What is the Resilience Deficit and How is it Being tackled in the Sahel?

Peter Gubbels, Founder and Director of Action Learning and Advocacy for West Africa at Groundswell International, speaks to Farming First about how agroecology can help overcome the resilience deficit in the Sahel and boost farmers’ livelihoods.

Extreme weather patterns continue to hit the Sahel belt hard, threatening the livelihoods of millions of farmers and pastoralists. With over 80 percent of farmland in the region degraded and facing soil erosion and deforestation, communities are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.  

An estimated 24 million small scale farmers and their families living in the risk prone, semi-arid areas of the western Sahel are chronically vulnerable to food and nutrition insecurity. A growing population and dwindling natural resources have left Sahelian farmers unable to adapt to the challenge, leaving them, their families and their communities chronically poor.

Even in years where there is good rainfall, communities adopt negative coping mechanisms, such as reducing the number of daily meals and selling off assets. This has resulted in a growing “resilience deficit” and an increasing dependence on humanitarian assistance.

This means that as communities battle to offset the effects of an increasingly hostile climate, they are unable to build up longer term assets to persist through failed harvests.

Applying agroecology to build resilience

Business as usual approaches to farming in dryland areas are not working; we must transition towards farming systems that are more suited to ecologically fragile, risk prone and climate crisis affected environments.

Groundswell International works to tackle this “resilience deficit”, ensuring that small scale farmers across the region can apply best practices to adapt to climate shocks.

From the offset, the project worked through participatory dialogues with key community stakeholders to diagnose, identify and explore key innovations which help communities rehabilitate degraded soils and build resilience.

Combining agroecology – an approach in which agriculture harnesses natural processes, such as the role of indigenous trees in regenerating soil fertility – with locally-appropriate innovations, farmers were able to adapt agricultural practices to better suit a harsher environment.

In semi-arid lands like the Sahel, our approach to agroecology promoted efficient use of natural resources. Farmers were able to experiment with a range of different farming practices and innovations that helped them reduce their resilience deficit.

Through agroecology, the project has promoted indigenous farming techniques such as zaï pits – a traditional planting method that can help to rehabilitate abandoned and degraded soils. These are small circular pits in which organic manure is placed to improve soil fertility, improve water retention, and foster the growth of micro-organisms essential for health soil.

The project also promoted agroforestry, a form of agriculture in which local trees and shrubs are allowed to grow on crop land. They are heavily pruned before the rainy season, to provide organic matter to enhance the productivity of the land, provide fodder for animal feed, reduce high temperatures through partial shade, prevent wind erosion, and also provide much needed firewood for women.

Farmer-managed regeneration of trees – a technique which works with farmers to regenerate farmland through reforestation – helped restore tree and vegetative cover, helping degraded soils to better store rainwater.

For generations, smallholder farmers used shifting agriculture to manage soil fertility. They would clear a new field, by cutting down all the trees, while allowing old fields with low fertility to “rest”.

By reducing planting seasons and allow fields to rest, farmers became more productive.

“Before, I used to sow my fields two times and I did not have a good harvest because of the wind exposing the seedling roots. Now, I only have to sow one time, without needing to re-sow,” a farmer in the Mopti region of Mali said. 

On these fields let to fallow, trees, shrubs would regenerate from the stumps, slowly replenishing soil cover and organic matter over 10 years. With growing population pressure, farmers are no longer able to leave their fields in fallow. However, they have retained the perspective that trees are like giant weeds impeding the growth of crops.

The work of Groundswell has been to convince farmers to adopt innovations that allow them to manage trees and crops at the same time. The secret is to heavily prune the trees before the planting season, rather than cutting them down and burning the stumps.

According to another farmer who has benefited from the project, it has helped farmers see agroforesty as a vital part of farming.

“Before, my father told me to pull out the tree shoots when clearing the field for planting. Now, with the arrival of the project, I protect the young tree shoots and let them grow.”  

The main way Groundswell persuaded farmers about this approach was by “farmer to farming learning and exchange”. The most innovative farmers, who adapted this approach to trees, and had success, would train and motivate their neighbours and farmer leaders from other villages.

Overcoming the resilience deficit

In this way, Groundswell’s programs encouraged a move away from models of farming that were unsustainable and unsuited to local needs. Almost 100,000 rural farming families in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal, have adopted agroecological innovations for resilience, helping to increase livelihoods substantially.

By encouraging biodiversity and livelihood diversification, these programs boosted farmers’ incomes, enhanced community food security, and re-greened the land.

Involving women smallholder farmers, who are not only involved in farming, but in harvesting fruits from indigenous trees, and collecting firewood, helped to increase food and nutrition security.

“Before, many women in the villages cooked their meals by burning millet stalks as fuel. Now they use firewood from the trees in their fields,”  said one female beneficiary.

The programs helped strengthen women’s decision-making processes, organisation and leadership in their communities.

To bring the approaches developed in the project to scale, we helped to nurture and foster farmers’ networks and knowledge sharing. Through a systems approach which involved learning and exchange between communities and linking these networks with district government development programmes, we brought agroecological practices to scale.

With extreme weather patterns set to continue in the Sahel, the effects of climate change will inevitably make lives and livelihoods difficult. The ability of farmers to persist and adapt to these challenges is possible if we work to restore degraded land and reduce the resilience deficit.

Featured photo credit: Peter Casier/CGIAR