Caught between climate crisis and armed violence in Burkina Faso

Desperate families in the Sahelian country are plagued by a double burden that has left many displaced and destitute.

Burkina Faso longform [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]
A woman in an arid field on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, which used to be fertile farmland [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso – Growing up in a community of farmers in northern Burkina Faso, KI, who prefers that his full name not be used for safety reasons, never wanted for much. His family ate what they sowed and bred enough cattle to feel financially secure. But now, for the first time in his life, the 65-year-old does not know how he is going to survive the months ahead.

Decades of climate change and years of increasing violence by armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), as well as local defence forces – a combination of community volunteers armed by the government and groups who have taken up arms on their own – have pushed KI’s once comfortable family into poverty. Chased from his farm by gunmen in November, he has been unable to cultivate. Meanwhile, his herd of 30 cows, most of which scattered and got lost during the attack, has been reduced to just two.

Now displaced, his family lives between Titao town where the two cows remain and Ouahigouya, Yatenga province’s largest urban centre – a dry and dusty town with a buzzing market surrounded by what was once a dense forest but is now just arid desert. KI grew up approximately 65km (40 miles) from the town but this is the first time he has ever lived there.

“I’ve never been in this situation before,” he explained, sitting in a dimly lit office owned by a relative in Ouahigouya. “It’s devastating,” the stoic father of 15 added in a rare show of vulnerability.

Seated upright on the edge of a couch, KI allowed only occasional glimpses during the hours-long conversation into the pain he felt after losing almost everything he had spent his life working for.

The Sahel region, an arid expanse below the Sahara Desert where Burkina Faso is located, is one of the hardest-hit areas in the world by climate change. About 80 percent of the Sahel’s farmland is degraded with temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, according to the World Economic Forum.

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KI walks with his son Soumaila in Ouahigouya town [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Burkina Faso has been affected by an increase in the scale and intensity of droughts, rain, heat waves, strong winds and dust storms, according to a government report. The country is the 20th most vulnerable to climate change and the 35th least ready in the world, said Richard Munang, the Africa regional climate change coordinator for the United Nations Environmental Programme. More than one-third of Burkina Faso’s land is degraded with degradation expanding at a rate of 360,000 hectares (889,579 acres) a year, he explained.

Climate change has played a part in the “genesis of the crisis affecting the Central Sahel” according to the International Crisis Group. Droughts in the 1970s and 1980s changed agro-pastoral dynamics in favour of the grain and vegetable farmers who were less harshly affected than the marginalised herder communities.

Years of drought devastated the cattle of herdsmen, who depended on moving their livestock from one grazing ground to another. While farmers were also hit hard, they continued producing food and with the surplus money, they invested in livestock and employed the now impoverished herdsmen. According to the International Crisis Group, this period was the origin of the marginalisation of pastoral communities.

The climatic and economic devastation in Burkina Faso has been compounded by armed conflict in the region. Following the 2012 military coup in neighbouring Mali, armed groups capitalised on the instability and captured parts of that country’s north. Since then, regional violence has reached unprecedented levels and sparked   a dire humanitarian crisis in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. More than one million people are internally displaced across  all three countries, according to the UN.

Attacks linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL have recently made Burkina Faso the epicentre of the crisis. For years, the once peaceful nation largely stayed out of the conflict inflicted on its neighbours. But in 2014, the overthrow of the country’s longtime president, Blaise Compaore, which also saw the dismantling of the special forces unit, created a path for attacks. Violence that began in the Sahel and northern regions has since spread across the country to the east and west displacing almost one million people and killing almost 2,000 last year. Armed groups exacerbate existing grievances over land, resources and ethnicity, perpetrating violence and driving communities like KI’s into desperation.

In better days

For as far back as he can remember, KI’s life was defined by farming.

As a young boy, he helped his father cultivate maize, rice, sesame and millet in his small village of Bouna in the country’s Loroum province, where he lived until armed men attacked it in November.

In the early 1960s, little effort on small plots yielded immense results, he recalled. One harvest could produce food for a year, even providing enough crops to give as gifts to less well-off neighbours.

“We didn’t use any pesticides, no special techniques or even donkeys or oxen, we’d do it by hand,” KI said.

Smiling nostalgically, he remembered the harvests, where 30 to 40 extra staff were needed to carry overflowing baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads and into the house from the farm. There was so much yield that each person had to walk the approximately 5km (3 miles) several times in order to transport everything, he said.

Back then, people rarely needed money, they just lived off the land. The farm produced more than enough for him and his 10 siblings to eat, and sufficient cotton for the women to sew clothes. If anyone wanted to travel, people would either walk or use a donkey.

