AU BURKINA FASO, YACOUBA SAWADOGO, le cultivateur qui a « repoussé le désert »

En usant de techniques ancestrales, le lauréat 2018 du « Right Livelihood Award » a rendu fertile une terre réputée incultivable.

Il y a quarante-cinq ans, on prenait Yacouba Sawadogo pour un fou. Peut-être fallait-il un certain brin de folie pour croire en l’impossible ? Son rêve ? Faire pousser une forêt verdoyante en plein désert, dans la province du Yatenga, dans le nord du Burkina Faso.

A plus de 70 ans, ce cultivateur burkinabé a réussi une prouesse : il a fait pousser près de 90 espèces d’arbres et d’arbustes sur des terres arides, des sols dégradés et stériles réputés incultivables appelés « zipellés ». Un long combat contre la désertification que Yacouba Sawadogo a mené à la force de ses bras, le dos courbé, avec sa petite pioche pour seul outil. Ce qui lui a valu de remporter, en septembre à Stockholm, le Right Livelihood Award, un prix Nobel « alternatif » récompensant ceux qui œuvrent à la mise en place de solutions pratiques pour faire face aux grands défis qui menacent la planète.

Yacouba Sawadogo croit aux prophéties. Quand son maître d’une école coranique malienne, où il a étudié jusqu’à ses 16 ans, lui a dit « un jour, tu feras quelque chose de grand », le petit Yacouba, le « cancre » de la classe, l’a pris au mot. « Dieu m’a donné la connaissance de la terre. Pour moi, c’était une évidence, il fallait utiliser les techniques traditionnelles pour rendre au sol sa fertilité et éliminer la famine », explique-t-il en langue moré, dans son long boubou marron.

La terre qui nourrit et qui soigne

La famine, ce fils d’agriculteurs l’a bien connue. Dans les années 1970 et 1980, deux grandes périodes de sécheresse ont frappé la région sahélienne. « Les greniers à mil, le lait… tout était fini, il n’y avait plus rien à manger. Les vieux mouraient et les villageois fuyaient vers les villes. » Le Burkinabé choisit pourtant de rester. « J’ai su que le jour était arrivé. Il fallait que je travaille la terre, celle qui nourrit et qui soigne. C’était elle qui pouvait nous sauver », dit-il.

Yacouba Sawadogo quitte alors son petit commerce de pièces détachées à Ouahigouya pour retourner aux champs de son enfance, dans le village de Gourga. Après deux années à sillonner la région à pied et à cheval pour étudier les sols, l’autodidacte se lance. Sur un petit lopin de terre, il décide de reprendre une technique de ses ancêtres, lezaï, qui consiste à creuser des trous et à les remplir de déchets organiques en saison sèche avant de semer les graines. Les termites, attirés par le compost, creusent des galeries permettant de retenir et répartir l’eau à l’arrivée des pluies. Il ajoute également des cordons de pierres autour des cultures pour limiter l’érosion et conserver l’humidité du sol.

M. Sawadogo s’arme de patience et persévère. Les premières années sont difficiles, il doit se battre seul contre les caprices du sable ocre et les moqueries des habitants voisins. Son terrain est même brûlé à trois reprises par « des villageois jaloux ». Mais le paysan burkinabé est têtu. « C’est dans le travail et la ténacité que l’on récolte les fruits de ses efforts », prêche-t-il. Après trois ans, ses rendements triplent. Petit à petit, l’oasis dont il rêvait prend forme : baobabs, papayers, pruniers et acacias fleurissent, tandis que les animaux repeuplent sa forêt de près de 40 hectares.

Un projet pour les générations futures

Agronomes et curieux du monde entier affluent désormais pour voir de leurs propres yeux l’œuvre du « grand sage », devenu une célébrité dans son pays. De quoi ravir Yacouba Sawadogo, qui ouvre volontiers les portes de sa sylve, baptisée « Bangré Raaga » (« temple du savoir », en moré) aux visiteurs.

En quatre ans, il a déjà formé plus de 400 paysans au zaï, d’après ses estimations. « La forêt est une grande école », insiste celui que l’on surnomme « l’homme qui a arrêté le désert », depuis la sortie d’un film documentaire lui étant consacré (The Man Who Stopped the Desert, Mark Dodd, 2010). « Mon projet est pour les générations futures. Je ne veux pas manger aujourd’hui et laisser mes prochains sans nourriture demain. Je travaille pour semer les graines de la richesse, non seulement pour le Burkina Faso mais pour de nombreux autres pays », soutient le vieil homme, père de 27 enfants.

Le temps presse, les pluies se font de plus en plus rares et les sols continuent de se dégrader au Sahel. « La sécheresse avance à grand pas », s’alarme M. Sawadogo, le regard sombre. Plus de 300 000 hectares de terres seraient perdus chaque année en moyenne du fait de la désertification au Burkina Faso, un pays où près de 80 % de la population dépend de l’agriculture, selon les chiffres de la direction générale des eaux et forêts burkinabée.

Autre inquiétude : l’extension de la ville voisine, Ouahigouya, menace également sa forêt. En 2012, de nouveaux lotissements se sont implantés sur une partie de ses cultures. Dépourvu de titre foncier, le paysan n’a pas non plus les moyens de racheter la parcelle, estimée aujourd’hui à plusieurs centaines de millions de francs CFA. La bataille continue. « Je ne suis pas fatigué, tant que je suis en bonne santé je me battrai », répète Yacouba Sawadogo.

Texte Photos
Sophie Douce Sophie Garcia

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