father's grave. Today Yacouba Sawadogo is trying to find enough money to buy the forest in which he has invested his life. Because he has made the land so valuable, the price is impossibly high: about $20,000. Meanwhile, he tends his trees. "I have enough courage to hope," he says.