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How Tuaregs, Hausas are avoiding another Darfur

Often at odds, farmers and herders in Niger are now working together to stop the advance of the Sahara Desert.

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On the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert herders and farmers with a bitter history of fighting over dwindling resources are now working together to stop a common enemy: the desert's increasingly rapid advance.

"Since I was a young boy, I have seen changes here. It was green; there were trees and rain. But now there is only the wind," says 50-year-old Ibrahim Akoulama, a nomadic Tuareg herder. He lives with his two wives and 10 children in a domed hut covered with grass mats to protect from the scorching sun and dry winds.

As climate change steps up the pace of desertification in the region, competition for resources has reached deadly levels: underlying the slaughter in Darfur and its spillover into neighboring Chad lies this basic economic fight for the land that can save a family from starvation.

But here in southern Niger, Hausa farmers and Tuareg herders are building water traps to make their shared land more productive, an effort which observers hope will reduce the likelihood of future conflict.

"It is totally pragmatic," says forestry expert Kees Vogt who works with the SOS Sahel SOS Sahel International, a nongovernmental group based in the city of Zinder, once the capital of French colonial-era Niger. "The people have no choice but to live from the land. There is no industry, there is nothing [here] except natural resource management. This is all to improve the ecology of the area so you can have more animals and you can attract more nomads to graze their cattle and to trade. The forest is there to be used not conserved."

How the 'water traps' work

Just before the rainy season began here in July, the farmers and herders worked together to build row upon row of man-made foot-high banks of earth. Each low ridge forms a 190-foot by 30-foot basin that traps the rainwater where it would otherwise evaporate or run off into gullies. The contained water soaks into the soil helping to renourish the depleted land. After only three months, small green shoots of grass and spiky shrubs can be seen emerging from the dry land.


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