Episode-711- Lessons from The Man Who Stopped the Desert

Yacouba Sawadogo is the Man Who Stopped the Desert

Yacouba Sawadogo, can not write, he was never classically educated, he received no help from any government programs but this one man has done more for the people in the ‘Sahel’ region of Africa than any other person or group of people combined.

How?  In some real ways, simply by digging holes!  He uses a method of growing called a zai.

Soil is essential to life on earth. But much of the world’s soil has become degraded and useless. As the global demand for food grows, millions of pounds and the latest technological advances have been invested in attempts to improve soil quality.

Leading scientists and agriculturalists from around the world strive against growing world hunger to find the means to bring exhausted soils back into production, but it seems that a peasant farmer from one of the poorest countries on earth has finally achieved what these experts dreamt of; halting the desert.

Join me today as we discuss…

  • Who is Yacouba Sawadogo
  • Some remarkable similarities he has to Bill Mollison
  • Why problems we think are unique to us are not
    • Resistance to new ideas
    • Hostility when they begin to work
    • The trials of “imminent domain”
    • Food is our greatest need
  • The Zai and how it works
    • 5000 – 10000 holes per acre
    • Incorporate organic matter – compost – manure
    • Create low rock walls on contour
    • Prep in the dry season
    • Grow crops but grow forest as well
    • Utilizes termites
  • Ways I think it can be improved
    • Incorporate equipment
    • Practice more poly culture
    • Increase depth
    • Utilize mulch
    • Incorporate true swales
  • Great wisdom about survival From Yacoba
    • Noting makes people nasty faster than insecurity
    • You can’t preserve your wealth by running away
    • We must solve the food problem first
    • If you cut 10 trees a day and plant none in a year you are doomed
    • Leaders are shaped by circumstance and choice
    • Food sovereignty saves societies

Additional Resources for Today’s Show

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21 Responses to Episode-711- Lessons from The Man Who Stopped the Desert

  1. John Morelli

    Food Sovereignty is a good phrase. It’s very similar to something I heard explained as one of the big reasons the community garden that I volunteer at was started, which is “food security.”

  2. I found the termite question answered here: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/emergence-and-spreading-improved-traditional-soil-and-water-conservation-practice-burkin
    The dimensions of the pits were increased (from a diameter of 10 ? 15 cm to 20
    ? 30 cm and a depth of about 20 cm) and another innovation was that manure was applied
    to them. In this way the improved planting pits concentrated water and nutrients in one
    spot. The pits were dug during the dry season4 and the organic material used attracted
    termites. These termites play a crucial role as they dig channels in the soil and by doing
    so they improve its ?architecture?. At the same time they digest the organic matter and
    make nutrients more easily available to the crops planted or sown in the pits.

  3. Do you plant in the holes or between them?

  4. You need to add the name Masanobu Fukuoka to your list of luminaries in the realm of permaculture.

    • Modern Survival

      @Netua, oh he is on the list and many others. I just always butcher his name so I don’t mention him as much. To me it is hard to hurl a bigger insult than to mispronounce a man’s name.

  5. Re incorporating equipment to improve water infiltration (digging holes) and slow down run-off (Swales): a technique called Keyline design, developed by PA Yeomans in Australia, is a way to do this.
    Yeomans used a non-inverting plough to cut deep (a foot or more) but very narrow furrows in the land, almost parallel to contours. Water infiltrates the narrow furrows, air enters the root zone and grasses grow quickly, increasing the soil organize matter by growing more root mass. In addition the water movement over the landscape is slowed and directed laterally rather than downhill, similar to making swales. Grazing animals benefit from the better pasture, they also improve the soil first by adding manure, then by the roots dying back in response to grazing, adding the carbon back into the soil. The animals are moved away, allowing the grasses to regenerate; the cycle repeats, quickly building topsoil, organic matter and holding water in the soil.

    The furrows aren’t quite on contour. A “keyline” contour is picked and the furrows are ploughed very slightly downhill towards the spurs and away from gullies, to encourage water into the driest parts of the landscape. Above and below this the furrows are ploughed parallel to the keyline, purely as a convenience for mechanical ploughing. They approximate the contours but aren’t quite along the contours.

    These days tree planting is encouraged along with pasture.

    The best explanation I’ve heard is by Darren Dougherty (www.permaculture.biz) interviewed on the Agroinnovations podcast.

    The combination of keyline design with planned rotational grazing of livestock (like Paul Wheaton’s approach to pasturing chickens, moving them after 30% of the feed is gone and not waiting until bare earth is left) and chop-and-drop (including nitrogen fixers in the mix of trees used) seems to me the best way of incorporating these methods on a wide scale. It would work equally well if the plough is pulled by a tractor or by oxen.

    Cheers,

    Dean (Cave)

  6. Re hugelkultur:

    I wonder if part of the reason for it working is fungi growing in the huge wood piles. The mycelium would spread through the wood then into the soil and plants above, distributing moisture and improving plant growth.

