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March 18, 2007

Desertification threatens agriculture, livelihoods in Benin

Seven years of working in some of the poorest parts of Benin put Euloge Vidégla in the front lines of the battle against desertification. An agricultural economist, he managed the Local Development Support Project (Projet d'appui au développement local, PADEL), mostly in the northern Atacora region, from 1997 to 2004. PADEL tried to improve life for communities in an area where poverty and harmful practices conspire to degrade the land. Despite the benefits of projects such as PADEL, he believes more needs to be done in Benin to address desertification.

Vidégla said the main objective of the project was to reduce the extreme poverty, specifically by supporting decentralisation, installing some infrastructure, contributing to strengthening the local population's capacity and combating desertification while improving the people's surroundings. "We worked in communities where you clearly saw the horrors of desertification. The wind could not be blocked at all because there were practically no trees. The violent winds swept away just about everything in their path, especially the roofs of houses, " he said.

The soil was also completely degraded, dry and difficult to cultivate. Vidégla said, "We led some initiatives to combat land degradation by building stone embankments in a half moon or semi circle shape, which help to fight soil erosion. This technique allows one to prevent run off water from carrying away arable land."

"Before, they had wild animals very close to their homes and could hunt them easily. But today there are none. One has to go very far to find them. There were also lots of trees near their homes previously. Today, they themselves see that the trees have disappeared. They easily take note of the seriousness of the situation when it is shown to them in this before and after way."

Asked which farming or traditional practices he saw as being dangerous for the environment in the regions he worked, Vidégla mentioned uncontrolled bush fires. "Given that there isn't much greenery in these regions, the bush fires degrade the land. This is one of the most dangerous practices which must be outlawed if we want to preserve the land and the environment," he said. "It's often hunters who start the fires, to drive game out. Peasant farmers also start fires thinking that this will clean the soil, when it only serves to degrade it further. This is a problem of traditions which must be fought. When we put bush fire brigades in place, the trend was greatly reduced."

"In Atacora, people continue to chop wood for cooking, although there are no longer many trees in the region. There are people who are openly selling wood despite the intense fight for conservation being led by water and forestry officials. People cannot even use paraffin stoves because the fuel is too expensive," he said. Vidégla believes the fight against the excessive cutting of wood must be intensified "This is fundamental. If the state can also introduce cheap gas in these regions to reduce the use of firewood, it would save the environment."

Agriculture still be practiced there in these endangered northern regions, but not in an extensive way as in the south of Benin. Vidégla says it can now only be done intensively in certain areas with soil fertility enhancement techniques such as the use of cow dung and compost.

Asked if he believed Benin was doing what it should to combat desertification effectively, Vidégla replied, "No, it is not doing enough. When you see countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger - with all that they are doing, but not coping yet - you understand that we still have a lot to do. We are at a slight natural advantage to these (further north) countries, but we are not exploiting this advantage yet. Everyone has yet to wake up to the danger that is already at our door.


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