Bringing degraded African land back to life

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Agriculture in the Sahel region of Africa is not easy. It is a region that suffers from degraded soils, erratic rainfall and is often prone to long periods of drought. For this reason, agricultural land is often very harsh, making it difficult for farmers to plant seeds and grow crops. But new technologies can reduce this burden on farmers and help restore the land for future generations.

When Moctar Sacande, coordinator of FAO’s Action Against Desertification programme, speaks about land restoration in Africa, the passion in his voice is evident.

“Restoring degraded lands to productive health is a huge opportunity for Africa. This brings significant social and economic benefits to rural farming communities,” he says. “It’s a bulwark against climate change and it brings technology to enhance traditional knowledge.”

Delfino plow

Fortunately, there is a technology that can help farmers facing difficult farming conditions and restore farmland: the Delfino plough.

FAO brought this state-of-the-art heavy excavator to the Sahel region as part of FAO’s Action Against Desertification (AAD) programme, using it to dig up parched soil to a depth of more than half a meter. Four Delfinos have been introduced in four countries – Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal – as part of FAO’s Great Green Wall initiative.

The Delfino creates large half-moon basins ready to plant seeds and seedlings, increasing rainwater harvesting tenfold and making the soil more permeable for planting than the traditional – and backbreaking – method of digging by hand.

Demi-lune is a traditional planting method in the Sahel that creates contours to stop rainwater runoff, improve water infiltration and keep the soil moist longer. This creates favorable microclimatic conditions for seeds and seedlings to flourish.

The Delfino plow is also extremely efficient. A hundred farmers digging traditional half-moon irrigation ditches by hand can cover one hectare a day, but when the Delfino is hitched to a tractor, it can cover 15 to 20 hectares in a day.

Once an area is plowed, seeds of native woody and herbaceous species are then directly sown and inoculated seedlings are planted. These species are very resilient and perform well in degraded land, providing vegetation cover and improving the productivity of previously barren land.

The Importance of Restored Lands

By bringing degraded land back to life, farmers don’t have to clear additional forest land to turn it into cropland for Africa’s growing population and growing food demand.

In Burkina Faso, for example, a third of the landscape is degraded. This means that the more than nine million hectares of land that was once used for agriculture can no longer be used, and degradation is expected to continue to spread to 360,000 hectares per year. If the situation is not reversed, forests risk being cleared to make way for productive agricultural land.

Africa currently loses four million hectares of forest each year because of this, but has over 700 million hectares of degraded land viable for restoration.

In Burkina Faso and Niger, the objective of hectares to be restored immediately has already been achieved and extended thanks to the Delfino plough. In Nigeria and Senegal, it is working to scale up the restoration of degraded lands.

“Local engagement is key,” says Moctar. “The whole community is involved and has benefited from forage crops such as knee-high hay in just two years. They can feed their livestock and sell the surplus and move on to gathering untimed products such as edible fruits, natural oils for soaps, wild honey and plants for traditional medicine.

Improving the lives of women

According to Nora Berrahmouni, who was in charge of forestry at the FAO Regional Office for Africa when the Delfino was deployed, the plow will also reduce the burden on women.

“The season for the very hard work of hand-digging the half-moon irrigation dams comes when the men in the community have had to move with the animals. So the work falls to the women,” says Nora.

Because the Delfino plow dramatically speeds up the plowing process and reduces the physical labor required, it gives women more time to manage their multitude of other tasks.

The project also aims to strengthen women’s leadership and participation in local land restoration on a larger scale, by providing women with leadership roles through village committees that plan land restoration work. As part of the AAD program, each site selected for restoration is encouraged to set up a village resource management committee, in order to take ownership from the start.

“Many women lead the local village committees that organize these activities and they tell us that they feel more empowered and respected,” says Moctar.

Respect for local knowledge and traditional know-how is another key to success. Communities have long understood that crescent-shaped dams are the best way to harvest rainwater for the long dry season. The powerful Delfino simply makes work more efficient and less physically demanding.

“In the end, the Delfino is just a plow. A very good and suitable plow, but a plow all the same”, says Moctar. “It’s when we use it appropriately and in consultation and cooperation that we see such progress.”

And it is urgent that progress be made. Loss of land causes many other problems such as hunger, poverty, unemployment, forced migration, conflict and increased risk of extreme weather events related to climate change. And as Moctar said, “It’s too much trouble for us at FAO to allow vulnerable people to deal with it.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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