Burkina Faso longform [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]
In an arid field on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, a woman digs for stones to sell at the market to make money to buy food, since she can no longer cultivate on the land [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Even though school was free, most families only sent one child to be educated as the only schools were in larger towns and education was not yet seen as a priority, he recalled. KI’s older brother went to school in Ouahigouya, while the rest of the children remained on the farm.

Even when money was needed, it did not exist like it does today. Until just after KI was born, people paid for goods in seashells rather than paper money, he said.

But spotting an old shell today is rare. Most have been bartered for goods, although some can still be found in store windows – a reminder of easier, simpler times.

“When I think about that period compared to now, people weren’t suffering the way they are suffering now,” KI said.

‘The harvest was so bad’

Years of climate change and violence have triggered a dire humanitarian crisis in the Sahel. In April, the World Food Programme warned that the situation was “spiralling out of control”, with more than five million people facing severe food insecurity across the Central Sahel region.

In Burkina Faso there are more than two million severely food insecure people – from more than 680,000 at the same time last year – a greater number than in neighbouring Mali and Niger. 

In northern provinces, such as Loroum, where KI has his farm, the nutritional situation is expected to remain serious through July, according to a report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

For years, KI watched his family’s economic and food security gradually decline. What began as less consistent rainfall led to soil degradation and a shortage of crops.

Unable to remember specific months or years, KI pegs all significant moments to who was leading the country at the time. He recalls that when things took a stark turn for the worse, Prime Minister Gerard Kango Ouedraogo was in office. That was in the early 1970s.

One hundred thousand people were killed in the Sahel as a result of droughts and famine in the 1970s and 1980s. 

“The harvest was so bad that people had to look for leaves and fruit to eat in the bush,” recalled KI.

On at least one occasion, the government flew food into the town of Titao, the largest near KI’s village, to try and alleviate the hunger. KI remembers lugging bags of red millet back to his family via a cart pulled by a cow.

But when asked how the hunger affected him, he felt more comfortable talking about its effect on the other villagers. “We knew people during that time who only had one meal a day … It was hard to watch the village suffer,” he said.

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A woman cooks at the camp for displaced people in Burkina Faso [File: Reuters]

As the years went by, the land dried up, the trees disappeared and the rain became sparser. Rains that used to begin in May now started in June or July. “It wouldn’t rain enough or sometimes when it rained you could go outside after and the ground was dry,” KI said.

By the time his father died in 1985, the life he had known as a boy was gone. He and his older brother took charge of the farm and became responsible for ensuring everyone had enough to eat.

“After our father died there was a lot of pressure to provide food,” he said. KI started rationing and storing crops to prepare for hard years and bought fertiliser to moisten the soil.

Around this time, some of his uncles who were struggling with their own farms moved to the western town of Bobo-Dioulasso, where the government was distributing fertile plots of land. But KI did not want to leave his family’s farm and chose to stick it out, some years producing plenty and others nothing at all, each year having to save enough for the inconsistency that lay ahead.

Over time, it became harder to find fertile land to cultivate and farmers had to venture deeper into the bush to grow food.

Unlike when he was a boy working with his father when good farmland was right beside his house, KI’s son would spend two months sleeping on the farm during the harvests, because viable farmland was so much further away.

Sprawled on the couch across from his father in the office in Ouahigouya, 26-year-old Soumaila said he spent 10 years living on the farm during harvests.

“It’s hard if you go to the field, there’s less security than sleeping at home and there are snakes and bush animals,” he said.

When Soumaila left his village to attend school in Ouahigouya in 2014, one of his siblings replaced him during the harvests. This continued until the family was chased from the farm by gunmen last November.

Threats of armed attacks

Located in one of the epicentres of the violence, KI’s community is one of many being squeezed between the encroaching threats of climate change and violent attacks.

On May, 30 the government said “terrorists” killed at least 15 people, including children in an attack on a group of traders travelling between towns in the north, not far from KI’s village. On April 28, four women, one of whom was pregnant, were killed by an improvised explosive device on their way from the market in Titao commune, the same area as KI’s farm, according to an internal security report for aid organisations seen by Al Jazeera. It was the second explosion in that area in a month.

The further people have to go in search of land, the more exposed they are to the risk of being kidnapped by armed men, said Mamoudou Ouedraogo, founder of the Association for Education and Environment, a local aid group.

In October, a mechanic from Titao town was kidnapped by “terrorists” while searching for good terrain, said Ouedraogo. “We haven’t heard anything from him up till now,” he added.

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Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol in a village in the Sahel area [File: Reuters]

Ouedraogo has also heard that women have been kidnapped and sometimes raped while searching for firewood. Climate-related kidnappings are more prevalent in the rainy season – beginning around May or June – because people travel further to cultivate, he said. In 2019 abductions increased from the year before, although he was not able to provide specific numbers.

