The „Alternative Nobel Prize“ 2018 for re-applying an ancient irrigation technology

In 2018 Yacouba Sawadogo received the „Right Livelihood Award“. The prize presented annually in early December and is donated with 1 Mio. Swedish Crowns.

The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 to “honour and support courageous people solving global problems”. It has become widely known as the ‚Alternative Nobel Prize‘ and there are now 178 Laureates from 70 countries.

Yacouba Sawadogo is known as “the man who stopped the desert”. Starting around 1980 during a phase of severe drought, he has successfully created an almost 40-hectare forest on formerly barren and abandoned land. Today, it has more than 60 species of trees and bushes and is arguably one of the most diverse forests planted and managed by a farmer in the Sahel.

Sawadogo’s remarkable success builds on experimenting with traditional planting pits for soil, water and biomass retention (“zaï” in local language). He has continued innovating the technique over the years, increasing crop yields and successfully planting trees. Despite facing resistance from locals in the beginning – Sawadogo was called a “madman” and saw his forest set on fire – he never considered giving up. Over time, people came to admire his work. Sawadogo has always been eager to share his knowledge, and has received thousands of visitors from the region and beyond. By organising trainings, he has empowered farmers to regenerate their land. As a result, tens of thousands of hectares of severely degraded land have been restored to productivity in Burkina Faso and Niger.

Those who adopt Sawadogo’s techniques often become food secure, as zaï help to conserve rainwater and improve soil fertility. This allows farmers to produce crops even in years of drought. Trees planted together with the crops serve to enrich the soil, produce fodder for livestock and create business opportunities like bee keeping. This helps farmers adapt to climate change, reduce rural poverty and prevent local resource and water related conflicts. Together with other farmer-managed natural regeneration techniques, Zaï could become an important tool to counter forced migration and build peace.

Read more about Yacouba Sawadogo and traditional planting pits called zaï on the website of the Right Livelyhood Foundation. The article includes a short video with information and footage about his work.

There is also a documentary about Yacouba Sawadogo by Mark Dodd from 2010.

1 Read more about the Award on the foundation’s website.