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Senegalese Children Combat Desertification

Villagers gather in front of a dam near the village of Labgar in northern Senegal on 12 Nov 2009. There is little to show for it apart from small acacia shrubs, but Senegal's leader believes in a Great Green Wall that will stem desertification across Afri

Northern Senegal is on the front lines of the fight against desertification. Teachers are enlisting children to protect their village from the advancing Sahara.

The children in this classroom are not reviewing grammar. They are learning how to identify biodegradable garbage, how to make compost, and how to water the trees they have planted in the schoolyard.

It's part of the "eco-school" program in Guédé-Chantier, a village in Senegal's Fouta region along the country's border with Mauritania.

This once fertile river valley is on the front lines of Senegal's fight against desertification. Rivers are drying up, grazing land for cattle is scarce, and the dry soil is hard to farm.

Scientists blame climate change and poor farming practices for the desert's advance.

A teacher shows a student how to tend a newly planted tree
A teacher shows a student how to tend a newly planted tree

Elementary school principal Oumar Sow is director of the eco-school program in Guédé-Chantier. He says farming methods in the village have to change.

Each year, he says there is a drop in the harvest. He says the soil is worn out, partially due to poor crop rotation. For decades, he says, we have just grown rice and tomatoes, rice and tomatoes.

At the U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen last year, Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, stressed the importance of planting the "Great Green Wall," a 15-kilometer-wide barrier of trees that would cross 11 countries and halt the spread of the Sahara.

But progress has been slow, and Guédé-Chantier has taken matters into its own hands.

Teachers in the village have been mobilizing children in the fight against the desert's onslaught. Now, small trees dot the once barren schoolyard of a village elementary school, along with special trash cans for biodegradable waste.

As boys water the school's trees, a teacher gives them tips. Children are also encouraged to plant trees at home and teach their families how to compost. Prizes are given for planting the most trees and picking up the largest number of plastic bags.

Program director Sow says this "show, don't tell" philosophy is key to the program's success.

He says he tells his students that they should use manure, which feeds the plants, but does not stop there. That is just theory, he says. He says he has to go out to garden with them. He then adds that they spread the manure and watch the plants grow with nothing but the manure.

The hands-on strategy is also applied to "field schools" for adults already working the land.

But Sow says it's difficult to get adults to change, for example, to stop using pesticides on their tomatoes and other crops, which he says is a persistent problem in the village. He explains that in the long term, chemicals wear out the land, kill animals and cause skin irritations in humans.

Sow says he would go as far as to say that it is impossible to teach adults. But with children, he says, once they learn something, it can become a reflex.

Watching a man spray insecticides in a tomato field outside the village Aliou Sow, 12, frowned and said he wished farmers understood the damage many are doing.

He says that we need to protect the earth because this land belongs to us as villagers and as Africans.

Aliou says one day maybe he will be farming these fields. "Eco-school" teachers are counting on it.