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Writer Jocelyn Edwards and photographer Anne Ackermann traveled to Burkina Faso for World Ark to interview pastoralist Fulani families about how the changing climate affects their livelihoods. We interviewed these families to show the challenges pastoralists in the region face. Those interviewed are not a part of a Heifer project, and none of the animals described or pictured are Heifer animals. Heifer already works in the Sahel country of Senegal, providing sheep, goats and poultry and training in how to ensure there is enough water for families, animals and crops. See “Heifer International in the Sahel” to learn about Heifer’s plans to help more families in the region.

Sand Dunes
Where the savannah meets the Sahel desert close to the town of Oursi, sand dunes start stretching from northern Burkina Faso into Mali. Former pastures have dried up, and the Fulani livestock are dying. The Sahel desert is one of the world’s global warming centers.

DJIBO, Burkina Faso - It’s at the meeting point of the savannah and the Sahel, just steps from the beginning of the red dunes that stretch north from Burkina Faso into Mali, that Samba Dicko, 66, lives with his wife, eight children and mother-in- law. Of the nomadic pastoralist Fulani ethnic group, they are one of the last families of one of West Africa’s largest tribes remaining in the area.

Others were driven away by the advancing desert and the disappearance of pasture. But the family remains here, they say, because they don’t have anything worth saving.

“Animals are dying all the time now, not just in the dry season,” Dicko said. His bright orange robes covered in geometric patterns belie his family’s poverty. Over the past five years, they lost all but two of their 70 cattle: 40 were lost to drought and disease, the others sold to buy food for the family.

For centuries, nomads like Dicko followed the rains across West Africa, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to find pasture to feed their herds, and when conditions started to get tough in Burkina Faso, the family went to Mali. But there, they found the same problem—too many people and not enough pasture.

It’s the result of a string of recent droughts in the Sahel, the transition zone between the Sahara desert and the tropics of sub-Saharan Africa that the United Nations' Environmental Program (UNEP) has dubbed climate change’s “ground zero.”

Winding north from Burkina Faso’s capital, Ougadougou, trees dried bone-white start to appear and the patches of red dust blown in from the desert get wider and wider; they are the signs of a lowering water table and increased soil erosion.

Precipitation in the area is down. In recent years, Dicko watched the waters of the Mare d’Oursi, a shallow lake nearby, recede to the point where it is little more than a swamp. “Before, if you came here, you would find hippopotamus, elephants and hyenas: many wild animals. But today, there is nothing,” he said.

Climate change in the Sahel is impoverishing Fulani like Dicko and threatening their way of life. “We are suffering a lot. For us Fulani, we don’t know any other way besides keeping animals: cows, goats and sheep. This is our work,” said Dicko, who is left with only five goats and some chickens, which he is selling off one by one to buy food. After the goats are gone, “(Only) God will help me.”

Sahel Zone


Stretching in a band across Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, the Sahel region is tagged by scientists and environmentalists as one of the world’s global warming hot spots. Its location south of the Sahara and the dependence of its people on agriculture and livestock renders it particularly vulnerable to climate variability.

And while people in many parts of the world peer into the future trying to determine what the effects of a warming world will be, in the Sahel, its first consequences are already being felt. Precipitation dropped between 29 percent and 49 percent in the region between 1968 and 1997, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

In Burkina Faso specifically, a United Nations Environment Program report revealed a temperature increase of between 0.5 degree Celsius and 1 degree Celsius from 1970 to 2006. The country also experienced an increase in extreme weather. Within the years of the study, most areas of the country suffered seven or eight floods.

Heifer International in the Sahel

Last year, after yet another food crisis threatened the people of Africa’s Sahel region, Heifer International made a decision to intervene on behalf of the smallholder farmers and pastoralists who have made this area their home for centuries.

Heifer already works in Senegal and northern Ghana, part of the Sahel region that has been so hard hit by climate change and drought. Now, Heifer plans to expand its reach into this region that stretches across the African continent between the Sahara desert to the north and the sub-tropical areas to the south.

“We’re shifting from the more coastal areas to the more arid areas,” said Elizabeth Bintliff, Heifer’s vice president for the Africa Program. “We’ll be working with these communities to mitigate the effects of climate change on their livelihoods.”

