The Men Who Planted Trees

In West Africa, a model for worldwide conservation takes root.


An hour before sunup the Bani River uncoils through the dark Sahel in bright silver curves, a reflection of a day not yet dawned, hardships not yet known, hopes not yet broken. Onto such a magical surface the Bozo fishermen of Sindaga shove off with bamboo poles and float downstream in redwood pirogues, one silent man per boat. The fishermen work standing up: solitary Paleolithic silhouettes keeping perfect balance against the river’s luminescence, each man one with his boat like some pelagic centaur, performing one of mankind’s oldest rites. They cast their diaphanous seines into the night. Handmade sinkers kiss the surface, pucker it lightly, drag the nets under.

By the time daybreak trims burgundy the sparse savannah, the fishermen row their day’s first catch back to the village. In squat banco houses that crowd the river, the men take breakfast of rice and fish sauce. They patch up the nets while their wives and mothers sort the morning haul into giant wicker baskets and lug it to the nearest market town. After midday prayer, the men cast off again.

Such has been their fishing schedule for centuries, aligned with the orderly procession across the West African sky of 26 sequential constellations. Each new star signifies the advent of a windy season, of weeks of life-giving drizzle or days of downpour, of merciless heat or relentless malarial mosquitoes dancing in humid nights. Each star announces the arrival of the blue-tinged Nile perch, of the short-striped daggers of clown killi, of the lunar disks of the Niger stingray, of the toothless garras that like to nibble the bare ankles of laundresses, and that, in the West, are used for pedicures in foot spas.

Or so it used to be. Mali has been growing drier and hotter since the 1960s. For the past three decades, the weather has been chaotic, out of whack with the stars. The rainy season has been starting early or late or not arriving at all. Droughts throttle the land and wring dry the river. Flash floods wash away harvests and entire homesteads hand-slapped of rice straw and clay. Acres of deforested riverbank dry out and blow away, or collapse into the water. The fish run off schedule. “The river is becoming broken,” said Lasina Kayantau, a Sindaga elder.

Their approach to saving the environment stems from the limbic understanding that they are an indivisible part of it.

Kayantau received me on a late afternoon last November. I was researching a book and spent much of the year herding cattle with a family of Fulani cowboys, nomads forever chasing rain in the oceanic spaces of Africa’s margin lands. For a time, my hosts pastured their cows near Sindaga. Kayantau and I sat on a blue and yellow plastic mat under a mango tree outside his low adobe house. He was a heavyset man in his 60s, and he wore a soiled maroon boubou with yellow polka dots and, around his neck, a cell phone on a lanyard. One of his four wives, Kadija, sat on a low bamboo stool, propping up a toddler with her feet. Fishnets dangled from tree limbs and eaves. Ducks sidestepped discarded tackle. Kayantau turned to blink at the Bani. The river rippled in the slanted sun, blinked back.

“The trees that kept mud from sliding into the river are gone,” Kayantau explained. “Now when it rains, mud slides into the river. The mud adds up, and one year, one day, there will be no river. But we are fishermen. This river is our life. It’s what we will leave our sons and grandsons. If the river is gone, how will they live? We had to do something.”

So one morning last summer, Kayantau asked the hard, sunjerked men of Sindaga to leave their pirogues moored and stay ashore. He gathered the children and womenfolk. For five days, armed with hoes, sandaled, their soiled boubous flapping like giant wings in the thirsty wind, the 4,800 villagers—any man, woman, and child strong enough to work in the humid summer sun— bedded out 13,560 slim, two-foot-tall saplings of Acacia nilotica along the east bank of the Bani, downstream from the village. The idea, Kayantau told them, was simple: As the saplings grew into twisted, fissured trunks under dense thorny crowns, their roots would cinch the abrading topsoil of the desiccated seasonal swamplands and keep alluvial cut-banks from slumping into the river, preserving the watercourse for their descendants.

The villagers worked for free. They became volunteer conservationists, planting back the bush.