    I think manure / nitrogen would be best used in the planting zone of the beds (top foot of soil initially then top-dressing) rather than being mixed in with the logs at the base. This is because (1) fungi grow better with a very high carbon to nitrogen ratio ; (2) the plants woul benefit more from a high nitrogen ratio ; (3) the hugelkultur beds are deep enough (6′) to separate these two zones without worrying about the wood stealing nitrogen from the plants. Why waste expensive nitrogen in the base o the bed?

    Jack, would you consider testing the above when you do hugelkultur? – ie. in one bed mix manure into the wood layer, in another save it for the soil on top of the wood. We can see I there is a difference in how the plants grow initially, how they grow after a few years, and how much manure is needed with each method.

    Sorry about tagging this on to this post rather than another episode but I thought this was a great episode on farm-level regenerative agriculture and I look forward to your comments!

    Cheers

    Dean (Cave)

  7. Here is a site with some more technical details Zai, stone lines and other great information:
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/x5301e/x5301e0a.htm#part%20three:%20technical%20section

  8. theflyingswordfish

    Maybe I’m wrong, but the machine your taking about building sounds like something with a little larger holes than a lawn aerator. I would think that you could accomplish almost the same results with a lawn aerator and then rake out compost or manure back into the holes. I dont know, just a thought. Great Show by the way.

  9. Greg Harvey

    The Vimeo site where the trailer is had other questions answered too.
    http://vimeo.com/21263771
    One of the resources you listed talked about the Moringa trees being a critical part of this. Jack, you should do a show on the Moringa, “Miracle Tree”, some time. It won’t grow in most of the USA but can be grown as an annual or in a greenhouse.

  10. We adapted steel spikes about 8″ long, 2″ diameter to a plow behind a 40/20 John Deere precisely to make holes to capture rain in the Coahuila, Mexico desert. We mostly did this for the benefit of grazing grass for cattle, something similar to an aeration of the lawn.

    Cheers.

    • Those are all variations on the ‘land imprinting’ technique being promoted byDr. Dixon http://imprinting.org/ I guess it just proves that “great minds think alike”. I would like to do this on my 40 acres of South Eastern Arizona desert someday, when resources allow. I’ve tried planting Moringa trees watered by a drip system fed by a 10′ round swimming pool. I will find out this weekend if I had any success. That was the cheapest way i could find to irrigate a few plants for a month.

  11. Well, it’s kinda cool to see a “Link for Jack” turn into a full episode.

    As for automated Zai hole maker, two things come to mind.
    1) What about that colorful fellow over at Open Source Ecology? Could be an attachment for the LifeTrac
    2) How about like those two man hole augers? I think that could work pretty well though I doubt they go much beyond a 1′ diamter.

  12. Ryan Lewellin

    I wonder if that technique would work good for lettuce in the summer. One of nature’s cruel ironies is that I can’t get good homegrown lettuce now that I have a ton of cucumbers and tomatoes to go with it.

  13. what a show jack! This guy is amazing – thank you for sharing his story with us and tying it into some amazing life lessons we can use. I love hearing about people with real character and perseverance. That should inspire us all!

  14. Jack, thanks for bringing this inspiring story to our attention.
    I had a thought about the “low stone wall” vs “true swales” question. You commented that “true swales” could improve on his way of doing things.
    Like you said, your improvements might not work for him there, but would help where they could be implemented. So, why should Yacouba maybe not dig “true swales” rather than those rock walls?
    When you think about Yacouba digging hundreds of holes in that land, what do you think came out of many of those holes besides dirt? Rocks!
    When you apply the permaculture principles of “observe & interact (ie:work with nature not against it)” and “product no waste” along with the idea to “see solutions inherent in problems” doesn’t it make perfect sense for him to use the rocks to create the swales?
    If he were to dig “true swales”… it would just mean more digging, and more rocks found, and a bigger pile of rocks to have to deal with.
    Another thought: why would rock walls not work in the US? Because we need to be able to drive tractors over them! I didn’t see any tractors in the YouTube videos I watched about him. Most work is done by hand.
    It looks to me like he has a great solution for his particular situation.
    Yacouba was able to use materials at hand to accomplish what he needed with less work. Like you said, the man is a genius!

  15. What a great show… I’d read about Yacouba briefly, but had not heard him described with such passion and detail. Thanks for putting on the show, and for the links and resources.

  16. THANK YOU so much for introducing the Zai concept and Yacoba’s work to the general public through your highly engaging podcast. As one who spends a lot of time trying to spread the word about permaculture, I deeply appreciate your work. Particularly, thank you for encouraging folks to get out there and try the Zai technique and adapt it to wherever they are. Because topsoil depletion and the drought-flood cycle are such widespread problems, we need to do whatever we can, wherever we are. – Jenny Nazak, Austin Permaculture Guild, Austin TX

  17. Hi Guys, great to see the word is spreading! Many questions answered in the full length doc, plus extra video clips on the website.
    http://www.1080films/Yacoubamovie

    cheers

  18. In the pacific northwest, some lumber companies started replanting trees years ago, while others didn’t. In the end, those who planted survived and those who could no longer cut virgin forests (old growth) died because they ran out of trees to cut.