Yacouba Sawadogo is known as “the man who stopped the desert” and a co-winner of the Right Livelihood Award. Yacouba is a farmer from Burkina Faso who popularized an ancient farming technique to reverse desertification, and is among the winners of Sweden’s “alternative Nobel prize,” announced on Monday.
Starting around 1980 during a phase of severe drought, he has successfully created an almost 40-hectare forest on formerly barren and abandoned land. Today, it has more than 60 species of trees and bushes and is arguably one of the most diverse forests planted and managed by a farmer in the Sahel.
Sawadogo’s remarkable success builds on experimenting with traditional planting pits for soil, water and biomass retention (“zaï” in local language). He has continued innovating the technique over the years, increasing crop yields and successfully planting trees. Despite facing resistance from locals in the beginning – Sawadogo was called a “madman” and saw his forest set on fire – he never considered giving up. Over time, people came to admire his work. Sawadogo has always been eager to share his knowledge, and has received thousands of visitors from the region and beyond. By organising trainings, he has empowered farmers to regenerate their land. As a result, tens of thousands of hectares of severely degraded land have been restored to productivity in Burkina Faso and Niger.
Those who adopt Sawadogo’s techniques often become food secure, as zaï help to conserve rainwater and improve soil fertility. This allows farmers to produce crops even in years of drought. Trees planted together with the crops serve to enrich the soil, produce fodder for livestock and create business opportunities like bee keeping. This helps farmers adapt to climate change, reduce rural poverty and prevent local resource and water related conflicts. Together with other farmer-managed natural regeneration techniques, Zaï could become an important tool to counter forced migration and build peace.
Yacouba Sawadogo shared this year’s award with three Saudi human rights activists and an Australian agronomist. The 3 million Swedish crown ($341,800) prize honors people who find solutions to global problems.
“My wish is for people to take my knowledge and share it. This can benefit the youth of the country,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from his village in Burkina Faso.
Sawadogo told his story in a 2010 film called “The Man Who Stopped the Desert.”