Appeal: Trees defend villages from invasion of the desert

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The Independent Online

The Sahara's line of advance stretches more than 2,000 miles across Africa, but there is probably no better place to see it than Bariz. For 15 years, the village on the north-eastern outskirts of Timbuktu in Mali has been fighting an increasingly arduous battle against the invasion of the sand.

The Sahara's line of advance stretches more than 2,000 miles across Africa, but there is probably no better place to see it than Bariz. For 15 years, the village on the north-eastern outskirts of Timbuktu in Mali has been fighting an increasingly arduous battle against the invasion of the sand.

Blown in by the hot north wind for six months of the year, the sand at Bariz swamps vegetable patches, swirls into wells, piles up against obstacles to form dunes, and threatens to overwhelm anything in its way, not least the new school. It passes through the blistering hot air like a dry yellow mist and changes the very contours of the landscape from one year to the next; it seems unstoppable.

Bariz, a community of 600 people, herdsmen and traders, is vulnerable. After the terrible droughts of the Seventies and Eighties, the thin vegetation cover that had kept the village viable began to disappear. And the trees that supplied the all- important fuel failed to regenerate. They vanished, and with them the barrier keeping the desert at bay. So the sand began to pour in.

The Sahara, a sea of sand, is advancing south upon the Sahel, which is Arabic for shore, and means the desert-edge countries of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. They are the poorest states in the world. Most people depend on land and wild resources for survival. They have little. Yet in Bariz, an attempt is being made to hold the yellow tide at bay, sponsored by a British environmental charity. Tree Aid, founded by a group of foresters in Bristol 15 years ago, offers funding and expertise for forestry projects in Africa's drylands in an attempt to check poverty and reverse environmental degradation. In Bariz, it has paid for a thin green line, a defensive border of trees to hold the sand in check.

Tree Aid picked the Timbuktu region, the front line of desertification, as a key area. Walking through the legendary desert metropolis, it is not hard to see why. This is sand city: sand boulevards, sand streets, sand squares, sand alleyways, a sand football pitch. The city finishes, the true desert starts, just like that. The charity's present three-year project is run on the ground by a local partner organisation called Ardil ( Action Recherché pour le Developpement des Initiatives Locales). It aims to help 25 villages set up small-scale forestry projects, often using fast-growing eucalyptus trees, which can be harvested in four or five years.

In Bariz, 1,000 seedlings have been planted as defensive belts around the small market garden, and its school, opened only in 1998 but already flourishing with 130 pupils. "The main problem is the school," the village chief, 62-year-old Amoye ag Hameye, said. "We must protect the school. It would be overwhelmed by the sand."

Behind the four-room building, a four lines of saplings, paid for by Tree Aid, are flourishing. They are eucalyptus and mesquite, both of which do well in sand, grow quickly and are wind-resistant.

The school provides the labour to look after them. Pupils such as Agali ag Hamey have adopted individual seedlings; Agali, 12, has labelled his eucalyptus with his name and waters it regularly.

Bariz tried reforestation before, with unhappy results. In 1987, 1,000 trees planted at the far edge of the village died for lack of water, when the well failed. Now there is a new well with a pump powered by solar panels, paid for by UN money.

Amoye ag Hameye said: "There are a lot of problems, and there is a lot of sand. We need maintenance, we need guarding, we need water and the people are poor. But those who have replanted these trees will defend them. If people have willingness and the means, they can win the struggle against the desert."

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