In Senegal, mobilization to protect the largest forest deposit in the country

From February 7 to March 12, 2022, the Dynamics for an Agroecological Transition in Senegal (DyTAES) – a network that brings together all the actors of agroecology in the country – undertook a large caravan to meet the country’s farmers.

After a 25-day journey punctuated by multiple stages, the caravaneers reached the departments of Kolda, Velingara and Tambacounda, located in the south-east of Senegal, a forest area of ​​prime importance subject to multiple pressures.

Face to face with illegal loggers

This forest, Oumar Dème knows it since his childhood. He saw it deteriorate from year to year, under the aggression of bush fires and machetes. In 2014, when he became mayor of his commune, Ndoga Babacar (department of Tambacounda), he decided to devote his mandate to fighting against the scourge of illegal deforestation.

A particularly risky bet in this border area of ​​Senegal, plagued by poverty, corruption and the circulation of traffickers of all kinds. With the support of the inhabitants, the new mayor has built a community monitoring network that allows him to know what is happening in each forest plot in his municipality.

One day in August 2019, his informants revealed to him the presence of an illegal logging camp in a remote area, just a few kilometers from the Gambian border. He then made a striking decision: to go himself to the site accompanied by the press and a handful of activists in order to surprise the clandestine operators!

Arrived on the spot, the group discovers about fifty exhausted young men and women, the look haggard, some seeming in very bad health. In front of the cameras, the mayor lectures the camp leader and reminds him of the rules for using the forest in force in his commune.

Three years later, in 2022, as the new DyTAES caravan criss-crosses the country, the situation is bitter: in Ndoga Babacar, as in all of south-eastern Senegal, the situation of the forests has deteriorated.

Workers at an illegal logging and coal mining camp in a remote area of ​​eastern Senegal on the Senegal-Gambia border. These young men from Forest Guinea live with their families in precarious conditions, without access to water or health care.
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD
Illegal woodcutting camp (charcoal, worker and faggots) in the managed forest of the commune of Ndoga Babacar (Tambacounda department); in August 2019, Oumar Dème (in blue), mayor of the commune, organized a press conference in this camp.
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD

A forest region threatened by human activities

The South-East region of Senegal is however spoiled by nature. In sharp contrast to the rest of the country, this subtropical zone benefits from abundant rainfall, on average 730 mm/year.

This mild climate makes it possible to maintain the largest forest deposit in the country. The region is known for its classified forests, including the Niokolo-Koba National Park, included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, home to a very rich fauna and flora. However, through car windows, caravanners observe black ash carpets and galloping savannah along the roads. A sad consequence of coal mining, anthropogenic bush fires, logging and the cultivation of new land.

Vegetable producer in a frontier zone of Medina Yoro Foulah (department of Kolda).
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD

Despite a political will to protect the forests, the latter are disappearing at a frantic pace. Between 1990 and 2015, the forests increased from 9.3 to 8.2 million hectares in Senegalrecording an average annual loss of 40,000 ha.

Mactar Diop, prefect of the department of Kolda, is aware of the environmental disaster that is taking place: “wood cutting, irregular clearing for agricultural production and anthropogenic bush fires are causing the disappearance of many animal and plant species”. Illegal timber trade between Senegal and Gambia contributes to the gradual disappearance of forest species such as vene (Pterocarpus erinaceus) and the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra).

Forest plot after a bush fire in the department of Kolda.
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD
Every year, the populations of the department of Kolda set fire to forests and fallow land. Burning quickly clears undergrowth and stimulates the growth of herbaceous biomass to feed livestock. This practice, when not properly controlled, can also kill trees and degrade soils.
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD

An agroecology that protects forests

During its visit to the south-east of Senegal, the DyTAES caravan highlighted several initiatives to fight against anthropogenic bush fires and the abusive cutting of trees.

In Kolda, two contiguous municipalities (Niaming/Medina Yoro Foulah) have coordinated since 2020 to protect a 20-hectare forest plot. Although small-scale, this initiative has shown that with a strong commitment from local authorities, it is possible to put a rapid halt to deforestation.

