Songs and sanctions help regreen Sudan’s desert villages

Sunday 08/01/2017
A 2015 file picture shows members of Sudan’s Nuba community performing a traditional dance during the Nuba Mountains Cultural Heritage Festival. (AFP)

Albaida, Sudan - The women of Sudan’s North Kordofan state used to be famed for their war songs urging men to defend their meagre de­sert assets of cattle, bush and wa­tering holes. Now, in villages such as Albaida, surrounded by deep orange sand dunes, women chant odes to protect their environment from a new enemy: climate change.

“Oh, lemon tree, I plant you be­cause you are good for climbing so that I can get enough phone signal to send my love messages,” sing a dozen women sitting under a lalop tree, tapping upturned buckets as percussion.

People in the village of 300 fami­lies have planted approximately 9,000 trees in the past year to stop the advance of the gezan — sand dunes — aided by disappearing tree barriers and desert storms blasting through the grass-thatched houses.

“Now it’s getting better. We don’t wake up and find sand covering everything,” said farmer Maryam Mohammed Quoreshi.

Quoreshi said she remembers when people did not have to walk far to find clusters of trees to pro­vide fodder for animals. Farmers were wealthy because “there was enough rain for every living thing” and they tapped plentiful, thorny acacia trees for gum arabic.

A series of intense droughts, which started in 1984 and lasted several years, killed most of the desert-hardy acacias and turned farms to dust. This caused men to migrate north to search the desert for gold, harvest dates or scour Khartoum for odd jobs, as families waited for them to send money home.

“We never had any plans. You’d just wake up in the morning and deal with that day,” Quoreshi said. “You’d live in a constant state of anxiety.”

Villagers said the area never re­covered from those years of ruin and that temperatures have been rising and rainfall fluctuating since, causing further desertification.

North Kordofan state suffers from extreme fluctuations in rain­fall, which varies from 150 mil­limetres to 450 millimetres per year, leaving incomes vulnerable to frequent drought cycles, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said.

Eltigani Khalifa Mukhtar, direc­tor of administration at North Kor­dofan’s Ministry of Agriculture, said rain patterns began changing about 15 years ago, causing wide­spread crop failures every three years that led to mass hunger.

“Some people migrated, some people died — especially children,” he said.

In some of the villages he has visited in recent months “there are one or two men left. That means in some villages, more than 90% mi­grate”, he explained, adding that an estimated 2 sq. kilometres of ar­able land is lost to desert each year.

To stop desertification, the gov­ernment has embarked on refor­estation projects, planting 2 million trees — mainly acacias — during the past two years and aiming for 30 million within five years.

Mukhtar said he hoped this would rehabilitate the gum arabic belt and “create a barrier to shifting sands covering all our state”.

Since November 2014, UNDP has launched pilot climate change ad­aptation projects in seven villages in North Kordofan to further the national reforestation programme and build community resilience.

In Albaida, UNDP established tree nurseries and planting pro­grammes and installed solar water pumps to feed vegetable gardens. The 2-year project has educated people about the role of trees in protecting fertile top soil from heat, erosion and sand.

“We were told we should not cut trees to make the environment bet­ter and we have been noticing that the weather has improved and the sand is not moving like before,” said Quoreshi.

A cooperative of 60 women, di­vided into groups of ten, grows po­tatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, car­rots, okra and greens year-round. Most of the produce is sold to ven­dors from the nearby town of Bara and state capital El Obeid.

Sudan is applying to the Green Climate Fund for financial support to scale up similar climate change adaptation projects across all nine states.

In addition to the songs penned by women to celebrate each type of tree, the community has come up with strict rules and punishments to protect them.

“It is forbidden to cut trees,” said villager Omer Nourin, clasping his wrists together to show what hap­pens to people who cannot pay fines handed down by an enforce­ment committee that tree-fellers appear before. “You have to go Bara prison.”

The community has allowed some villagers to languish in jail for weeks while their relatives try to raise the money to pay the fine of 500-1,000 Sudanese pounds (about $77-$155) to get them out.

Mukhtar and other climate change experts take a similar line towards developed countries, whose higher greenhouse gas emis­sions are contributing to the warm­ing of desert areas where summers can surpass 50 degrees Celsius.

“The rich countries made the problem, so they have to help us solve this,” he said. “Whoever pol­lutes the environment has to pay.”

This article was prepared for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change.