are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.
|Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge||MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)|
Pits for trees: how farmers in semi-arid Burkina Faso increase and diversify plant biomass
Agricultural development, agroforestry, biodiversity, cultivation practices, desertification, natural resources, resource management, soil fertility, soil improvement
Introducing the practice
In recent years there has been a
dramatic increase in the number of trees growing on farmers’ fields in certain
villages in the Yatenga region of Burkina Faso. This is due in part to the
systematic protection of natural regeneration by individual farmers and to the
use of improved traditional planting pits, or zaï, for growing trees.
Through this method farmers have rehabilitated degraded land and increased the
diversity of trees.
In Burkina Faso, the fight against
desertification is a constant preoccupation of farmers, government agencies,
NGOs and development-project planners. The reduction in vegetative cover has
reached alarming proportions in the north of the country, leaving the soils
exposed to erosion by wind and water. The farmers described in this best
practice live in the provinces of Yatenga, Zondoma and Lorum in northwest
Rainfall in the region is highly
variable. The long-term average for the regional capital, Ouahigouya, was 560 mm
between 1950 and 1987. Ouahigouya received 590 mm rainfall in 1997, but it was
poorly distributed over the season and the harvests failed. In 1998 rainfall was
an exceptional 969 mm, which led to a good harvest except in low-lying areas.
The average population density in this region is 55 persons/km2. The
grazing pressure on the natural vegetation is high; according to the 1992
national livestock census, the Yatenga region had 140,500 head of cattle,
591,500 sheep and 708,100 goats (INERA 1994).
During the dry season, the animals owned
by the local farmers depend to a large extent on crop residues for fodder. The
traditional practice of fallowing to regenerate soil fertility has disappeared
and the possibilities for expanding cultivation to new areas are extremely
limited. Rehabilitation of degraded land is the only option left to farmers who
want to increase production by expanding their farming area.
During the last 30 years, substantial tree-planting operations have been carried out. Village woodlots have been planted and there have been several national schemes, including the National Village Forestry Programme and, more recently, the campaign entitled ‘8000 Villages, 8000 Forests’. Millions of seedlings have been planted, but survival rates have been poor. There are many reasons for this lack of success, but the main ones are the poor care of the seedlings after planting, uncontrolled grazing by livestock, cutting of trees to clear land and to obtain fuel, and, in particular, the fact that farmers were not involved in the activities in ways that encouraged them to take responsibility for them.
Content and approach
The practice described here involves the
improved use of a traditional technique involving pits known as zaï,
where naturally occurring seedlings are protected or where seeds are
deliberately planted. In Burkina Faso, where the technique originated, farmers
are experimenting with it and have managed to re-establish and protect abundant
perennial woody biomass on their fields. They have done this by sowing tree
seeds, planting seedlings, selectively protecting natural regeneration, and
sowing and planting grasses in the pits.
Compared with the early 1980s, there has
been a dramatic increase in the number of trees growing on farmers’ fields in
parts of the Yatenga region. Many farmers have protected naturally regenerating
trees but some have also made considerable efforts to grow trees in zaï.
One example of a farmer-innovator is Yacouba Sawadogo, in the village of Gourga.
He developed the practice of growing trees in pits, but several other farmers
can also be considered to be pioneers in this field.
innovations of Yacouba Sawadogo
In 1979 Yacouba Sawadogo started to use
the zaï technique to rehabilitate land. At that time, his main aim was
to produce more cereals, mainly sorghum and millet. By digging wider and deeper
pits and by adding manure to them, he managed to achieve very good yields from
fields that had previously been so degraded that nothing could be grown on them.
His improvements allowed him to achieve food self-sufficiency for his family. In
addition, Yacouba was pleasantly surprised that numerous tree species started to
grow spontaneously in the planting pits. The tree seeds had been deposited in
the pits by the run-off water, or they were contained in the manure that had
been added to the pits. Yacouba decided to protect the young trees. In this way,
he discovered the use of pits for growing trees (zaï forestier). Already
in the first years, the results were spectacular and highly encouraging. His
next step was to start collecting the seeds of numerous useful local species of
fruit and fodder trees, which he introduced into the zaï in the next wet
season. These species included sheanut (Butyrospermum paradoxum var.
parkii), yellow plum (Sclerocarya birrea), grape tree (Lannea
microcarpa) and various acacia species, but also fodder grasses such as
Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus) and Pennisetum pedicellatum.
Within a few years, the piece of barren
land was gradually transformed into a 12 ha forest with a large variety of
species. Yacouba then had to make a difficult choice because the trees and
shrubs started to compete with his cereal crops. He opted for growing trees.