Heifer’s model in the Sahel will be based on a successful project implemented in agro-pastoralist communities in Kenya about eight years ago. In the Sahel, Heifer will work with smallholder sheep and goat farmers to ensure access to forage and fodder, to fresh water and to markets for the hundreds of thousands of animals sold across national borders within the Sahel.

Heifer will help establish holding facilities, or hubs, that will serve as places where farmers can take animals to be counted, tagged, vaccinated, fed and fattened for market. Increased domestic animal production will make sheep and goat meat more accessible and affordable for poor local consumers and also improve market infrastructures in these countries, boosting economies, said West Africa Regional Director Rashid Sesay.

Heifer will also help pastoralists properly utilize land they need for their animals to thrive, and the markets where those animals can be sold.

Heifer is only beginning its work in the Sahel, Bintliff said, but the work will continue until a system is in place that works for the farmers of West Africa.

“The old people say there are phenomena (they) have never seen before,” said Dabire Koffi Emmanuel, the director of the department of environment and sustainable development for Burkina Faso’s Oudalan province, a predominantly pastoralist zone.

The area he oversees experienced an increase in sandstorms, droughts, floods and freak weather events. “Last Wednesday evening, it (hailed). It knocked down gates and bushes and pierced three people. The old people said that they had never seen this before. We just told them it was climate change,” Emmanuel said.

For the pastoralist Fulani, climate change represents a particularly acute threat. As a minority in every country they inhabit except for Guinea, they already occupy a precarious position at the margins of society.

While in theory, the areas in northern Burkina Faso are set aside for pastoralism, in practice, this policy is rarely enforced, and recent years have seen significant encroachment by agriculturalists into formerly pastoralist zones.

As Burkinabe professor Issa Diallo stated in a report for the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, “The nomadic pastoralists have absolutely no land security at all, in a rural environment in which land conflicts are becoming increasingly common and ever more violent.”


It’s a situation that has Dicko Boubakary worried. He’s the amiru, or elected chief, of Djibo, a town in northern Burkina Faso with one of the largest populations of Fulani in the country.

“My father lived like this, my grandfather lived like this,” he said. “If we don’t take precautions, (pastoralism) will disappear.”

He’s dressed in white robes and a black turban, sitting in the small receiving room at the front of his house. Above his chair are photographs of him with the suitclad politicians in sparkling halls of the capital’s modern buildings. But here at Boubakary’s home, the scene is more rustic. Goats and sheep periodically wander past into the courtyard, an indication of the tight bond between these people and their animals. “A Fulani can die for a cow. If a cow is sick, he will do everything that he can and when a cow dies, it is almost as if a person has died,” Boubakary said.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the cattle to the Fulani, who do not kill their cattle unless the animals are sick and even then, rarely eat their own cows. Once a cow is dead, however, they use all its parts—the fat to make soap, the horn as a container and the hooves as an ornament.

A Fulani family can subsist on the milk of one cow alone for months at a time. “If I don’t have milk, I feel that I haven’t eaten,” Boubakary said.

But in recent years, many of Boubakary’s constituents have seen their herds disappear, one by one. Among those constituents is Amadou Dicko, who sits in the shade at the edge of Djibo’s weekly cattle market. The 55-yearold man lost eight cows in last year’s drought and has been forced to sell 10 others this year to buy food. “When you take a cow to market, it doesn’t feel good. It’s a part of yourself you are giving to someone else,” he said.

But the Fulani’s attachment to their cows isn’t just sentimental. A pastoralist’s herd is his bank account, representing his capital for paying all his family’s future expenses. Sitting in the dust outside her family’s house of sticks, Djenaba Diallo, 80, looked up from the ground only long enough to explain that drought and disease have consumed all but four of her 160 cows. With the loss of their cattle, “the wealth that the Fulani had has disappeared. People are becoming poorer and poorer,” Diallo said. “Maybe the young people will have to learn to cultivate,” she speculated.

But farming isn’t easy in this harsh Sahelian climate, Boubakary said. “There are years when it doesn’t rain at all.”

