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The Man Who Stopped the Desert 2010

Highly Recommended

Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by Mark Dodd
Directed by Mark Dodd
DVD, color, 64 min.

Jr. High - Adult
African Studies, Agriculture, Environmental Studies

Date Entered: 05/02/2011

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

Yacouba Sawadogo is a peasant farmer in Gourga, a village in northern Burkina Faso. The village is in the Sahel region of Africa, an arid biogeographic zone. The Man Who Stopped the Desert tells the life story of this innovative patriarch. Yacouba‘s reforestation project and his adaptations of ancient agricultural techniques have transformed the area from a drought-stricken region to a life-giving one.

As a child, Yacouba attended Koranic school in Mali. Much of his day included the hard labor of fieldwork and carrying well water. He was a poor student, but the school’s Sheik predicted he would become an important leader some day. As a young man he was a successful trader. At the same time (1975-85) there was massive outmigration from the Sahel due to drought and famine. Much to the amazement of his family and friends, Yacouba left the market and returned to the bush to become a farmer during this time of drought. He defied tradition by planting during the dry season. He adapted a traditional technique known as “zai,” the planting of crops in pits. Yacouba, a keen observer and experimenter, improved upon the traditional techniques. He made the pits deeper, adding manure, ash, and termites to improve the soil. He employed stone walls to route and conserve water. At first the traditional land chiefs disagreed with his changes. Yacouba was ostracized and treated as a madman, and his land was vandalized by fire. Over ten of his acres were burned. But Yacouba persevered and the resistance subsided. He visited nearby villages to share his techniques. Today he dispenses seeds and advice from his seed store and leads the community harvest.

The film engagingly depicts Yacouba’s earlier life story using dramatic re-enactments. These are interspersed with contemporary footage, including testimonies of neighboring farmers, local politicians and businessmen. Also featured are European academics—an environmental scientist lauds Yacouba’s empiricism. Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist from VU University Amsterdam, has the most screen time as a champion of Yacouba. He praises his positive influence and states that his 30-acre tree farm is the most biodiverse region of trees managed by an individual farmer in the Sahel.

Yacouba’s influence spreads beyond the Sahel. The film documents his Oxfam-sponsored trip to Washington D.C. in the fall of 2009. Yacouba travels to Capitol Hill to give presentations to the Obama administration, Congress, and NGOs, hoping to influence food security and agricultural policies. Finally, the film documents the threat to Yacouba’s land as the urban expansion of the city of Ouahigouya encroaches upon his property.

The film succeeds on several levels. As a biography and character study, it shows the heroic journey of a perseverant nonconformist. It documents the power of an individual to effect positive change. On the social and scientific level, it addresses issues of food security, migration, and techniques to fight famine and desertification. It serves as an example of the importance of biodiversity, empiricism, and local control. The film has broad applicability for use in classrooms studying the interplay of human behavior and environmental sustainability. Its themes pertain to curriculum regarding agricultural policy, and environmental and African studies. Mark Dodd’s documentary is simply good storytelling, but like the deceptively simple zai technique, its implications are profound. Dodd’s sensitive direction ensures that Yacouba’s gentle, persistent wisdom permeates the film: “we must not be enemies of nature.” It is highly recommended.


  • Special Jury Award, UN International Forest Film Festival