The man who stopped the desert
For decades Yacouba Sawadogo has been using a traditional method to replant trees and help stop the Sahara Desert from overtaking Burkina Faso.
In the documentary film, “The Man Who Stopped the Desert,” a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo struggles to maintain his livelihood in the increasingly harsh land of northern Burkina Faso. Part of Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region, Burkina Faso has suffered from desertification as over-farming, overgrazing, and overpopulation resulted in heavy soil erosion and drying. Desertification has affected many countries in the Sahel, including Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1980, Yacouba decided to fight the desert’s spread by reviving an ancient farming technique called zai, which led to forest growth and increased soil quality.
Zai is a very simple and low-cost method, involving using a shovel or axe to break up the ground and dig small holes, which are then filled with compost and planted with seeds of trees, millet, or sorghum. The holes or pits catch water during the rainy season and, when filled with compost, retain moisture and nutrients through the dry season.
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Yacouba’s story attracted international attention when Mark Dodd of 1080 Films created the documentary in 2010, and the African farmer has since told his story around the world, including at an October 2012 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) meeting in South Korea. 1080 Films recently released a short follow-up film about Yacouba’s life since the original film, called “What Yacouba Did Next…,” describing what Yacouba has done since the film’s release and giving an idea of the respect he has received from the international community.
In the follow-up film, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja discusses the powerful impact of Yacouba’s simple methods. According to Gnacadja, “Almost out of nothing he has generated the change we need…. If we could disseminate and scale up his example, then certainly we can do a lot in advancing the fight against desertification.”
One direct benefit of the documentary has been the donations Yacouba has received in support of his reforestation efforts. As a result, he has been able to fund a new training program, where he travels to other villages teaching the zai technique. Yacouba hopes to spread this knowledge across the region, and has already visited 13 villages.