The moral of today’s lesson: “Don’t do a do unless you know the undo.” (Irél)

“Don’t do a do until you know the undo.”

I will, at some point in the future, share how Irél, archmage of the Caemantarii, came to share this particular lesson with her eager young students of sorcery.  Irél is an eccentric character I created some years back, and I’m hoping to revive her again as part of the perhaps novel-to-be ‘Asura the Adamant (The First)’.  However, my purpose today is to consider a more serious situation – the “undo” to a do we didn’t know how to undo when we were doing it.

Sound complicated?  Hopefully not.  I’m going to share the stories of three people who have acted alone (or at least with a supportive partner), made a difference and have inspired not only their own communities but are also globally influential.

Doing the do

The ‘do’ in this case is desertification.  The process of desertification is attributable to the removal of vegetation from the land.  Unprotected, exposed and bare soil loses its organic structure, is unable to retain water, dries, and then is washed away in heavy rains, or blown away with the wind.  This leaves infertile land that bakes, becomes hardpan and desertified.

In my short article “In Search of a Lost World”, I promised a set of three articles promoting effective solutions.  I’m going to begin with the third of those promises and share three, very different regenerative methods for reversing the desertification process.  Whilst each method is facilitated through community cooperation, each has been created by the work of a single individual who has dedicated their life to this cause.  I am sharing these stories as I hope that they inspire the belief that one person, you, can indeed make a difference.

“The Man Who Stopped the Desert”

The Sahel region of Africa is a biogeographically distinct region situated between the Sahara and the Sudanian Savannah.  Desertification in the region has led to the fragmentation of small communities dependent on arable land. The inability to sustain a living has led to migration to urban centres for work.  One small farmer, who observed this process, rued the demise of local communities and became the ‘madman’ of the village when he set about making a change.   His name is Yacouba Sawadogo.  His story is featured in a documentary directed by Mark Dodd entitled “The Man Who Stopped the Desert”.

Yacouba, of Burkina Faso, battled for more than 20 years against opposition to a simple farming method he introduced into his local community.  It is called ‘Zai’ and loosely interpreted, it means ‘pit’ or hole.  Yacouba began the process of food forestry, one hole at a time, literally.

Knowing the Undo: The Zai Method

On a flat area of hard pan, a small pit is hacked into the ground, using an implement like a pick axe.  The hole is approximately one foot (30 cm) in diameter and slightly less than a foot deep (20 cm).  Recruiting local help is useful, as a row of these zai needs to be carved into this difficult ground.  This process is repeated until many rows of zai cover the land entirely.  The method is facilitated by working along any existing contours in the land and is undertaken in the dry season.

You may have read my earlier work, where I’ve preached the dangers of digging.  But this area of the Sahel was barren, there was no carbon in this land to release to the earth, no organic matter to be scorched by the sun or soil to destroy.

The pits are filled with organic matter, not easy in a land with so little.  Yakouba uses sheep and cow dung, ashes from the cooking pits and any vegetation, like leaves that he can gather.  He then places small rocks between the pits in readiness for the little rain that falls each year.  The aim of the rocks is to slow water run off.  On such hard, impacted land, it will flow quickly away from the area.  The purpose of the method is to capture and store it.   Before the rains come, seed is sown into the pits and crops are grown.

Yakouba followed an instinct he had about the importance of trees.  Trees are planted as well as crops, leading to reforestation of the area.  In spite of many obstacles, he is now an avid teacher of his method, providing other communities with the skills to avoid the famine and poverty that had tormented the region for so long.

Millions of dollars are spent on research by the west on reversing deforestation and even with advanced technologies have met with less success. The beauty of Yakouba’s approach is its simplicity.

Mark Dodds eloquently summarises this quality:

Here is how to make your own zai pits.

  1. Start the process in spring, or the dry season if you live in the Sahel. Find an area of flat barren land. You will need hard packed earth with low rainfall, between 400mm and 800mm per year. You will also need a large team of helpers.
  2. Working in rows, hack pits into the ground with a shovel-axe, about 30cm wide and 20cm deep.
  3. Step forwards over your pits and continue this process until the area is completely covered with pits.
  4. Fill the pit with compost. This can be made from rotted cow/sheep dung, leaves, and ashes from wood-fuelled stoves.
  5. In each pit put a few seeds of millet or sorghum.
  6. If you happen to have a termite mound nearby you are in luck. These guys will help break down your soil and encourage rain infiltration
  7. Spread the word! Invite friends and family to see what you have done.

(1080 Films,  accessed 02-05-2015)

However, he didn’t mention that you might need a thick skin to cope with being called crazy and the resistance which was as extreme as a burning of your crops!


The Man Who Once Killed Elephants

Based in Zimbabwe, Allan Savory’s story is truly a case of ‘doing a do’ before knowing the ‘undo’ to extreme cost and devastation.  However, with all good stories, it does have a happy ending.  Allan finally found the undo to the do he did.

As with Yakouba Sawadogo, Allan is perhaps the best to tell his own story.  This I am able to share, as he created a moving TED talk about the mistakes he made as a result of initial research into desertification and how he came to find a solution he now shares and avidly demonstrates.

Knowing the Undo: Natural Grazing

In earlier articles, I have stated how I’ve come to believe that the permaculture principle of ‘observe and learn’ is the most important.  Nature is a wonderful teacher, and a lesson, fortunately Allan Savory was not too late in discovering.

The Man Who Greened the Desert

Taking on a 10 acre area of land in Wadi Rum, Jordan, Geoff Lawton, permaculturalist, not only attempted to use his approach to land regeneration in a hostile environment, but this patch of desert also suffered from salination.  Theoretically, nothing should grow here.  It is now an oasis which could be extended, using nature’s principles of succession.  I have often shared this 13 minute video of Geoff Lawton’s work with my 17-18 year old politics students when I introduce them to the concept of deep ecologism.  It is one of the few ‘stories’ I share that has a very deep emotional impact on them.  Several have been close to tears.

I never fail to be inspired by Geoff Lawton’s success; the open warmth of his personality, and the vibrance and energy with which he shares his knowledge make him very accessible.  I previously wrote about my thoughts on the importance of stories for sustaining a permanent culture and felt gratified by Geoff’s similar views on their value.  Through sharing the stories of these inspiring individuals, I hope to contribute to the permaculture we’ve been inspired to develop.

Although I’ve shared the video in ‘My Quiet Revolution’, I do think it worth bringing to the fore again.  You will notice that the technique he uses is not unlike the zai method, although mechanisation is used to a quicker end.  He also met various obstacles which he overcame despite the deflated feelings he experienced.  An additional link is given below as it may help you to find other highlights of Geoff Lawton’s work.

Geoff Lawton’s Website

© Safar Fiertze (2015)


This post is a response to Day 13 of the Writing 101 Blogging University challenge:  Serially Found.  This follows from the previous ‘Previously Lost’.  I chose to write about lost soils, with a view to presenting ‘doable’ solutions to the key problems of this contemporary age.

Another inspiration for this post came from a work-based request to share a favourite book in readiness for Children’s Book Week next week.  I chose ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’, a short heart-warming and highly believable story by Jean Giono.  As I am leaving employment in 3 months time, and my work entails the use of a great deal of paper.  I have promised the universe I will redress the balance by planting trees… one blister at a time!



2 thoughts on “The moral of today’s lesson: “Don’t do a do unless you know the undo.” (Irél)

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