After a year of walking in the Sahel and speaking to ecologists in Africa and the West, I have come to see the villagers’ effort to persevere and preserve their ecosystem as a future model for conservation worldwide. People did not “arrive” in Africa the way we did on other continents: We were born here, and we evolved together with its ecosystems. Today, 70 percent of Malians live rurally. The Sindagans’ approach to saving their environment stems from necessity, from immemorial African traditions of husbanding nature, and from the limbic understanding that they are an indivisible part of it.

Morning on the Bani River: Mali’s Bozo fisher- men trace their ancestry to capricious man-eating water spirits and amphibians and may have been fishing the Bani River since the Neolithic.Anna Badkhen

If you were to look at the Bani River from space, you would see that it sashays through a meandering band of a continental scale: a 1.1 million square-mile belt of pointillist ochre-green savannah that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, dividing the Sahara from the African tropics roughly along the 13th parallel. The Sahel.

The most common tree in the Sahel is the acacia. First classified in 1773 by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, Acacia nilotica— known as thorn mimosa, scented thorn, Vachellia nilotica, or prickly acacia—splotches across the semiarid land. The lives of the tree and the people who are born, rest, plant, and die in its shade are deeply intertwined.

Prickly acacia is a super plant. It can grow up to 65 feet tall, with a crown as wide. It thrives in poor, dry, and saline soils, adding three-quarters of an inch in diameter each year. It needs little rain. It is resistant to fire. By its fifth year it can produce up to 175,000 seeds annually, and although most of its seeds do not sprout when the pods drop, they still can germinate 15 years later. The seeds are rich in protein. Of all the acacias, the nilotica has one of the deepest rooting systems, up to nine feet, which means it can tap into relatively deep ground water. The horizontal spread of its lateral roots is 1.6 times greater than the umbrella span of its crown. Prickly acacias may stand two dozen feet apart but underground they clasp the soil together in a tight, resilient web. Along a river they create an indigenous natural revetment.

Africans use prickly acacia’s seeds as food flavoring and dye, its glabrous bark for tea, its leaves as fodder and antibiotic, its sap to bind pigment to colored fabric, its twigs as toothbrushes, its thorns as awls, its inner bark and pods to tan leather. It is a nitrogen fixer, so grain yields are richer in its shade.

But Sahel’s very texture is changing. Acacia scrublands are turning to infertile dustbowl. Red dunes grow where the 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta described lush orchards and fecund fields. Winter harmattan winds fill Bamako, the capital of Mali, with dust from the Sahara hundreds of miles away. Most people in Mali have never heard about climate change, but they can describe with scientific precision its symptoms: the hotter, stronger wind; the fickle rainfall; the disappearing forests. Last summer the rainy season arrived six weeks late. Around Sindaga, the fens that usually become rice paddies in June still lay bone-dry in early August. My Fulani hosts herded skeletal Zebu cattle through grassless pastures. The Bani at Sindaga was a tepid slow stream you could wade across, and there were no fish. In fact, in the last 40 years Mali has become 12 percent drier and about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.

The political unraveling echoes the steady and inexorable deterioration of the land itself, as if under Mali’s pustulating skin her very skeleton is creaking apart.

A perfect storm of global and local factors is responsible for Mali’s environmental crisis: changing weather patterns; disastrous land management by French colonists; post-colonial explosion in population growth; overgrazing by expanding cattle herds; commercial farming and fishing. The people’s supreme dependency on the land does not mean that the 58 million people in the Sahel live in complete harmony with the environment. Like most men, they want the land to work for them, not vice versa. The deforestation speaks for itself.

Between 1990 and 2005, droughts and human misuse killed 10 percent of Mali’s forests. Some trees were eaten during the famines, when crops failed and people survived on leaves and bark. Some quit on the waterless soil. Most were chopped down: Malians rely primarily on firewood for cooking, and a 2010 report from Mali’s agriculture ministry said that more than 500,000 hectares of forest are cleared for firewood and charcoal each year—and we are talking grown trees, not two-foot saplings. Today, only one-tenth of the country—about 12 million hectares—is forest.

