COP23 Special: In Burkina Faso, finding new paths through a changing landscape

What climate and land-use changes mean for farmers and pastoralists
Cattle in Lake Bam near Yalka village, Burkina Faso. On their annual migration through West Africa, pastoralists could once graze their cattle freely, but now climate and landscape changes are forcing a change of habits. CIFOR Photo/Ollivier Girard

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When the rains come in Burkina Faso, a familiar change sets in. Well-worn paths through the dry savannah plains and sparse forest become unrecognizable in their new, drenched state. Farmers rush out to plant their seeds at just the right moment in the freshly hydrated soil. This is how things have always been – until now.

Recent changes in climate and land use have disturbed the patterns of wet and dry seasons in the West African country’s dry forest landscape. Now, it’s difficult for farmers to know that their planted seeds won’t be wasted following a false start of the rains. As agriculture occupies more and more of the land, problems of deforestation and conflict among land users must be carefully addressed to protect the country’s ecology and its inhabitants.

A recent research paper from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) takes a look at different elements of the country’s landscape – namely environment, people and policy – that are involved in REDD+ initiatives, which have been ongoing here since 2011. Taking a pulse check on the current situation, the research seeks to diagnose a realistic way forward.


Sometimes, the ideal way to remedy a precarious situation is to deal with both the chicken and the egg at once. This is particularly true of dry forest landscapes, which feel the causes and effects of climate change in immediate ways.

In Burkina Faso, there’s a pressing need for increased links between adaptation (responding to the effects of climate change) and mitigation (tackling the root causes). As the research shows, adaptation efforts should focus on humane and sustainable land-use methods that also promote carbon sequestration and enhancement of carbon stocks, while mitigation efforts should also ensure that any environment-focused activities do not impact access to natural resources for vulnerable groups such as women and pastoralists.

“It is true that for decades the emphasis has been on adaptation, due to the urgent need for practical actions in response to climatic factors that have adversely effected the productivity of vital sectors of the population,” says Hermann W. Kambiré, CIFOR scientist and lead author on the research paper. “But since the succession of the great droughts in Burkina Faso in 1974, there has been a political will to emphasize the protection of the environment.”

On a surface level, it appears that adaptation and mitigation are indeed already linked. The primary environmental initiatives — NAPA, the National Adaptation Programme of Action, and the mitigation-focused REDD+ and Forest Investment Program — are led by a joint steering committee and coordinated by agencies under the same parent institution. Yet there are still very few examples of synergy.

“The big question is why policies in place aren’t working,” says CIFOR scientist Houria Djoudi, a co-author of the paper. “I’ve found that everything is there, but maybe the link between the policies and efforts isn’t there, perhaps because the level of complexity to do so is very high.”

Some clues on how to strengthen these links may be found in the research.

“The elaboration of the REDD+ strategy that’s currently being developed is one of the best opportunities for synergy between adaptation and mitigation in Burkina Faso,” says Kambiré.


Burkina Faso’s economy is heavily dependent on agricultural and pastoral land use. Pastoralism and agricultural activities together comprise more than half of the country’s export revenue and more than 85 percent of the population’s income, with agriculture being the dominant sector of the two.  One concern arising from agricultural growth is deforestation; another is human conflict.

As the government continues to boost support for farmers to further increase their production, particularly in cotton and agribusiness, pastoralists are becoming sidelined in both policy and the physical landscape. This means that one of the country’s most important groups of land users — migratory pastoralists — are seen not to exist in the landscape, at least in the eyes of policy.

“The whole West Africa meat market comes from pastoralism communities,” says Djoudi. “But these people are not recognized or represented in government systems, and therefore end up marginalized.”

Where pastoralists’ animals could once graze freely as they made their longitudinal journey through West Africa each year, now there are cotton plantations and large-scale farms with owners angered by seeing their crops trodden on and eaten by the animals. And because many forest areas are protected, pastoralists are increasingly limited in where they can go.

“The phenomenon of migration creates a debate in the scientific world when it comes to addressing adaptation and mitigation,” says Kologo O., a community member in Burkina Faso. “Some hold that migration can be incorporated into efforts through technology transfer, reconfiguration of social capital, access to resources, and sending income to the populations in areas where they pass through. Others see that if this migration is not channeled, it presents a risk of destruction of an ecosystem through the pressure it creates in addition to climate change.”

As is often the case with social policies, a ‘ground-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ approach — such as including pastoralists in the policymaking process — is the only way to ensure that their needs are met. But in practice, it’s more difficult than it sounds.

“They are moving, they are marginalized, they don’t trust you for reasons I understand,” says Djoudi. “Workshops are not enough. We are doing some work now to try and identify people within pastoral groups with whom we can engage and build trust. But it takes time and attention.”


In Burkina Faso’s southeastern regions, there are land areas designated for the animals of migratory pastoralists to use when they’re passing through. This has proven to be a feasible and effective solution, showing that regional policies that integrate the realities of people’s needs with those of the landscape itself are achievable.

“Stakeholders in a landscape need to all be represented and have a voice,” says Djoudi. “Regional and national structures should be created with an integrated approach to land planning, climate change and agricultural policies.”

A holistic landscape approach to policymaking may then be the best way forward not only for REDD+ efforts, but for making decisions that fit the needs of this specific landscape and the people who occupy or pass through it.

From resolving conflicts to improving land use to support carbon goals, a landscape approach to policymaking is needed to synergize efforts and maximize results. In Burkina Faso, this is best done through decentralization — also known in the country as ‘integral communalization’.

“If done effectively with real transfer of power and assets like money to lower levels, it can work and lead to context-specific solutions,” says Djoudi. “Communities can work with their local governments as well as NGOs to create solutions.”

This research was supported by UK aid from the UK government.
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