In the face of increased pressures on land and natural resources as well as a changing climate, the need for sustainably managed agricultural systems will become ever more important. The farmers of the Central Plateau region of Burkina Faso know this all too well. For decades, successive droughts, demographic pressures and the encroaching Sahel have exposed this area to the impacts of climate change. Many smallholder farmers have adapted to these pressures by reclaiming land through the adoption of techniques to conserve soil and water, measures that have also helped to mitigate the impacts of climate change on nutrition, food security and rural incomes. This case study describes the factors that have enabled 200,000–300,000 hectares of degraded land in Burkina Faso to be brought into productive use through the application of improved traditional farming techniques.
Three main factors have contributed to achieving such progress in sustainable farming in a context of environmental stress and limited resources. First, farmers themselves have been adapting these farming techniques for generations and local knowledge of suitable and efficient methods was crucial. Second, information about the improved sustainable techniques was effectively diffused through existing community networks, facilitated by civil society organisations, international non-governmental organisations and government extension agents. Third, the adoption of these improved techniques was encouraged by the provision of financial support for the initial labour and start-up costs, which was essential for many of the poorest farmers.
While progress in land reclamation and sustainable farming in Burkina Faso is by no means complete and many areas remain vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks, the gains made in soil and water conservation over the last 30 years have clearly contributed to the resilience of communities and their ability to mitigate these shocks, which are now understood to be recurrent. Important lessons can be drawn from the case of Burkina Faso regarding the diffusion and adoption of appropriate agricultural technologies, effective social organisation and the role of finance in supporting and promoting progress in sustainable agriculture.