The fallout of this altered landscape extends beyond droughts and famines. In 2012, Mali weathered three successive coups and counter-coups and a simultaneous Tuareg uprising in the northern desert. Last year, it became
the newest frontline of the global war on terror
after Islamist
linked to al Qaeda hijacked that
rebellion; now
they are fighting
against French-led United Nation
troops backed by
the United States. Many analysts,
including Caitlin E.
Werrell at The Center
for Climate and Security, and the University of Michigan Islamic
Studies historian Juan Cole,
consider the turmoil a facet of
desertification and link the jihad to the depletion of natural resources in one of the poorest countries on the world’s poorest continent. The political unraveling echoes the steady and inexorable deterioration of the land itself, as if under Mali’s pustulating skin her very skeleton is creaking apart.

Yet even after two centuries of centralized urban control of rural resources abraded the people’s relationship with the Earth, and even after the introduction of modern tools, weapons, and livestock vaccinations have enabled a voracious draining of the land, there still exists in Mali a level of conservation ethic that for millennia had prevented the people from destroying their environment. The central premise of that ethic stems from a myth.

Most Malian traditions, explains Dr. Doulaye Konaté, president of the Association of African Historians, hold that natural resources are on lease to humans from gods, and that humans use the land according to their contract with the gods. Long after most Malians converted to Islam in the 19th century, spiritual leaders here continued to serve as interlocutors with the old divinities and doled out the permission to use the resources and the punishment for violating the restrictions, determining who could cut down a specific tree, hunt a particular animal, fish during a certain season. Many remain such guardians of the land to this day. And most Malians still populate waterways, the bush, the desert with powerful jinns that control these resources and penalize trespassers. Such beliefs imply an intimacy with the land, an attitude toward it not of ownership but of companionship.

Over months of ambulations with the nomads, I camped alongside the Bani River, laundered my clothes in it, broke Ramadan fast with its tepid water, forded it, swam its anastomosing currents. I’d thought I knew it well. The Bozo at Sindaga wear it like skin. They have no school, no electricity, no sanitation, no source of income but what the river yields. They have an innate memory of their connectedness. They cannot afford to unweave what we call nature from their identities.

Last summer, when Kayantau approached environmentalists in Djenné, the nearest big town about 10 miles upstream from Sindaga, he did not ask them to step in and save the river. He asked them to help the villagers remember, relearn, how to keep the river safe.

He saw my raised eyebrows, smiled, and added, “Do not look at an old question with eyes of today.”

The elder spoke to Hamma Ba, who oversees the directorate of fisheries at the district branch of Mali’s ministry of the environment. Ba also heads a tiny environmental nonprofit he founded a year ago with a $440,000 grant from the Global Climate Change Alliance, an agency the European Union established in 2007 to assist developing countries most affected by climate change. Ba’s nonprofit, which has a staff of five and goes by the French acronym AVDR, focuses on reforestation and education about climate change. Ba offered to donate to Sindaga some tree saplings to secure the crumbling shore if Kayantau rallied the villagers to do the planting. Thoughtful reintroduction of native species is being used to restore riparian ecology worldwide. Scientists credit the planting of sea-buckthorns along the banks of the Onggi River, which was dredged and diverted during the Mongolian gold rush of the 1990s, with that river’s improved flow through the Gobi Desert into Lake Ulaan. And in the U.S., the ongoing reforestation of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley by the Wetlands Reserve Program is creating a buffer around the wetlands that helps prevent soil degradation, provide habitat for wildlife, and reduce agricultural runoff into the Gulf of Mexico.

Malian conservationists obsess about reforestation. It is the cornerstone of Mali’s national climate change policy: “We have a five-year program to reforest, starting in 2014. Millions of trees! All this made by people!” Ousmane Ag Rhissa, the minister of environment, told me.

Planting trees, counting trees, and agroforestry are the focus of dozens of Malian non-governmental organizations, big and small, most of them funded by the European Union. Then there is the Great Green Wall, an 11-nation African project to erect a barrier of trees that, when or if completed, would measure more than 25 million acres from Dakar to Djibouti and prevent degradation of the soil, halt desertification. (An acre of trees may absorb between two and three tons of carbon dioxide per year—so the Great Green Wall may reduce global emissions by between 50 and 80 million tons.)

Pan out from the flat adobes of Sindaga. Imagine: the fishermen and their families, contributors to the largest horticultural endeavor in human history.

