Yacouba Sawadogo is a farmer – and an environmental hero. Hailing from Burkina Faso, he and his family helped stop the desertification of his village by planting their own forest.
But there’s so much more to his efforts and what we can learn from them about the importance of trees (and caring about the land around us).
Yacouba Sawadogo, the man who stopped the desert
Sawadogo’s village, in the northern part of Burkina Faso (in the Sahel Belt), suffered from a long drought from 1972 to 1984. The land was further impacted by overfarming and overgrazing by animals, and the resulting famine killed hundreds of thousands of people.
He used an ancient African technique called zai. Zai involves planting specific trees and enriching the soil, resulting in faster forest growth and improved soil quality. But his fellow farmers who saw him planting trees in the desert thought he was losing his mind.
He and fellow farmer Mathieu Ouédraogo proved them wrong.
Sawadogo has no formal science education but used traditional knowledge to plant what is now a nearly 100-acre forest with 96 tree and 66 plant species. There are edible and medicinal plants in his forest, and it’s now home to previously endangered animals.
According to LifeGate (cited below), Yacouba Sawadogo recalled getting his nickname: “Thomas Sankara [President of Burkina Faso between 1983 and 1987] launched an appeal to develop initiatives to stop the advancement of the desert, and when he came to see my work, he asked me what technique I was using, and I told him it was zai. That’s why I’m also known as Yacoub Zai”.
Trouble in the forest
There is a 2010 documentary (The Man Who Stopped the Desert) about his life, and he won the Right Livelihood Award in 2018 and the Champions of the Earth award in 2020. However, Sawadogo was still fighting for the land until very recently.
In the early 2000s, the nearby city of Ouahigouya annexed the forest as part of a larger municipal land grab. Officials offered Sawadogo and each of his family members just 1/10th of an acre of the land and no other compensation. Then, people began erecting settlements on the plot.
Sawadogo began raising money in 2008 to buy the land and keep it safe. But the value of the land (thanks to his own efforts) made it extremely valuable – more than he could afford, even with fundraising. Finally, in 2021, the environmental arm of the local government erected a protective fence around the forest to preserve it, thanks to Sawadogo’s ongoing efforts. — WTF fun facts