With more than 20 years of experience working on environmental issues across the country, Ouedraogo has noticed a direct correlation between climate change and people being recruited into armed groups.

“When you have lost everything, even food, you are on the edge of despair and as a consequence [people] will be ready to find a solution wherever possible, including terrorists,” he said.

A lot of recruits come from the most impoverished parts of the country, he added.

Yet some people who have been attacked by them say that no matter how desperate they become they would never join.

“If you’re being chased by people in these groups why would you join them? Even if they’re providing money or food,” said Soumaila. “I would rather die.”

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Part of the armed conflict affecting Burkina Faso originated in neighbouring Mali in 2012 [File: Reuters]

KI has a small house in Titao with his three wives and children, but he said it is too small to hold everyone, yet he does not have enough money to build a bigger one. Unable to farm, they are living off the food from last year’s harvest and relying on handouts from friends and family.

But when asked about what happened when their village was attacked, KI does not want to discuss it. Nor does he want to talk about the country’s growing volatility, which has forced him off his land and crippled his livelihood.

Instead, he sits quietly, staring straight ahead, struggling to find solutions.

The lack of financial stability has prevented him from building a new house, fixing his motorbike and buying updated machinery such as an electric hoe, which would make it easier to grow crops, he said. But most of all, it has made him worry. This is the first year the family is unable to access their farm due to insecurity. While they are farming on a smaller plot in the town they have been displaced to, they will not cultivate enough to last the year and KI is worried his family will not have enough food to survive.

Adapting to climate change

Violence in the Sahel has been largely linked to competition over natural resources, yet international observers warn that when the government and aid groups provide communities with climate change solutions, they need to come at it from a different perspective.

“It is essential to fight climate change and its effects, which include increased land pressure, particularly in rural areas. But resource scarcity is neither the only nor the determining factor behind rising insecurity,” said International Crisis Group in a report in April.

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Displaced people, who fled from attacks of armed militants gather near a UN camp [File: Reuters]

There are often plenty of resources but authorities lack the ability or the legitimacy to mediate conflicts over access to them, said the report. Climate policies should focus more on adaptation rather than on the premise that resources are not plentiful enough.

In an attempt to take an adapted and stronger approach to climate change, approximately five years ago, Burkina Faso’s government altered the ministry of environment’s name to include the words “green economy and climate change”, said Colette Kabore, the ministry’s director for the promotion of action for climate resilience.

The ministry is focusing on combining forestry and agriculture, something Kabore calls natural regeneration.

If people want to cut down trees, the government is advising not to cut down every tree in the vicinity but to leave a few standing, she said. The ministry is also helping people in climate-affected industries adapt to drought by encouraging them to plant trees that can survive with less water as well as fruit trees, such as Ballantines, to provide the population with more food.

It is also promoting practices that do not pollute the environment, such as using renewable energies like solar pumps, said Kabore.

In the past 10 years, pollution has had a devastating impact, particularly for cattle breeders. Thirty percent of cattle die from ingesting plastic, said Ouedraogo who runs the local environmental group.

Cows are an important source of revenue for farmers, providing milk, meat and manure for fertiliser. One cow can sell for approximately $300, so when farmers have fewer cows, they have less financial stability.

Burkina Faso longform [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]
A goat eats plastic waste at a makeshift garbage dump on the outskirts of Ouagadougou [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera] 

Four years ago, Ouedraogo lost nine out of 10 cows who died from ingesting plastic when they grazed too close to the city, he said. “When you opened them up, their stomachs were full of plastic.”

His organisation works with local communities in Titao and the neighbouring commune of Ouindigui, to collect and transform plastic bags into floor tiles, handbags and shopping bags. They plan to start making tables and benches.

The group also tries to plant trees in areas where they have all been chopped down, but it is hard. Many of the trees die because there is not enough water.

During a trip to Ouahigouya in April, Al Jazeera visited an area that residents said was a plush forest full of wildlife four decades ago. Today, it is an arid patch of land marked with a few shrubs.

Over the years, cattle breeders forced from the Sahel due to desertification came further south and many parts of Ouahigouya suffered from overgrazing.

Cattle breeders like KI say the lack of grass has made it impossible to care for as many cows as they used to.

“In the past if you had 10 cattle, now you can manage five,” he said.

Since losing almost all of his cows during the attack in November, KI does not want to entertain the idea of selling the only two he has left. But if he cannot produce enough food for the family this planting season, he might not have a choice.

“If there’s no food, I’ll have to sell them,” he said, darting his sad eyes to the floor.

“But I’m still hoping some of them might return.”

Source: Al Jazeera