Ba acknowledges that a handful of villagers planting 13,560 acacias on 370 Sahelian acres cannot undo deforestation. His goals are much humbler—though, in a way, also much loftier: He hopes that conservation projects such as the one in Sindaga will remind rural Malians to be more responsible toward the erratic landscape of a changing planet.

“You cannot protect nature if there is a separation between you and it,” says Ba. Something as simple as planting trees along a riverbank, he says, encourages the planters to thoughtfully reconnect with their environment. It allows them to re-imagine the potential of the Sahel, to see the possibility for a different, healthier landscape and a different relationship with it, and to see that they have the power to create both.

When I visited the historian Konaté in Bamako, he told me, “There are many ways of protecting the environment, spiritual ways,” He saw my raised eyebrows, smiled, and added, “Do not look at an old question with eyes of today.”

I remembered then a similar notion the writer Barry Lopez expressed in The Rediscovery of North America. To bridge the chasm between the ransacked landscape of the New World and the descendants of the Europeans who for centuries have exploited it, Lopez proposes inquiring of the land and its original inhabitants how best to coexist with it. “We are curious,” he writes in his short, forceful manifesto, “about indigenous systems of natural philosophy, how our own Western proposals might be answered by some bit of this local wisdom, an insight into how to conduct our life here so that it might be richer.”

It is such gentle relearning, I think, that makes the men of Sindaga role models for modern Western environmentalists. Their effort to protect their ancestral fishing grounds comes at a time when scholars in the West are reassessing their own approach to conservation. The classic, divested strategy—most eloquently manifested in vast, unpopulated national parks—has outlived itself because it further demolishes the bonds that once existed between humans and the rest of the natural world. The Canadian writer J.B. MacKinnon writes that conservation’s “most fatal flaw, perhaps, has been to encourage the separation of people from nature: parks here, humans there, and there, and there.”

What is necessary today, some conservationists propose, is a type of ecological restoration in which humans are everyday participants, immediately invested in nature because they understand themselves to be a part of it. We all should be planting back the bush—in our homes, communities, cities, parks. To do so, we can set our bearings by the fishers of Sindaga, who are remembering, faithfully and without fanfare, the ancient practice of nurturing their home ground. Our livelihood, too, depends on a intimate relationship with our environment.

In November, scores of Fulani nomads en route from wet-season grazing grounds to the lush dry-season pastures around Djenné passed through Sindaga driving thousands of lyre-horned Zebus, sheep, and goats. My hosts and I were among them. The Fulani stayed on the Bani River for about a week, but that was all it took for their animals to strip the spindly twigs of prickly acacia of most of their sensitive bipinnate leaves. But after we moved on, the saplings—some with chewed-off tips, some with only one or two flecks of glaucous green surviving on the reddish stems— were still there, marking a sheer, hopeful grid along the Bani’s eastern bank just north of the village. Every few days Lasina Kayantau rode his scooter to check on the trees. One afternoon, I left the campground where my Fulani companions had stopped in a copse of thorn trees, and tagged along.

It was odd to watch Kayantau’s sandaled, thick frame move through this imaginary future forest. His hands were flat, massive, shingly with callus, dry-cracked into grooves. Miniature maps of the Sahel. I tried to take pictures but couldn’t: Kayantau was simply too large, the shoots too small—too small for his figure; too small, it seemed, for that unforgiving, cauterized land.

Kayantau showed me two of the five saplings he had planted himself. Scraggy, anemic twigs stuck out of trampled alluvium a few steps away from a dry gulch that, when it rains, dumps clayey mud into the river. Several other saplings were there, too. I don’t know how he could tell them apart.

Kayantau stood over the seedlings, but when he spoke, he turned to the Bani, choppy and blindingly white in the 5 o’clock autumn sun.

“I want to leave a mark,” he told the river. “After I die, I want the people in the village who elected me their elder to remember me. To say, Lasina, he did something. Lasina kept the river alive for our children.”

Anna Badkhen writes about people in extremis. Her latest nonfiction book is set in Afghanistan. She is working on Walking with Abel, a book about transience.

This article originally ran as a print-only Prelude in our Spring 2014 Quarterly.