Each year he placed the seeds of desired tree species into the zaï, as
well as alongside the stone bunds he had constructed in his fields to prevent
erosion. In the month of August, he split and replanted clumps of fodder grasses
such as Gamba. In order to protect his forest from livestock, he surrounded it
by cultivated fields which livestock are not allowed to enter during the growing
season, according to local land-use agreements. During the dry season, he or his
children protected the forest against uncontrolled grazing, woodcutting and
Since the devaluation of the West African franc (CFA) in January 1994, many farmers can no longer afford to buy commercial medicines. This has boosted an interest in medicinal plants. The farmer-innovators systematically protect and introduce into their fields all the species that can be used to heal common diseases (malaria, stomach ache, jaundice, etc.). The medicinal species named by the farmers include neem (Azadirachta indica), grape tree (Lannia microcarpa), yellow plum, eucalyptus (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), savanna mahogany (Khaya senegelensis), drumstick tree (Cassia sieberiana), and Guiera senegalensis. Yacouba Sawadogo has developed this activity more actively than anyone else. He has introduced species not previously known in his region and has focused on species that have largely disappeared because of droughts in the early 1970s and mid-1980s.
The role of indigenous knowledge
Around 1980, forestry professionals and
other specialists in natural resource management working on the Central Plateau
of Burkina Faso all predicted doom and gloom. They said that important species
such as Acacia (syn. Faidherbia) albida were
disappearing, that the stocks of baobab were ageing because of overexploitation
and lack of natural regeneration, and that this was also the case for perennial
grasses such as Gamba grass, which had retreated southwards over a distance of
200-300 km in the preceding 15 years. Twenty years later, farmers are actively
protecting the natural regeneration of these species and several others, and
they are planting Gamba grass along the stone bunds in their fields. In many
fields, more trees were found in the year 2000 than in 1980. Twenty years ago,
the expanses of severely degraded land were vast and expanding. Now, thousands
of hectares of this land have been successfully rehabilitated by farmers in the
Yatenga region using the zaï technique.
The rehabilitation of land and the
improvement of the woody vegetation have greatly increased the social status of
the farmers. Before they started to experiment and to invest, they were as
anonymous as most farmers. Nowadays, their reputation extends beyond their
provinces and even beyond the borders of Burkina Faso. They are in regular
contact with the decentralized services of various ministries and have become
focal points for improved natural resource management in their regions.
Yacouba Sawadogo receives many visitors from projects and from research institutions. Delegations of farmers also seek to learn from his experience. Each year he receives perhaps another 100 visitors who ask him for various parts of plants (leaves, bark, roots) for medicinal purposes. Most of these are farmers, but some are traders and office workers. Because of his knowledge in this field, Yacouba is in constant contact with well-known traditional healers who consider him their partner. The field of medicinal plants is secretive and Yacouba did not want to indicate which species he has introduced for medicinal purposes. He only indicated that he has planted species that reduce hypertension and even mental problems. Apparently, he does not ask for cash payments for his products and services, being more interested in the social esteem that he derives from this activity.
Achievements and results
This case proves that, as a result of
indigenous innovation and initiative, it is possible within a fairly short time
span (5-10 years) to produce a considerable quantity of diversified plant
biomass that can be used for many purposes, including fodder. This facilitates
the integration of livestock keeping and cropping systems, which is the basis of
sustainable agricultural intensification.
The practice goes a long way towards
solving the problem of firewood. The lack of firewood in this part of Burkina
Faso is a serious problem for the women who must often walk long distances
(10-12 km) to collect enough fuel for the home. As the wife of one of the farmer
innovators remarked, ‘To have trees on the family fields is a great richness
because we can save a lot of time that we can now spend on income-generating
activities.’ The possibility of covering at least part of the family’s
firewood requirements is one reason why the farmers protect and regenerate the
woody vegetation. Most of the farmers prefer local to exotic species because
they are better adapted to the environment and the farmers are well aware of the
multiple uses to which they can be put.
The practice is efficient because it
produces trees for multiple uses, including for medicinal purposes, and it
provides extra income for full-time farmers. It is cost-effective because the
seeds are readily available. And it is locally manageable because every farmer
can use the zaï technique and also systematically protect the natural
regeneration on his land in this way.
of the practice on food security
As Yacouba Sawadogo explained, ‘in the
days before the zaï technique, I was a part-time trader and I used all
the income this generated to buy cereals to feed my family. Since I started
treating the land with zaï, I am self-sufficient in food and sometimes I
sell a surplus of cereals and cowpeas to cover my financial needs.’ One of the
major advantages of the zaï technique is that it minimizes risks caused
by variations in rainfall and ensures substantial yields on marginal lands.
