Appeal: Nursery gives hope to village starved of its lifeblood

Firewood is the key to survival in Burkina Faso, but trees are scarce thanks to unwise agricultural practices
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The tree nursery they have at Nagré seems so small, compared with such a huge shortage. Can the one ever begin to solve the other?

The tree nursery they have at Nagré seems so small, compared with such a huge shortage. Can the one ever begin to solve the other?

They hope so, in this village in Burkina Faso in Africa's Sahel, the dry region to the south of the Sahara. The problem is firewood; they can't get enough of it.

The women leave before dawn, usually about 4am, on the firewood search. The landscape – thickly wooded savannah until about 20 years ago – has been hacked down and picked so bare that they have to tramp for between six and 12 miles before they can find dead wood that is suitable for fuel. The distance is getting longer every month. Soon it will become impossible. And such a scenario is being enacted across the land.

That the fate of a nation could depend on firewood might seem bizarre as we enter the 21st century, but Burkina Faso is heading for a national crisis in logs and sticks, just as other countries might run into political or financial crises.

More than 90 per cent of Burkina's energy consumption comes from burning wood, above all for cooking. Most of its 12 million inhabitants are subsistence farmers. They need a fire in the morning to cook food for the day and another at the day's end for the evening meal (mostly millet porridge).

These fires flicker across the landscape. In the pre-dawn dark, they light up the roadside, in the dusk they twinkle in the distant villages. And when the day comes, the wood to fuel them is evident everywhere, being hauled along paths, tracks, unmade roads, highways. Everything that can carry twigs and branches trundles along: overladen lorries, cars, donkey carts, women's heads. You cannot drive for half a minute within five miles of a town or village without meeting travelling firewood.

But the supply is running out and the soil quality has dropped. In this relatively small, landlocked country, dry and dusty to start with, the natural vegetation, the wooded savannah, has been degraded over recent decades by unwise agricultural practices: "slash and burn" farming (which sets fire to the brush to clear space for planting crops), overgrazing by livestock and overcutting of wood for fuel and timber.

Behind it all is the pressure of numbers: the population is growing at an annual rate of 2.7 per cent, which means that the 12 million people of today will become 18 million by 2015. Every settlement is swelling and internal migration away from the more damaged countryside, especially by nomadic herdsmen, puts pressure on the less damaged areas.

Just how severe the problem is can be seen clearly in Nagré, a village near the town of Fada N'Gourma in the east of the country. There are about 1,000 families, of three ethnic groups, including some herdsmen who have moved infrom the north and settled. Each family uses about a donkey-cart full of wood in two weeks, about 26,000 cartloads a year.

The increasing distance the women have to go – it's usually the women – to find wood indicates that this situation is not sustainable, which is why the Nagré tree nursery is so vital. It is run by a local group, the Association Base Fandima (ABF) and is backed by the British charity Tree Aid, which Independent readers are supporting as part of our Hope for Africa appeal. Its aim is simple: regeneration.

One of the project's first aims was raising awareness by making people realise that trees are threatened and need to be replaced by human action.

The next step was establishing tree nurseries, in Nagré and in a neighbouring village, and teaching people nursery skills: how to plant young trees and, more importantly, how to maintain them. And the third step was the planting itself, on as large a scale as possible. The size of a suburban garden, the Nagré nursery seems small but it passes on tens of thousands of seedlings. Everyone in the village is asked to plant trees, and large wood lots of several species are being established. Because the immediate needs of the population are most important, 40 per cent are eucalyptus, which is not a native species but grows so quickly that it can be harvested in five years. But mangoes and guavas are being planted too, with two of Africa's most important food species, the shea tree and the dawadawa.

Francois Yarga, ABF's president, says they hope to plant out 30,000 seedlings a year and, over the three-year life of the project, produce 90,000 trees. Figures such as that give one reason to hope that the seemingly intractable problem of Burkina Faso could be tackled.

But it is more than just numbers, Mr Yarga insists; it is attitude. "We have told the people that trees are life and without trees life is not possible," he says. "They understand now."

Buy another tree for Christmas this year

Beneath the tinsel and baubles, how is your Christmas tree doing? Have the pine needles started to drop or the spruce leaves begun to wilt. Why not buy another one – but one that will last.

Tree Aid, one of the three charities in The Independent's Hope for Africa appeal, is planting tens of thousands of trees across the belt of land that runs beneath the Sahara. You could add another. In Africa, the £3 a foot you probably paid for the tree in your living room would go a lot further – and help many people.

Take the mighty baobab tree, which European explorers called the "upside-down tree" because its branches look like upturned roots. Its fruit stops children getting scurvy, night blindness and beriberi, a deficiency disease. Its leaves make a delicious sauce that prevents anaemia, kidney problems and, eaten by pregnant women, improves the health of babies.

Its bark is woven into rope to pull water from wells and make medicines to treat rickets and fever. Its gum eases toothache. Its gourds make musical instruments. And the shade from its massive branches is the traditional place for African meetings.

A gift of £270 to our appeal would buy a baobab tree, which grows to 90ft.

Or go for something smaller:

* £135 buys a dowadowa tree (45ft)

* £90 buys a shea (30ft)

* £63 buys an Acacia nilotica (21ft)

* £18 buys a zizphus (6ft).

To make an online donation, click here