Growing a high value carbon landscape: BIODEV in Burkina Faso

Issa Ouedraogo, 40, loves his job, which is working for BIODEV, a World Agroforestry Centre-led and Finnish-funded project in southern Burkina Faso. Although he comes replete with a PhD in forestry from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, he says he is learning a lot.

Dr. Issa Ouedraogo (right) with a farmer in Cassou, Burkina Faso

Dr. Issa Ouedraogo (right) with a farmer in Cassou, Burkina Faso

Along with his PhD, Ouedraogo also has two geography degrees and is specialized in geographic information systems. After just ten months, he has already been able to identify the evolution of land degradation in Cassou, the project area. “From Landsat images dating from 1990, he has traced back the historical foot print and found degradation hot spots,” says colleague Dr. Cheikh Mbow admiringly.

What Ouedraogo found was precipitous change in the last 30 years, including increasingly variable dry spell frequency, increased temperatures, and more extreme rainfall events. Land use followed strong degradation pathways with wood savanna, which covered 44% of the Cassou area in 1990 and 43% in 2000, suddenly collapsing to 5% in 2013. And gallery forest –riparian forest along rivers with high biodiversity levels– decreased from 9% of the land area in 1990 to 5% in 2000 to 1% in 2013.Gallery forests are vanishing with declining rainfall: there is loss of swampy areas and the drying out of depressions.

At the same time, the area covered with crops has remained constant at about 25%. The only type of land cover that is gaining ground is shrub savanna, which has increased from 20 to 60% of the land area.

What is happening?

Ouedraogo has identified drivers of change. One driver is population density, which has increased from 20 inhabitants per km2 in 1990to 34 in 2013. Most of the growth comes from in-migration from the North, where the agroecology is harsher, and the Central Plateau, where land has grown scarce.

Land under crops in Cassou has not expanded, however, because there are many limitations on soil quality. Some portions are rocky outcrops, he explains; and local communities have also allocated pasture for local herds, constraining the extension of land for cultivation.

The almost complete annihilation of wood savanna and its replacement by scrub is because –notwithstanding that the community has a forestry management plan – something that attracted the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in the first place – there is still copious wood extraction and bush burning. Wood is needed for local household use and shea processing but above all for making “dolo” or traditional beer in the capital, Ouagadougou.

It was into this scenario that the BIODEV project set up shop and started pondering the way forward. Funded by Finland’s ministry of foreign affairs, the €10 million four-year project started in 2012 and was expected to work in Mali, Sierra Leone and Guinea. But because of insecurity in Mali and now Ebola in the other two countries, it has shifted to include Burkina Faso.

BIODEV “aims to demonstrate the multiple developmental and environmental wins that result from a high value biocarbon approach to climate change and variability in large landscapes,” according to the project document. ICRAF maintains that many benefits accrue from building biological or natural carbon and that agroforestry is a key way to achieve that.

“We want to show that it is possible to increase carbon through agroforestry — agricultural intensification with trees, including fast growing species for fuel and species that add value to soil fertility,” says Dr. Ouedraogo. However, ICRAF never imposes tree species. “We work with the communities on strategies for rehabilitation,” elaborates Mbow, “And all the tree species are selected by them.”

As across much of the Sahel, the project area is rich in trees that produce fruit and seasonings that are highly nutritional and for which there is a strong market. Among those strongly contributing to livelihoods, dietary diversity and food security are Parkia biglobosa, Vitellaria paradoxa, Lannea microcarpa, Adansonia digitata, Saba senegalensis and Detarium microcarpu.

 Scrub savanna in Cassou: it now occupies 60% of the land area and has emerged from the degradation of wood savanna.

Scrub savanna in Cassou: it now occupies 60% of the land area and has emerged from the degradation of wood savanna.

One worry, however, is that many of the trees on farms are disappearing as farmers intensify production with tractors, herbicides and pesticides. “Farmers used to be the ones most likely to retain trees because of the benefits that they offer,” says Ouedraogo. That has now changed, partly because of new markets for groundnuts, sesame and cotton. Demand for sesame is particularly strong from China.

Ouedraogo is undaunted, however. Under BIODEV, he and the team are developing a method to rapidly estimate carbon. Asked what is new in this, he says “Some tools exist but they seem very complicated and apply mostly to humid tropics and not savanna. Savanna for many people is not forest because it does not have much timber value – it is mostly for firewood and maybe a little for housing.”

The benefit of the tool is that once you can demonstrate that wood savanna, gallery forest and agroforests are rich in carbon, it will be easier to attract carbon investors, who will be able to sustain activities that build resilience long after the project is gone. One of the outcomes of BIODEV might, therefore, be a new appreciation of savanna, along with increased incomes and carbon captured.

Burkina Faso has 11 carbon projects, all in their infancy. In January, the BIODEV team will write a “programme idea note” with the carbon fund, Plan Vivo. “Carbon financing is the exit strategy,” says ICRAF’s Henry Neufeldt, BIODEV lead researcher.

ICRAF coordinates BIODEV and is responsible for activities related to local governance and market institutions, agroforestry and farm interventions, measurement, monitoring and verification systems, and tools and frameworks of high value biocarbon approaches. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is in charge of forest interventions, University of Eastern Finland leading sustainable wood energy, and University of Helsinki coordinating work on policies and capacity for scaling up. BIODEV also works with government ministries, especially extension departments and forestry departments, and research and educational organizations.

With such a team, the now carbon-poor area of Cassou may one day return to its former high carbon value, with livelihoods improved in the process. And when Ebola abates in Sierra Leone and Guinea, efforts to achieve high-value biocarbon development will resume in those countries of the humid tropics. “We are building a biocarbon project with farmers,” concludes Ouedraogo.

Who is planting or removing trees? View poster here'

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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