The zaï have stimulated the
production not only of cereals but also of leguminous crops such as cowpea (Vigna
unguiculata). This is generally grown together with sorghum or millet as a
cash crop. The substantial quantities of cowpea produced annually on the
rehabilitated land contribute to the income of the farm families.
The zaï have indirectly had a
positive influence on the crops produced by farmers’ wives. Because the men
now concentrate on the zaï fields, the sandy soils not suitable for zaï
have been allocated to the women, who use them to grow common groundnuts (Arachis
hypogaea) and Bambara groundnuts (Voandzeia subterranea).
on livestock husbandry
The zaï also have a positive
impact on livestock-keeping. Many farmers stated that, before they adopted zaï,
they had few animals. The investment in zaï has been paralleled by
changes in their livestock husbandry practices. It is only by adding manure to
the zaï that the farmers can obtain good yields. Farmers whose cattle
were formerly managed by Fulani herders now keep their cattle at the homestead.
Those farmers who keep sheep do this not only to raise stock to sell, but also
to produce manure, which is either applied directly to the zaï or used
for composting. It is now common practice among Yatenga farmers to collect the
pods and fruits of specific woody species (yellow plum, acacia species,
Piliostigma reticulatum, etc.) for livestock feeding. When passing through
the animal’s digestive system, the seeds become softer and end up in the
manure used in the pits. The seeds sprout and grow at the same time as the
cereal crops, and the farmers protect them during weeding. The zaï have
thus contributed to a stronger integration of livestock and cropping activities.
When the farmers started rehabilitating
the tracts of degraded land (zî-peele in the Moré language), the land
had only a few large trees from a very limited number of species. Yacouba
Sawadogo counted only four: Balanites aegyptiaca, Lannea microcarpa, Guiera
senegalensis and Combretum micranthum. Twenty years later, he has
more than 60 species of tree on the same land. Yacouba has introduced into his
forest several medicinal species which had disappeared from the region. He
collected these during his travels outside the Yatenga area. When people come to
visit his farm during the wet season, he asks them to dig some planting pits,
plant some trees or sow some seeds that he collected.
on income generation
Several farmers mentioned that they have
also sold wood for the construction of roofs, sheds and the like. On an annual
basis, this brought cash income of CFA 20,000-40,000 (approx. USD 30-60) per
farmer, but the amounts can vary according to the amount of timber in their
fields and to demand and supply on the local market. The main species for
construction purposes are exotic, such as neem and eucalyptus, but certain local
species are used for making chairs, mortars and pestles. The current drive to
regenerate the woody vegetation is also linked to the possibility of gaining
some cash income. The women have a stake in this as well: they collect leaves of
the baobab, flowers of the kapok (Bombax costatum), and fruits of the
sheanut (Butyrospermum paradoxum var. parkii) and the locust bean
(Parkia biglobosa) tree for home consumption and to sell at local markets.
The farmers’ reasons for regenerating
the vegetation differ and depend largely on the amount of land they have.
Yacouba Sawadogo owns his land and has more than enough to meet his family’s
subsistence needs. He aims to create a multipurpose forest of 20 ha and gives
priority to planting trees at the expense of producing cereals. He plans to
invest more in growing medicinal woody plants and he would like to reintroduce
wild fauna (small deer, hyenas, birds, etc.) into his forest.
Farmers who have only usufruct rights to
the land they are farming generally hesitate to plant a live fence around the
fields. This would make it easier to protect the trees against uncontrolled
grazing but, in view of the local land-use customs, planting trees on and around
fields could evoke negative reactions from the landowners. The farmers can
protect regeneration, however, which is different from the art of planting.
The battle against land degradation has not been completely won. Farmers involved in land rehabilitation continue to face many constraints, such as uncontrolled livestock grazing and the cutting of trees for firewood by outsiders. These are problems that can be solved only at village and intervillage level. Nevertheless, the environmental situation appears to be less gloomy now than 20 years ago because farmers have shown that something can be done.
Source of inspiration
It would be possible to transfer the
practice, but there certainly would be conditions and prerequisites to consider.
It is now common to selectively protect
seedlings that have regenerated naturally in the pits known as zaï, but
only a few farmers deliberately sow tree seeds in them. Nevertheless, this
practice has considerable potential.
If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,
International Cooperation Centre
De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV Amsterdam
Tel.: +31 20 4449078
Fax: +31 20 4449095
partner(s) involved in the practice
P.O. Box 64
3830 AB Leusden
Tel.: +31 33 4943086
Fax: +31 33 4940791
who have described this Best Practice
INERA (Institut National d’Etudes et de Recherches Agricoles)
Tougan, Burkina Faso
Formerly working for INERA, Minister of Environment and Water (now
Member of Parliament)
Tougan, Burkina Faso
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