In the dry Sahel of central Burkina Faso, the months before the harvest are tough. The granaries are empty, and forests are just a memory.
“Everything is green, the crops are almost mature – but that is moment when people are most food insecure, because they are waiting for the new harvest and the old one is gone,” explained Houria Djoudi, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Demographic, economic and environmental changes have put pressure on almost all the region’s forests, leaving a degraded landscape stricken with erosion, drought and infertile soils.
But tiny patches of restored forest are now giving families a safety net at this hardest time of year. Just three hectares of fenced-off land gives a household access to leaves, nuts, beans and fodder for their own use or to sell to buy grain, Djoudi and colleagues found in a new study.
The study looked at the impact of a program run by local NGO Tiipaalga and supported by the FFEM (Fond Francais de L’Environnement Mondial). Since 2003 Tiipaalga has been helping people in the three provinces of Central Burkina Faso – Kadiogo, Kourweogo and Oubritenga – to protect just three hectares of their land.
Families fenced off an area to shield it from grazing livestock, and cultivated a 10-metre strip around the perimeter to serve as a fire break.
And that was it.
“It was a very small intervention, just putting up a fence to prevent animals eating the new seedlings, but suddenly you could see useful plant species coming back that people hadn’t seen for decades,” Djoudi said.
“People were very excited, and proud of being capable of restoring an ecosystem by very simple means,” she added.
FOREST AS SAFETY NET
The researchers gathered data from 129 households, including 40 that had done the restoration measure – and found that those that were able to draw on forest resources experienced fewer days of food insecurity.
More than 30 percent of households harvested wild shea nuts from the enclosures. Over 60 percent gathered honey, and the same amount collected dry fodder for animals. Forty percent hunted small wildlife. Wild raisins, tamarind and African locust bean also helped to provide food security.
Critically, it is women who benefit most from the forest’s bounty.
Engaging in restoration activities is a way to secure tenure – and to have a vision for the long term
To understand why, it’s necessary to understand something about social structures in the Sahel, said Djoudi.
The ‘household’ in these communities is a much larger grouping than in other parts of the world, she explained.
“It’s an extended family context. A household can be a grandfather with all of his sons – perhaps up to 10 sons – living together in a kind of compound. Each nuclear family has their own hut, but they eat all together with their brothers and sisters and share the same granary.”
“In Burkina Faso there is a cultural norm that when the granaries are empty, it is women who are responsible for filling the gap and getting food for the family until the next harvest,” Djoudi added.
“So women turn to forests – if there are any.”
Virtually the only places forests survive in this part of Burkina Faso are in these small, regenerated plots. The deforestation in recent decades was almost total, and its consequences disastrous. Land cleared for agriculture became infertile in just five or six years, and was then vulnerable to flooding and erosion.
As is human nature, people in the area didn’t realize what they had until it was gone, Djoudi noted.
“People’s perception of the importance of the trees came after they experienced the complete loss. Through the degradation that happened, they saw that actually deforestation is not sustainable – and now they are very interested in reforestation.”
Another reason they’re interested has to do with land tenure in Burkina Faso.
In an intriguing contrast to many other contexts, where people guarantee possession by transforming forest land to agricultural land, in this particular situation, it’s the opposite: putting up fences and protecting trees can in fact help people to secure the rights to land.
“Land rights in West Africa are ambiguous and often overlap between state authority and customary rights,” Djoudi explained. “Engaging in restoration activities is a way to secure tenure – and to have a vision for the long term.”
“By fencing off your three hectares and growing a forest you can show you have invested in that land, and obtain documentation from the government.”
The risk with this, she said, is that it could be seen as a kind of ‘silent privatization’ that marginalizes others: “So we have to be careful with that and examine it closely to understand what is going on.”
However, in the cases the researchers have studied so far, it doesn’t seem as though people are using the enclosures to claim collective land; rather it tends to be private family land they have strong customary rights to.
“It’s a kind of adaptation to ambiguous and unclear rights that means people engage more in these initiatives,” Djoudi said.
What the study hasn’t been able to do is gauge the overall impact of these dozens of tiny forests.
“We need to look at how, together, those small changes are affecting the microclimate, and how they are changing this part of the Sahel,” Djoudi said.
“The study focused on the household level,” she added. “What is missing is to look at the environmental and social impacts of these small restored areas at larger scales: ecosystem, landscape and region.”