In the past, development planners often tended to neglect the populations of the drylands. Old sustainable ways of using the land were frequently disrupted and nomads and other dryland populations had to abandon their livelihoods as the systems inherited by the colonial era were maintained by young independent states. Even though these techniques worked in the home countries, where conditions were very different, in the drylands they proved disastrous, often alienating the local people and deepening their poverty. Some projects, however, did succeed. The best among them were often run by organizations that had set out to listen to the local people, learn about their techniques and priorities, while working out solutions with them.
Increasingly development projects combined new technologies with traditional practices, and community know-how often reinforced efforts to combat desertification. The adoption of traditional techniques to combat desertification has the double advantage of low cost (in general, simple means are employed and are within the reach of communities in developing countries) and are environmentally-friendly in the long term (as they generally rely on attentive observations of nature gleaned over generations).
The know-how and techniques of traditional knowledge are dynamic and progressive. Communities continue to transfer knowledge through their relationships with neighbours, marriages with people from distant lands, the adaptation to new cultural environments as a result of conquests and so on. (See the case study from Algeria). Many cultures are also inspired by developments in modern science.
Traditional irrigation techniques can be re-established in modern development projects respectful of the environment. In Algeria, populations of the Saharan oases, confronted with population growth and environmental deterioration, have realized that by restoring traditional irrigation techniques they are supporting practices that respect the environment. They chose to restore palm trees and rehabilitate foggaras, an ingenious, effective and sustainable traditional irrigation system consisting of underground galleries that drain water by the force of gravity. Water is captured at depth and transported by canals that do not damage the ecosystem (See the case study from Algeria; the case study from Italy demonstrates another system of water storage by traditional methods).
Mulching and the use of agricultural residues
Dead vegetation, such as dry grass, straw, maize stalks, dead leaves or other agricultural residues (mulch) spread out over the naked soil or scattered around the plants can limit erosion and conserve humidity. The straw prevents the soil from compacting, retains water and allows it to penetrate gradually into the soil.
One of the most effective techniques to rehabilitate degraded land is the zaï that consists of improving the hole used for plantation, a technique perfected by a farmer from Burkina Faso. During the dry season, the diameter and depth of the hole is widened and manure is added.
By concentrating water and fertilizer in this way, millet and sorghum can be grown during dry spells throughout the rainy season (since rains are not regular even during the rainy season). Tens of thousands of hectares of degraded lands in the Sahel have been restored for crop production using this technique.
The role of women (See the case study from India)
There are many cases where women, through their multiple daily activities, employ or exercise ancestral knowledge transmitted from mother to daughter.
These activities contribute to alleviating poverty and often respond to innumerable environmental challenges: recovering sterile land fto establish small family plots and restoring unproductive lands. Regardless of the situation in which they live, the rational management of energy resources, preservation of soil quality or medicinal plant knowledge, women are confronted with the fundamental problem of meeting the daily needs of their family while preserving the environment in which they live.
Interview women or village elders in your village /town about ancient medicinal recipes prepared with local plants. Compile the recipes into a book, describing the symptoms and the illness and the positive effects of the medicine.
Compare recipes and select one of them that can be made in class. Then, go back to the elders and show them the new recipes in the collection.
Ask your family whether cultural practices are different today than they were many years ago.
Draw a village where the hills are cultivated using the terracing technique.
Is there a village of this type in your region/country?
What types of crops are cultivated in this way? Why?
Underline the following correct phrases:
• development projects increasingly associate new technologies with traditional practices.
• traditional techniques are expensive.
• erosion can be limited by spreading dead leaves and plants on the soil surface.
• the foggara is a modern system of irrigation.
• all levels of society should be involved in combating desertification, particularly women and children.
• zai is a technique that reverses land degradation.