A Tree for Christmas: Symbol of One Woman's Struggle for Survival in a Ravaged Landscape
McCarthy, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
IT IS hard to know which is the more remarkable sight - the devastated landscape of Burkina Faso, or the neem tree that Aicha Ouedraogo has planted and defended in the heart of it.
The landscape is a wreck. Until 20 years ago it was thick, dry forest, teeming with wildlife, and with plants and trees local people used for all aspects of their lives. Now it is dust and bits of scrub.
The tree is a phenomenon. By rights it should not be there. To find the coltish elegance of a sapling in a countryside that has had the life hacked out of it makes you rub your eyes in wonder.
Yet there it is, taller than its owner now, arching resolutely upwards, soon to provide the cool mid-day shade for which neem trees are cherished, besides wood for fuel and for building, and leaves for use as a malaria treatment.
Aicha's lonely tree is a symbol of all that has gone environmentally wrong with Burkina Faso and the other countries of Africa's Sahel region, the arid lands to the south of the Sahara, which are increasingly faced with drought and turning to desert.
It is also a symbol of all that might yet be put right, but the story of this tree and of this woman illustrates just how much it will take.
Burkina Faso, small by African standards and densely populated, has suffered as much as anywhere in the Sahel from climatic changes and pressure from rapidly expanding numbers both of people and of grazing livestock.
In the past two or three decades the dense forest that once blanketed the country has been torn to pieces and cleared, so that great swaths of the land, thousands of square miles of it, now resemble an abandoned Second World War airfield in East Anglia, all gravelly bare soil dotted with wispy grass and scruffy shrubs. In Aicha's own village of Nadraogo the older women all remember that not very long ago nobody was able to go more than a few hundred yards into the forest, so thick was the undergrowth, and that children looking after flocks of sheep and herds of goats faced real dangers from wild animals, in particular lions and hyenas.
"Now there is nothing more to be afraid of," says Aicha, a 57- year-old farmer's wife and mother of seven children. "The animals have gone, because the forest has gone."
This is deforestation on an Amazonian scale, but far less publicised. The losses are very real. There was plentiful game in the woodlands such as hare and deer, which supplied people with protein. The trees themselves not only enriched and stabilised neighbouring soil for agriculture - yields have now plunged - they included many species on which local people relied for different aspects of their lives. In trees they found food, fuel, …
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Publication information: Article title: A Tree for Christmas: Symbol of One Woman's Struggle for Survival in a Ravaged Landscape. Contributors: McCarthy, Michael - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: December 23, 2002. Page number: 1. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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