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The Baobab's Last Stand

Development (Aid)
Burkina Faso
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A once and future forest? Trees are sparse in the village landscape. Inset are the Chief's five wives and twenty of his children. The Chief has disappeared to Ghana for an eye operation so his brother is standing in for the photo - just as he will inherit the wives on the Chief's death. [image, unknown]
A once and future forest? Trees are sparse in the village landscape. Inset are the Chief's five wives and twenty of his children. The Chief has disappeared to Ghana for an eye operation so his brother is standing in for the photo - just as he will inherit the wives on the Chief's death. A once and future forest? Trees are sparse in the village landscape. Inset are the Chief's five wives and twenty of his children. The Chief has disappeared to Ghana for an eye operation so his brother is standing in for the photo - just as he will inherit the wives on the Chief's death. [image, unknown]

The baobab's last stand
The old chief and the new... Revolution deferred...
Why are the trees still standing?... Fire in the eyes of the young...

The Chief is playing the diplomat. We’re sitting in the shade beneath the magnificent old baobab tree that overlooks his concession, brooding over it like an embodiment of the old ways of which he is supposed to be the guardian. A goodly assortment of his five wives and twenty children are ranged around us as we speak. The Chief has just made the descent into blindness – Mariama is shocked when he doesn’t respond to my outstretched hand.

Some of the time he is clearly telling me what he thinks I would like to hear. When I ask how he felt about losing his traditional power in the Revolution, for instance, he says this was no problem. But the truth is that the Chief, like every other village head in the country, was deeply upset by the change, which fully merited the term revolutionary. Sankara wanted to root his program firmly in the needs of the peasants who make up the vast majority of the country – and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) which he set up in each village were the first real democratic voice peasants ever had. Each village elected ten representatives, of which two (including one of the two top posts) had to be women. These committees were also vehicles for the kind of social reform (from primary health care to women’s liberation) that Sankara wished to spread from the capital, bypassing the traditional power of the chiefs.

Until the Revolution the politics of the capital had been fairly meaningless for Sabtenga. The parade of coups d’état and farcical elections had minimal impact on such a remote village. Politicians’ careers depended on the votes of city-dwellers and their policies thus addressed urban concerns – the same has been true in virtually every African country since independence. People in rural areas were largely left to the diktats – and demands for tribute – of the chiefs.

The Revolution changed that irreversibly, though one of Blaise Compaoré’s first acts after his coup d’état was to disband the CDRs. They were eventually replaced by a single elected delegate for each village. The delegates sit in a provincial assembly and implement directives from both regional and national capitals.

This is probably even more galling for the Chief than the CDR system, since it sets up one individual in power over him. The man who has held that power for the last seven years is Yacouba Moné, known to all (even non-French speakers) as Le Délégué (The Delegate). There is such constant warfare between them that last year the Chief organized a delegation of 20 of his cronies to go to the regional capital and say they wanted Yacouba removed from his position. They were told that unless Yacouba had been caught with his fingers in the till or had been chasing other men’s wives (and no-one was accusing him of this) there was no way he could be removed before the next election. Yacouba drove home his victory by organizing a 60-strong delegation to express their support.

‘He wants things to be like they once were,’ says Yacouba. ‘He can’t bear the idea that there is a Delegate with more power in the village than him. But he has to learn. Anything administrative is my province; he has to stick to the ancient customs.’

The new power in the land: Yacouba The Delegate. Yacouba is 52. Ten years ago he happened to be away in Ouagadougou during my stay so he’s new to me. He clearly enjoys being the village’s elected representative and whatever power and status comes with it. And he talks with understandable pleasure about the one set-piece day of the year when all the village delegates converge on the capital for a session with the National Assembly during which they are addressed by the President.

One day we are sitting in the shade outside his concession. It is that terrible middle period of the day when the sun is wheeling high in its savagery – it is easy to see why the Bissa word for sun, husu, is the same as that for ‘God’. I am shelling peanuts with the women of the concession and Yacouba is telling me proudly about the line of trees he has planted beside us. He is chair of the village reforestation committee and has been determined to set everyone else an example.

This is another area where I have noticed a big change in the village. Ten years ago it was a woman’s job to walk out into the bush, cut down branches for firewood and then carry home enormous bundles on her head. You rarely see that now. This is mainly due to the coercion of the national government which has realized in the last decade the desperate urgency of planting trees to protect the soil and arrest the relentless erosion. Rangers started patrolling the bush and arresting anyone caught cutting down trees.

There is no question that this has made life more difficult for villagers – apart from anything else firewood is yet another thing that they now have to pay for if they are not to make do with burning straw. But there is also no question that they understand the rationale behind the policy in a way they did not a decade ago: time and again I hear the phrase ‘trees bring the rain’.

The replanting of trees in the village doesn’t seem to have gone a lot farther than the odd line of saplings like Yacouba’s – though a major new plantation is visible on the far side of the lake. Last year President Compaoré launched the 8,000 Villages, 8,000 Forests campaign. But this year there is no money for new saplings.

I am concerned that most of the new trees (including those Yacouba has planted) seem to be eucalyptus. In development circles eucalyptus is generally considered disastrous for this sort of environment – they drink 1,600 litres of water a year, for example, far more than other varieties. I mention this to Yacouba and suggest his committee should consider planting acacia and fruit trees instead of eucalyptus.

When I get back to England, though, I talk to someone who has been working in community forestry in just this part of Burkina and he disputes the common wisdom. He says eucalyptus encourages local people to plant trees – it grows fast and provides both medicine and straight poles which they can then use or sell to others. And while it does drink a lot of water it drinks it from so deep in the ground that this is only a problem where the water table is seriously low (as it is in the north of the country, though not usually in the Bissa region). It should be treated as a crop rather than as a long-term tree and should be mixed with fruit and acacia trees. At least I got that part right. But this has taught me yet again how problematic it is for an outsider to give advice on development, however knowledgeable they think they are.

At least I refrain from giving Yacouba advice on politics, though it is difficult to hide my disappointment at the political changes in the country. He is a member of Blaise Compaoré’s governing party – in the last Delegate elections candidates were required to stand for particular parties for the first time ever. He is also literally the only person I talk to who has less than praise for Thomas Sankara. I ask how he can support the man who murdered Sankara but he shrugs this off with the perfectly fair point that Sankara too originally came to power as a result of a coup d’état.

To Yacouba the new watchwords of democracy and modernization are vast improvements on the furore of the Revolution. Yacouba knows full well that Blaise’s economic reforms – particularly the devaluation of the currency – are deeply unpopular in the village. But ultimately he knows pretty well that Blaise is here to stay, and that his own position is the more secure for his being associated with the governing party – probably all the more so if the system runs on backscratching instead of idealism.

One villager uses a proverb to express his feeling about the changed politics of Burkina: ‘You have to work with the rainy season that comes and not think of the wonderful rains of the past.’ It’s true: Sankara is gone now and they have to work with the current regime.

But I can’t help hoping that those young people I meet in the towns and the capital, who are fighting to keep Sankara’s ideas alive, will win out in the end. They have to tread very carefully, since the leading activists in the Association Thomas Sankara, which was trying to take the new democracy at its word and become a political party, have been murdered or forced underground. But they’re the ones with fire in their eyes who decry injustice and who realize that something special has been lost in the attempt to win the approval and money of the West. More power to them.

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