The Three Great Ideas of Yacouba Sawadogo

Brooke Horvath

(Based on an article by Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation, December 7, 2009)

“My father is buried here,”
Sawadogo says, a hatchet slung
over his shoulder, sitting among
his cows, guinea fowl, goats,
beneath acacia and zizyphus trees
in Burkino Faso, western Sahel.
Unlike others, he could not
abandon his farm. “My father
is buried here,” he says.

He cannot read or write
but fancies himself an innovator.
In the face of years
of hotter, drier days, he
“revived a technique local farmers
had used for centuries,” digging
shallow pits—zai—to concentrate
what rain fell: his first
idea an act of remembering.

Yacouba Sawadogo’s second idea was
tossing manure into the zai.
Neighbors mocked him—he was
wasteful, they said—but millet
and sorghum grew in greater
abundance, saplings sprouting from seeds in his animals’ shit. Letting
the trees alone, not uprooting
them, was his third idea.

As they grew, so did
crop yields. Trees buffered wind,
kept seeds from blowing away,
anchored soil, shaded the young
millet and sorghum, the livestock,
the people. Fallen leaves provided
fodder for cows and goats,
mulch. The trees provided medicines,
firewood (enough, eventually, to sell).

“Since I began this technique
of rehabilitating degraded soil, my
family has enjoyed food security
in good years and bad,”
boasts Sawadogo, scratching his beard.
His ideas have spread across
Burkino Faso, Niger, Mali—now
the greening of the Sahel
is visible from outer space.

Says Sawadogo, “I’ve used my
motorbike to visit about a
hundred villages, and others have
come to visit me and
learn. I must say, I’m
very proud these ideas are
spreading.” Such farming is free,
and “the more trees you
have, the more you get.”

Says Oumar Guindo, a Malian
farmer, “Before, this field couldn’t
fill even one granary. Now
it can fill one granary
and a half.” Says another,
“Before, most families had only
one granary each. Now they
have three or four, though
their land has not increased.”

In Niger alone, 200 million
new trees, 12.5 million acres
rehabilitated. Water tables have risen
5–17 meters. “My conviction,”
says Sawadogo, “is that trees
are like lungs. If we
do not protect them, increase
their numbers, it will be
the end of the world.”

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.


(Based on an article by Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation, December 7, 2009) “My father is buried here,” Sawadogo says, a hatchet slung over his shoulder, sitting among his cows, guinea fowl, goats, beneath acacia and zizyphus trees in Burkino Faso, western Sahel. Unlike others, he could not abandon his farm. “My father is buried …

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