Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Sahel

From the days of the earliest Muslim travellers, the land south of the Sahara has been called the ‘Sahel’, or ‘shore’ of the desert. It is where your family has always lived, in this arid belt stretching right across the African continent.

You are used to hardship. In the seventies, when the rains failed, you witnessed one hundred thousand people starve to death and seven hundred and fifty thousand become dependent on aid. Scientists argued about who was at fault. Some said the drought had been magnified by overgrazing and poor land management; that it was all caused by the Sahel’s rising population. Others said air pollution from other countries had stopped the rain and you were the victims of global warming.

You would not leave your land. You thought back to the traditional farming practices of your schooldays, and began to experiment by laying stones across your fields to slow down rainwater and catch silt and seeds. You dug pits filled with manure to attract termites so the soil would become absorbent again.

In twenty years you had a forest. Other farmers were learning from you, joining the fight against the creeping tide of the desert, expanding south by up to forty eight kilometres a year. Seeing your success, local officials annexed your now-valuable land.