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Colin Thor West, assistant professor in anthropology, studies how households in semi-arid regions cope with limited or fluctuating natural resource availability and focuses on food security. One such region, the northern Central Plateau of Burkina Faso, lies in the Sahel of West Africa where droughts commonly occur and there is high population pressure. West has been studying Mossi communities in this area for over a decade, learning more about livelihoods and how people adapt to climate variability.

Burkina Faso is definitively food secure – i.e. the nation produces enough food to feed its entire population. Northern Burkina, however, is drier than southern parts of the country but hosts most of the country’s people. The south produces surplus corn, millet and sorghum while the north faces frequent production shortfalls. Thus, even though the country is indeed food secure, there is substantial regional variability.

Communities in the northern Central Plate face chronic seasonal famine. The rainy season lasts from June through September and people harvest grain in October and November. Harvests from the previous year typically last only until the onset of the rains. Thus, the period from June to September is referred to as “the hungry season” because food stored from the past year has run out and grain prices soar. This is the time when people need food the most because agricultural labor peaks. At the same time, though, they have the least access to food. Families often cope with this short term period of hunger by skipping meals, eating wild foods, or feeding only their children.

In addition to chronic seasonal famine, the region has experienced extended, extreme droughts and severe famines that occurred between 1968-72 and 1983-85. These great Sahel droughts brought suffering throughout West Africa.

Map showing "greening" in northern Africa.
Map showing “greening” in northern Africa.

West is interested in understanding how Mossi households have adapted to droughts and the degree to which they are becoming more food secure. He conducted fieldwork during the summer of 2012 using a rapid participatory approach. Over a two-week period, he showed villagers local environmental data, including charts of rainfall and satellite images of the region, to elicit their reactions. These images show the area is “greening” or becoming more vegetated and that rainfall has improved. (insert map showing greening) Local farmers agree, saying they have engaged in massive programs to rehabilitate the land. They also say that famines are “a thing of the past.”

With some innovative regional planning, the farmers of the northern Central Plateau have been modifying the landscape using diguettes and zaï pits.

Diguettes are low rock barriers built along the contours of the land. When rain falls, the rocks trap moisture and seeds, preventing them from washing away. Eventually the seeds sprout along the walls, creating an even stronger barrier for more seeds and moisture.

Diguettes in Burkina Faso
Diguettes in Burkina Faso

To build zaï pits, they dig shallow holes in the hard clay soil during the dry season. When it rains, they put seeds and small amounts of compost into the pits. If the rains cease and the soil dries up, the zaï pits hold residual moisture and the plants in them are able to continue to grow. Farmers stagger these holes, and eventually they are able to rehabilitate large areas of land.

Are these efforts enough to make famines a thing of the past?

During recent droughts, these technologies certainly helped. Those who are able to implement these methods made it through the drought okay. But not everyone has access to these techniques. Some people do not have the labor to build these structures, and the recent droughts were still difficult for them. Also, the organization that hauled rocks to build diguettes has ceased operations on the northern Central Plateau. So, there is no way to transport the massive amounts of rock needed to build more.

Zaï pits in Burkina Faso.
Zaï pits in Burkina Faso.

Through his research, West has found that droughts no longer negatively affect everyone in northern Burkina Faso like they did in the past. He detected that Mossi farmers are guardedly optimistic about the future because they have adapted to climatic variability. However, families who are unable to invest in diguettes and zaï pits find it increasingly difficult to produce food. With climate change as a real and growing concern, the guarded optimism West has found will likely be tested in the coming decades.

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