Barwendé M. Sané
Environmental Justice
Food & Water
Spring 2024

Remembering Ecologist Yacouba Sawadogo: 2020 Champion of the Earth’s Inspirational Legacy

Barwendé M. Sané, SJ, Th.M, Ed.D; Environmental Justice Program Postdoctoral Associate at Georgetown University

Yacouba Sawadogo in 2022. Photo courtesy of Barwendé Sané

As the 28th United Nations Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP28) gained momentum in Dubai, the world mourned the loss of Yacouba Sawadogo, a revered figure in Burkina Faso’s environmental conservation efforts. Known as ‘the man who stopped the desert’, Sawadogo was acknowledged as an Alternative Nobel Prize laureate in 2018 and received the Champion of the Earth title in 2020. His passing on December 3, 2023, at the age of 77, cast a somber shadow over Africa and the global environmental community. Sawadogo’s groundbreaking work combating desertification and promoting sustainable agricultural practices earned him international acclaim. His passing marked the departure of an environmental visionary and a call to reflect on and carry forward his legacy. In response to this loss, President Ibrahim Traoré from Burkina Faso, paid tribute to Sawadogo, emphasizing the enduring importance of his legacy. He urged the present generation to draw inspiration from Sawadogo’s commitment and passion and encouraged an unwavering dedication to protecting Earth’s resources.

Sawadogo’s exceptionalism is rooted in his pioneering and innovative approach to combating desertification in the arid landscapes of northern Burkina Faso. Faced with the daunting challenge of transforming barren lands into fertile grounds, he demonstrated remarkable ingenuity by seamlessly blending traditional farming methods with a forward-thinking perspective. 

At the heart of Sawadogo’s transformative strategy were the traditional techniques of Zaï and stone bands, which he harnessed to revolutionize agricultural practices in the region. Through meticulous implementation, he turned once unproductive soil into a thriving forest, showcasing the potential of sustainable land management. The crowning achievement of Sawadogo’s efforts materialized in creating the Bangre Raaga Forest during the 1980s. This remarkable expanse, spanning 27 hectares, is a testament to the power of ecological restoration and community-driven initiatives. The forest now hosts an impressive array of over 90 plant species, reflecting a biodiverse haven that rejuvenates the land and contributes to the preservation of local flora.

The establishment of the forest was a strategic response to the severe impact of climate change, notably the devastating drought experienced in the Sahel region of Africa during the 1970s. This period marked a significant decline in woody species, emphasizing the urgency of proactive measures to counteract environmental degradation. Sawadogo’s visionary efforts not only transformed his immediate surroundings but also fortified local resilience against the escalating challenges of climate change. 

Moreover, Sawadogo emerges as a living embodiment of the profound Indigenous and Afrocentric ecological wisdom that holds the key to the salvation of our shared ‘Common Home,’ planet Earth. His journey is a compelling narrative that underscores the intrinsic connection between traditional knowledge, cultural heritage, and sustainable environmental practices. At its core, the Champion of the Earth’s approach transcends mere environmental conservation; it reflects a deep understanding of the intricate balance between humanity and nature inherent in many Indigenous cultures.

In an era where the global community grapples with the escalating challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, Sawadogo’s story becomes a beacon of wisdom. Such Afrocentric ecological wisdom resonates profoundly with the sentiments expressed by King Charles during COP 28: “As part of this grand and sacred system, harmony with nature must be maintained. The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth.” Surely, by valuing and integrating Indigenous knowledge into contemporary environmental discourse, we can forge a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with our ‘Common Home,’ ensuring a legacy of resilience and balance for future generations.

My immersive encounters with Yacouba Sawadogo during my research left an indelible mark on my doctoral dissertation, culminating in its completion in March 2023 at the School of Education, University of San Francisco. Titled “Application of the Epistemologies of the South to Address the Ecological Crisis: A Narrative Case Study of Burkina Faso and the Leader Yacouba Sawadogo,” this scholarly work delved into the multifaceted persona of the man who stopped the desert, revealing him not merely as a farmer, but as a mystic, philosopher, and scientist. In the pursuit of understanding Sawadogo’s holistic worldview, interviews with him and the farmers at his school of thought uncovered the layers of his deep spirituality, grounded in a synthesis of Islam and Afrocentric beliefs. Sawadogo’s perception of nature transcended conventional boundaries, recognizing the sacredness inherent in plants and animals, and perceiving a tangible communication between them. This spiritual foundation underpinned his agricultural practices, fostering a profound connection between humanity and the natural world.

Significantly, Sawadogo’s practices resonated with postcolonial and decolonial philosophies, drawing inspiration from pre-colonial African knowledge systems. In challenging the prevailing paradigm of human-nature relationships, Sawadogo viewed Earth not as an object but as a subject—a maternal entity deserving of reverence and protection. 

His visionary approach went beyond conventional environmentalism, advocating for sustainable solutions encompassing environmental greening, balanced consumption, and a redefined development concept. At the core of Sawadogo’s philosophy was the belief in humanity’s profound responsibility to nature, extending beyond mere obligations to the flora and fauna. He emphasized the intricate interconnectedness between humans and their ecosystems, urging for a shift in consciousness and a holistic approach to environmental stewardship. Sawadogo’s insights offer a compelling perspective on reimagining our relationship with the Earth, providing valuable lessons for addressing the ecological crisis through synthesizing Indigenous wisdom, spirituality, and sustainable practices.

Sawadogo’s departure marked not just the end of an era, but the passing of a torch, leaving behind a legacy that entrusted the crucial responsibility of protecting nature to holistic ecologists. His life’s work emphasized the imperative mission of safeguarding the environment, which goes beyond mere conservation efforts. This mission, now inherited by those inspired by his principles, entails a comprehensive approach encompassing the preservation of biodiversity, the conservation of ecosystems, and an unwavering commitment to environmental sustainability.

The call to action recognizes our profound reliance on ecosystem services for sustenance, health, and well-being. Concrete actions are deemed necessary to uphold this responsibility. Preserving habitats is a fundamental step, ensuring that diverse ecosystems can thrive and contribute to the planet’s overall health. Sustainable agroecological practices, as championed by Sawadogo, become paramount, fostering a harmonious relationship between human cultivation and the land. In addition, the mission focuses on soil regeneration, acknowledging the vital role that healthy soil plays in supporting life and maintaining ecological balance. Sawadogo’s innovative techniques serve as blueprints for sustainable land management practices that promote soil health and resilience.

Overall, Sawadogo’s legacy lives on in memory of his remarkable achievements and the ongoing commitment of those who carry the torch of environmental stewardship and holistic ecological practices. It necessitates a shift in societal attitudes and practices, fostering an understanding that humanity is an integral part of the broader ecological system. This perspective encourages responsible and mindful interactions with the environment, respecting the delicate balance that sustains life on Earth.

climate change
environmental justice
environmental policy
Georgetown faculty
lang management
Yacouba Sawadogo