The Sahel in West Africa is flat and dry. It depends for much of its water on the Fouta Djallon Highlands, a set of plateaus ranging in elevation from 500-1,500 metres concentrated in central Guinea.
The Highlands are the source of six major rivers flowing into neighbouring countries, and support a rich diversity of ecosystems including savanna, dry forest, and freshwater ecosystems.
However, over the past few decades population pressure, deforestation, poor or ineffective policies, weak institutions, and climate change have put pressure on this source of water, and led to a loss of biodiversity.
Efforts to develop the area in a sustainable way go back to 1981, when the Organization of African Unity, the United Nations and regional countries began to develop the Regional Programme for the Integrated Development of the Fouta Djallon Highlands.
In 2000, the Fouta Djallon Highlands Integrated Natural Resources Management Project was born, thanks to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the African Union.
“This US$ 11 million project, which is in its second phase, is one of the biggest GEF projects in Africa,” says UN Environment expert Mohamed Sessay, who helped set up and coordinate it.
The main objective is to establish medium- and long-term sustainable natural resources management with a view to improving the livelihoods of people dependent on the Highlands for their water.
It aims to mitigate the negative impacts of land degradation on the Highland’s ecosystems. So far, the project has strengthened regional cooperation, improved natural resources management and livelihoods, and helped build the capacity of local stakeholders.
“Before the arrival of this project we had a lot of agriculture production problem. Today our yields have increased. We work less and gain more. Cattle does not enter our fields anymore,” says 30-year-old Sira Djouma Diallo.
“The original forest cover on the highlands used to act like a sponge”, explains Frank Beernaert, Chief Technical Adviser with the Food and Agriculture Organization for the project. “During the rainy season water was stored in the soils and gradually released during the dry season. Nowadays, rainwater flows rapidly and abundantly to the lowlands, causing extensive flooding, while in the Highlands springs and streams are dry for up to three months a year.
“Older farmers in the Highlands explain that when they were young boys in the eighties they were swimming and fishing in permanent streams.
“Since then, springs and streams started to dry up – and things are getting worse because of intensive deforestation, combined with population pressure.
“Many important tree species have completely disappeared in the last 40 years. And to fight poverty, the local community has had no choice but to slash and burn,” says Beernaert.
Learn more in this slideshow about problems and solutions in the Highlands.
Talking to local communities is key in ensuring that the project meets people’s needs and expectations.
“The most important request from local communities was to develop the lowlands. These flat valley bottoms are flooded in the rainy season and partly used for growing vegetables in the dry season. Communities did not have the capacity to construct a canal and lock system, nor had long fences to keep cattle out,” says Beernaert.
As a result of the project, local communities came to realize that slash and burn was not their best option. By concentrating their farming efforts in lowland areas, communities were able to get better returns. Fence-building to keep cattle off crops made a big difference to people’s lives, as did efforts to protect springs.
“We now understand how to save the forests. This year the mountains were protected from slash and burn, as were the springs. We were well supported by the project,” says 60-year-old Thierno Omar Diallo, a community leader in Guelen.
“Before [the project came] there were always conflicts between farmers and livestock holders, because of cattle wandering around everywhere,” says 50-year-old Ousmane Camara, Imam of Soloya, Faranah.
Despite these positive outcomes for some communities, Beernaert sounds a note of caution. “The project has only touched small parts of the landscape, a drop in the ocean. Conditions continue to degrade at an alarming scale, owing mainly to population pressure and climate change, and only a regional large-scale intervention will be able to reverse trends. Time is of the essence. We need to act quickly,” he says.
Read more about the project.
This story was originally published by UN Environment.