[Plus de 80 000 lecteurs font confiance à la newsletter de The Conversation pour mieux comprendre les grands enjeux du monde. Abonnez-vous aujourd’hui]

In the department of Vélingara, several natural disaster management committees have been created with the support of the NGO World Vision. These committees organize a surveillance and alert network against the illegal pruning of trees. They also plant “firebreak” hedges favoring the cashew tree, an essence which produces delicious cashew nuts and which constitutes an excellent natural barrier against the spread of fires.

In Tambacounda, the NGO Enda Pronat is widely promoting assisted natural regeneration, a practice of protecting young trees that appear spontaneously (rather than planting new trees).

The secretary of the Niaming/Medina forest environmental monitoring committee Yoro Foulah, in southeastern Senegal.
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD, CC BY-NC-ND
Visit by caravanners of the protected forest of Niaming/Medina Yoro Foulah; The cashew tree, in addition to producing nuts, can be used to build firebreak hedges.
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD; Malick Djitté/FONGS

Sowing the seeds of change

Fighting against deforestation also involves securing and diversifying people’s livelihoods. In the south-east of Senegal, the latter mainly depend on animal husbandry, cotton production, rice cultivation and self-subsistence crops (cowpea, fonio, millet, maize, etc.).

Unfortunately, these speculations bear the brunt of the negative effects of the green revolution. In particular, cotton is plagued by significant and abusive use of sometimes unapproved pesticides; a situation made possible by the lack of supervision of producers and the porosity of the Senegal-Gambia border.

Conventional cotton cultivation in Koussanar (Tambacounda department); combine harvesters used in intensive rice cultivation in Anambe (Velingara department); Intensive poultry farming in Medina Yoro Foulah (Kolda department).
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD

During the south-east stages of the caravan, the participants encountered several agroecological initiatives aimed at reducing the dependence of peasants on external inputs (pesticides, fertilizers and seeds).

In the department of Vélingara, for example, the Biolopin agroecological farm in Djimini cleverly integrates arboriculture, organic market gardening, animal husbandry and the production of medicinal plants. The farm produces, improves and distributes “peasant seeds” in collaboration with the Senegalese Association of Peasant Seed Producers (ASPSP).

Rustic, resistant and inexpensive, these peasant seeds offer a valuable alternative to seeds distributed by agro-seed companies, which are particularly greedy in chemical inputs and whose productivity decreases with each crop cycle.

Lamine Biaye, founder of Biolopin, reminds us that “in agroecology, we must not depend on external seeds […] ; on the contrary, you have to produce them yourself to be autonomous. There is a great wind of agroecological transition around the world, but there is no agroecological transition without peasant seeds”.

Visit to an “improved traditional granary” with the support of Am Be Koun – Solidarité; Millet seeds and flour; Lamine Biaye, founder of Biolopin, presents his collection of “peasant seeds”.
Raphael Belmin/CIRAD; Malick Djitté/FONGS

In the department of Tambacounda, producers are also on the path to seed empowerment. Village cereal banks have been created by the NGO CARITAS in 20 villages, benefiting 1,020 producers over a total area of ​​213 hectares.

In Koussanar, the NGO ActionAid and the Yakar Niani Wouli Federation have set up ecological seed production benefiting 40 women from 6 villages. In Saré Nopi, the organization Am Be Koun-Solidarité (ABK-S) has modernized the traditional “kourou-kourou” granary in order to improve the conditions for the conservation and preservation of seeds.

After their 34-day journey through Senegal, the actors of the DyTAES caravan will devote themselves to capitalizing on the results obtained in the field and to opening a new cycle of dialogue with the Senegalese government. A way to carry the voice of rural people in the country and to feed the “Senegal Emerging Green Plan” currently being developed.

Laure Diallo is co-author of this article. Find all the articles on the great caravan of agroecology in Senegal by clicking here.

In Senegal, mobilization to protect the largest forest deposit in the country