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Millions of hectares of agricultural land are lost to the desert every year in Africa’s Sahel region, but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that traditional knowledge, combined with the latest technologies, can transform arid soil into fertile soil.

Those trying to farm in the Sahel region often face poor soils, erratic rainfall and long periods of drought. However, the introduction of a state-of-the-art heavy excavator, the Delfino plow, proved to be, quite literally, a breakthrough.

As part of its Action Against Desertification (AAD) programme, FAO has brought the Delfino to four countries in the Sahel region – Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal – to dig up parched soil at a depth more than half a meter.

The Delfino plow is extremely efficient: a hundred farmers digging irrigation ditches by hand can cover one hectare a day, but when the Delfino is hitched to a tractor, it can cover 15 to 20 hectares in one day.

Once an area is plowed, seeds of native woody and herbaceous species are then directly sown, and inoculated seedlings are planted. These species are very resilient and perform well in degraded land, providing vegetation cover and improving the productivity of previously barren land.

In Burkina Faso and Niger, the objective of hectares to be restored immediately has already been achieved and extended thanks to the Delfino plough. In Nigeria and Senegal, it is working to scale up the restoration of degraded lands.

Agriculture seen through a half-moon lens

This technology, while impressive, is proving successful because it is used in tandem with traditional farming techniques.

“In the end, the Delfino is just a plow. A very good and suitable plow, but a plow all the same,” says Moctar Sacande, coordinator of the Action Against Desertification program at FAO. “It’s when we use it appropriately and in consultation and cooperation that we see such progress.”

Demi-lune is a traditional planting method in the Sahel that creates contours to stop rainwater runoff, improve water infiltration and keep the soil moist longer. This creates favorable microclimatic conditions for seeds and seedlings to flourish.

The Delfino creates large, half-moon watersheds ready to plant seeds and seedlings, increasing rainwater harvesting tenfold and making the soil more permeable for planting than the traditional – and backbreaking – method of digging by hand .

“The whole community is involved and has benefited from forage crops like knee-high hay in just two years,” says Sacande. “They can feed their livestock and sell the surplus, and move on to gathering products such as edible fruits, natural oils for soaps, wild honey and plants for traditional medicine.”

Women in the lead

According to Nora Berrahmouni, who was in charge of forestry for the FAO Regional Office for Africa when the Delfino was deployed, the plow will also reduce the burden on women.

“The season for the very hard work of hand-digging the half-moon irrigation dams comes when the men in the community have had to move with the animals. So the work falls to women,” says Ms. Berrahmouni.

Because the Delfino plow dramatically speeds up the plowing process and reduces the physical labor required, it gives women more time to manage their multitude of other tasks.

The project also aims to strengthen women’s participation in local land restoration on a larger scale, offering them leadership roles through village committees that plan land restoration work. As part of the AAD program, each site selected for restoration is encouraged to set up a village resource management committee, in order to take ownership from the start.

“Many women lead the local village committees that organize these activities and they tell us that they feel more empowered and respected,” explains Mr. Sacande.

Respect for local knowledge and traditional know-how is another key to success. Communities have long understood that crescent-shaped dams are the best way to harvest rainwater for the long dry season. The powerful Delfino simply makes work more efficient and less physically demanding.

Millions of hectares lost in the desert, threatened forests

And it is urgent that progress be made. The loss of land is the root of many other problems such as hunger, poverty, unemployment, forced migration, conflicts and an increased risk of extreme weather events linked to climate change.

In Burkina Faso, for example, a third of the landscape is degraded. This means that more than nine million hectares of land, once used for agriculture, is no longer viable for farming.

It is expected that degradation will continue to expand to 360,000 hectares per year. If the situation is not reversed, forests risk being cleared to make way for productive agricultural land.

Africa currently loses four million hectares of forest each year because of this, but has over 700 million hectares of degraded land viable for restoration. By bringing degraded land back to life, farmers don’t have to clear additional forest land to turn it into cropland for Africa’s growing population and growing food demand.

When Mr. Sacande speaks about land restoration in Africa, the passion in his voice is evident. “Restoring degraded lands to productive health is a huge opportunity for Africa. This brings significant social and economic benefits to rural farming communities,” he says. “It’s a bulwark against climate change and it brings technology to enhance traditional knowledge.”

A version of this story first appeared on the FAO website.

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