And climate change promises to make farming an even less viable strategy in a region where at least two countries are predicted to lose their agricultural industries in the next 100 years. A 2000 Yale University study, Climate Change Impacts on African Agriculture, forecasts that rain-fed agriculture will disappear entirely in Chad and Niger by 2100.

Malnourished cows
Malnourished cows are a sad reminder of the dire conditions created by climatic changes. The cows are not Heifer animals.


Migration used to be the coping mechanism that allowed the Fulani to survive in harsh conditions. It’s a strategy that is starting to fail them.

On his wall, Boro Sidi, the head of the department of pastoralism in the province of Oudalan, has a map showing the historical migratory routes of the Fulani. The nomads used to roam north to Mali and south to Togo and Ghana.

“If things weren’t going well somewhere, they would entirely change villages. But now it is almost the same everywhere,” Sidi said.

Throughout the region, successive years of drought have led to the widespread death of cattle, stillbirths and reduced milk production, Sidi said. The result is widespread famine.

“It has now been three years that food has been a problem. Each year, the government has to take measures,” Sidi said.

Major droughts occurred in the region in 2005, 2010 and 2012. The food crisis in 2012 resulted in 18.7 million people going hungry, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). In Burkina Faso itself, a season of bad rains was compounded by an influx of refugees fleeing the political crisis in Mali.

Milk used to be a necessity in the Fulani diet, a daily staple. Today, it is scarce.

The changing climate is also increasingly bringing the Fulani into competition with their farming neighbors. In Ghana, clashes between Fulani pastoralists searching for grazing land and farmers led local media to label the nomads “the Fulani menace” and call for their expulsion. Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso itself, at least 25 Fulani herders were reported killed by Dogon farmers along the border with Mali in May 2012.

While pastoralists are pushing farther into farming areas, farmers searching for productive land are moving into historically pastoralist zones. “The earth is becoming more and more tired. (Farmers) are now moving like pastoralists,” Sidi said.

Young Fulani Boys
Young Fulani boys care for goats from an early age so that traditional pastoralist knowledge is passed on to the next generation.


With rising temperatures, mass livestock deaths and threats from outside groups, it’s not surprising that there is a rising sense of anxiety about the future among many Fulani.

“When we were children, if people had said that (these changes would occur) we would have said no, that will never happen,” said Dicko Amadou Hamadoum, the chief of a village just outside of Djibo.

Faced with a problem climate experts say was created oceans away by people living lifestyles they cannot fathom, despair would be a natural response. But some Fulani are trying to find solutions.

“The experts have told us that trees can help the rains to come,” Hamadoum said. He strides toward the gate of a small plot of land just outside the village, his dark green robes billowing behind him. Behind a locked chain-link fence is a small forest—a verdant stand of trees in the middle of the bush.

Over the past six years, Hamadoum planted 700 trees donated to his village by international NGOs. Lately, only three of the 17 wells in his area have water in them during the dry season. He’s hopeful that reforestation will restore the water cycle.

Hamadoum wants others to follow his example. “If many trees are planted, it (may) stop the climate from changing,” he said.

Elsewhere, there are other efforts. Observing the disappearance of the ancient baobabs and other species of trees from the landscape, Fulani in the village of Petoye appointed a six-member council to prevent further deforestation.

“We decided to appoint this committee because we saw how many problems we had and how the forest was being destroyed,” said Hammadou Amadou, the village leader. The committee fines people for cutting down trees or letting their animals eat them. “If you cut down a whole tree, you must pay 50,000 francs ($100).”

The efforts might seem small against the backdrop of global climate change, but Hamadoum hopes that they will go some way toward making the environment more livable for him and his people.

“This is the place that I’m from. If I make it a good place, it will help me and other people,” he said, standing in the middle of his desert Garden of Eden. It’s the rainy season, and behind him a small seasonal stream is flowing. “To say it is the will of God and do nothing will only make it worse.”

Jocelyn Edwards is a freelance journalist who has been based in Kampala, Uganda, for the past three years. She has written for Reuters, the Toronto Star, The Daily Beast and other international outlets from around East Africa. You can read more of her writing at

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