Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer often known as “the person who beat the desert” in Burkina Faso for revolutionizing agricultural strategies and making a 75-acre forest on barren land, died on Dec. 3 in Ouahigouya, a northern provincial capital in that West African nation. He was 77.
His demise, in a hospital after a protracted sickness, was confirmed by his son Loukmane Sawadogo.
Mr. Sawadogo, a lean, taciturn man who by no means discovered to learn or write, acquired a hero’s welcome when he returned residence to landlocked Burkina Faso in 2018 after successful the Proper Livelihood award in Stockholm, created in 1980 to honor social and environmental activists. A throng greeted him on the airport in Ouagadougou, the nation’s capital, and he was acquired by the nation’s president on the time.
Years earlier than, fellow villagers in his arid, windswept nation within the north had known as him a madman for implementing a easy enchancment to an age-old water-conservation approach. However Mr. Sawadogo had the final giggle: The forest he created, with greater than 60 species of bushes and shrubs, had no equal within the Sahel, the semidesert area stretching throughout Africa’s higher third, forestry specialists stated.
The Sahara’s encroachment, abetted by a long time of indiscriminate tree-cutting and now local weather change, with decreased rainfall, is a significant menace to an already fragile area. Massive swathes of land have been stripped of bushes, from the Gulf of Guinea proper as much as the desert.
By the tip of his life, Mr. Sawadogo was acknowledged as one of many few who had efficiently pushed again. Farmers utilizing his strategies have greater than tripled their grain yields, in an space the place agriculture should rely upon sparse rain. Burkina Faso, the world’s twenty second poorest nation, has a mean life expectancy of underneath 63.
Chris Riej, a Dutch geographer and a senior fellow of the World Assets Institute in Washington, stated of Mr. Sawadogo in a cellphone interview, “He single-handedly has had extra influence on soil and water conservation than all of the specialists mixed.” He added: “He managed to construct a forest out of nothing, a forest of 30 hectares with the biggest biodiversity within the Sahel. On the finish, he grew to become a type of nationwide hero.”
Mr. Sawadogo received the United Nations Champions of the Earth award in 2020. Luc Gnacadja, former head of the U.N.’s anti-desertification program, stated in an interview from bordering Benin: “He was distinctive. An entire zone that had been desertified was reworked.”
Mr. Gnacadja invited Mr. Sawadogo to be the keynote speaker for a high-level convention in Switzerland. “He defined, in all humility, what he had accomplished,” he stated, “and he left us a legacy that exhibits that degradation of ecosystems is just not inevitable.”
Mr. Sawadogo had an virtually mystical relationship to the bushes he introduced into being — the marula, the acacia, the gum arabic, the desert date tree — treating them “like people,” his cousin Arouna Sawadogo stated in an interview from Burkina Faso. When arsonists, jealous of Mr. Sawadogo’s success, torched his forest a number of occasions within the 2000s, the cousin stated, Mr. Sawadogo was “an previous man with a tragic face; he stayed within the ashes for a number of days.”
However he all the time bounced again, telling his son Loukmane, considered one of his 27 youngsters by three wives, “Even when I’ve just a little little bit of power left, even for one minute, if there’s a tree to plant, I’ll do it.”
It took years of hardship — drought, famine and shifting political winds in a rustic the place strongmen rulers alternate via coups d’état — for Mr. Sawadogo to impact his transformation from suspect outsider to determine of respect, wanted by farmers all through the Sahel for his counsel.
“Some individuals simply do no matter they need with our forests,” Mr. Sawadogo stated in a 2010 movie about him, “The Man Who Stopped the Desert,” by the British producer and director Mark Dodd. “When you find yourself critical and begin work that others don’t recognize, then they deal with you as a madman.”
He recalled: “Folks wouldn’t even converse to me. They stated I used to be a loopy man.”
Mr. Sawadogo’s heresy revolved round reworking the follow of what native farmers known as zaï — digging small pits to seize valuable rainwater. These farmers sometimes waited till the beginning of the wet season, in the beginning of summer season, to dig the zaï.
However Mr. Sawadogo started effectively earlier than, when the earth was bone-dry. And he dug the pits wider and deeper. He put manure and rocks within the backside of them. He made use of termites to assist break up the land. The manure contained seeds. When the rain got here, the rocks helped retain the water, and the water turned the seeds into seedlings, which he nurtured. The soil would keep moist for a number of weeks after the rainfall.
“The outcomes have been hanging; the soil improved alongside along with his crop yield,” the U.N. stated in asserting his award. “He was capable of develop bushes within the arid floor.”
Mr. Sawadogo ultimately helped the method alongside, planting bushes himself. Bushes protected crops from the wind.
“As quickly as I understood how vital bushes have been, I set to work on planting the forest,” he stated within the movie. Mr. Reij, of the World Assets Institute, stated, “For him the bushes grew to become extra vital than the grains.”
Yacouba Sawadogo was born on Jan. 1, 1946, in Gourga, a village about 110 miles north of Ouagadougou, to Adama Sawadogo, a farmer, and Fatimata Bilem. When he was very younger his mother and father despatched him to a Quranic faculty in Mali, the place, he recalled within the movie, the chief of the college instructed him he was destined for nice issues.
When he returned residence as an adolescent he opened a stall promoting motorbike components out there in Ouahigouya, the provincial capital. It was profitable, enabling him to place apart cash. However he was stressed and yearned to return to the land, he later instructed interviewers. Stacking the percentages in opposition to him was the looming drought that devastated the Sahel from the mid-Nineteen Seventies, when he left the market, to the mid-Nineteen Eighties.
Rainfall decreased by 30 p.c. Entire villages have been deserted as a result of farmers have been now not capable of feed their households. “It was a little bit of an environmental catastrophe,” Mr. Reij stated. It grew to become pressing to preserve what little rainfall there was, and to make use of it productively. Mr. Sawadogo started experimenting.
The improved zaï — he put millet seeds within the pits as effectively — led to a tripling of his grain yield, permitting him to feed his household for 3 years, he instructed one interviewer in 2011.
By the Nineteen Nineties, researchers in addition to farmers have been coming to check his strategies; Niger alone despatched 13 farmers. Fame for Mr. Sawadogo and journeys overseas adopted. He participated in a United Nations COP convention on local weather change and testified earlier than congressional staffers in Washington.
“He was a bit just like the bushes he needed to guard, easy and accessible,” Luc Damiba, a honey producer and movie pageant director in Burkina Faso, stated in an interview.
After the final hearth, on the urging of Burkina residents, the federal government constructed a fence round Mr. Sawadogo’s forest, Mr. Reij stated.
Along with his son Loukmane, Mr. Sawadogo is survived by his three wives, Safiata, Khaddar Su and Raqueta, and his 26 different youngsters.
“He managed to search out assets to face as much as drought,” stated Mr. Gnacadja. “That’s known as adaptation.”
Hervé Taoko contributed reporting from Ouagadougou.