The African Sahel is the arid belt of land that forms a buffer between the Sahara desert to the north and the more temperate savannahs to the south. From the coast of Mauritania and Senegal to the west, the Sahel stretches over 3,500 miles to Sudan and Eritrea’s Red Sea coast to the east. Over 500 miles wide, this vast area forms the biggest front line on earth in the relentless battle against desertification.
For decades there has been nothing but bad news. Population increase led to overgrazing and unsustainable harvests of fuelwood. Equally if not more harmful to the Sahel ecosystems were the imposition of western methods of agriculture and forestry, techniques that began under colonial administrations and have been perpetuated over the past 50 years by well-intentioned aid agencies. A fascinating article by Burkhard Bilger in the December 19th issue of The New Yorker, entitled “The Great Oasis (subscription required),” documents a new and hopeful trend in the Sahel that may reverse over a century of environmental decline.
Back in the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century, French colonial administrators in the Sahel attempted to develop commercial agriculture according to Western techniques that worked well in temperate zones, where sunlight needed to be maximized, but were disastrous in the arid Sahel, where crops responded better if they were beneath a protective tree canopy that attenuated the sunlight. The areas designated as forest were considered state property and were protected, […] Read More