• In 2018, the West African country of Burkina Faso committed to restoring 5 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.
  • A year later, researchers at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT interviewed managers of 39 active restoration initiatives in Burkina Faso.
  • Here's what they learned about what works well and the challenges faced, that could help to scale up efforts and inform a new wave of projects across Africa.

Centuries-old farming techniques used to restore degraded land in Burkina Faso could help guide wider landscape restoration efforts across Africa for both environmental and social benefits.

Farmer Yacouba Sawadogo, in his 70s, became known as the “man who stopped the desert” after growing plants using “zai” pits, which are dug in hardened soil to concentrate water and nutrients. Over four decades, he has created a 40-hectare oasis of trees by his village in northern Yatenga province, Reuters reports.

Such work has proved vital in counteracting the impact of droughts and expansion of agriculture in a country that lost 22% of its forest cover and 18% of other woodlands between 1990 and 2015, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The use of zai and other soil and water conservation methods in Burkina Faso has improved food security, groundwater levels, tree cover and biodiversity - and holds valuable lessons for other African nations. Sawadogo's pits help to increase crop yields by up to 500%, according to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

Lessons for Africa

In 2018, Burkina Faso said it would restore 5 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 as part of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), a continent-wide effort covering 100 million hectares of land.

To understand challenges and how to scale up existing efforts, researchers at the Alliance of Bioversity and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) interviewed leaders of 39 active restoration schemes in Burkina Faso in 2019.

Goals of FLR initiatives
Forest Landscape Restoration projects improve the area around them in a variety of ways.
Image: MDPI

All of the initiatives examined sought to restore tree cover and were concentrated in the Sahelian and northern part of the Sudanian region – home to most of the degraded lands. The majority of projects also had a strong involvement of local non-governmental organizations and associations, with funding primarily provided through international projects.

The most commonly cited goals of restoration projects were: the recovery of ecological functionality, an improved resilience of local communities to climate change, and the promotion of agrosilvopastoral land-use systems – which combine crops, forestry and animal grazing.

Other aims included job creation, biodiversity recovery and ecotourism.

Here's what the researchers learned that could be applied across the continent as a whole:

Natural regeneration a success

Assisted natural regeneration – which favours growth from existing tree stumps through their management and protection – was often used to foster tree development. It is a cost-efficient approach, researchers said, and has proved successful for restoring vast areas elsewhere in West Africa.

More labour-intensive approaches were commonly adopted for cultivation in extreme environments with limited soil fertility and scarce water supplies – such as the zai pit technique used by Sawadogo.

With such methods, scrubs and grass are planted with the trees to stabilize moisture levels, create favourable microclimates and help conserve soil.

Tree planting vital for restoration

Tree planting was key to most of the projects, as natural regeneration alone was not sufficient to sustain tree cover recovery in most contexts, researchers found.

Half of the schemes sourced their material from the government-run National Tree Seed Center of Burkina Faso, which offers a wide range of native species and ensures collection follows best-practice guidelines.

Importance of local involvement

Efforts to involve local communities and capacity-building activities were also common across projects, although the role of local people – particularly women – in decision-making remained limited, the study showed.

Despite all the challenges, the researchers concluded that the rising number of restoration initiatives, the diversity of approaches used by local actors and support from government were all encouraging aspects.

They added that renewed international interest such as $14 billion in funding pledges for Africa’s Great Green Wall Initiative offers an ideal framework to achieve multiple objectives, scale up restoration efforts, improve the resilience of rural communities and create green jobs.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

Halting deforestation is essential to avoiding the worst effects of global climate change.

The destruction of forests creates almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as global road travel, and yet it continues at an alarming rate.

In 2012, we brought together more than 150 partners working in Latin America, West Africa, Central Africa and South-East Asia – to establish the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020: a global public-private partnership to facilitate investment in systemic change.

The Alliance, made up of businesses, governments, civil society, indigenous people, communities and international organizations, helps producers, traders and buyers of commodities often blamed for causing deforestation to achieve deforestation-free supply chains.

The Commodities and Forests Agenda 2020, summarizes the areas in which the most urgent action is needed to eliminate deforestation from global agricultural supply chains.

The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 is gaining ground on tackling deforestation linked to the production of four commodities: palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper.

Get in touch to join our mission to halt to deforestation.

Restoring landscapes to transform lives

Launched in 2007 by the African Union, the Great Green Wall seeks to create an 8,000-kilometre-long natural wonder of the world, restoring degraded landscapes and transforming lives of people in one of the planet’s poorest regions.

To support the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), the World Economic Forum has launched 1t.org, a global initiative to support the movement to conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees around the world by 2030, including a specific initiative for the Sahel and the Great Green Wall.

The initiative seeks to create a community of innovators and ecopreneurs to restore forests, which are an essential part of the solution to tackle climate change and biodiversity collapse.