State of the Planet

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Lisa Ilboudo Nébié: Studying Food Security, Environmental Changes and Migration in West Africa

This Q&A is part of a short series highlighting some of the Earth Institute’s women scientists as part of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

Elisabeth Ilboudo Nébié sitting on concrete wall
Elisabeth Ilboudo Nébié sits by one of the major dams of the Sondré-Est Pastoral Zone in the Center-South region of Burkina Faso in the rainy season. Livestock rely on this water for their subsistence, especially at the onset of the dry season when there is less water in ponds near settlements. On average, the rainy season lasts between May-October, but these dates vary annually. The site receives about 880-900 mm of rainfall annually, but this also varies. Photo courtesy Elisabeth Ilboudo Nébié

As a human ecologist, Elisabeth Ilboudo Nébié looks at the impact of the environment on people. Also, how people are adapting to environmental change.

After graduating with a master’s in international development and social change, Ilboudo Nébié observed that one of the reasons why development projects have failed in the past was because they didn’t take the time to work closely with local communities. “I want to be the type of development practitioner who can work with local communities and that’s why the major I chose during my Ph.D. was anthropology,” said Ilboudo Nébié.

women gathered around a map
Participatory mapping of pastoral resources, using satellite imagery. This was the first time these women saw a photograph of their village from above. They had never seen a map either, but after Ilboudo Nébié and her colleagues helped them identify key features (i.e., dams, roads), they were very successful at mapping key resources. Photo courtesy Elisabeth Ilboudo Nébié

While working with her advisor, who focused on rural communities’ perceptions of climate change and the impact of climate change on their livelihoods, she decided to further delve into the interaction between the environment and communities.

After completing her Ph.D., Ilboudo Nébié won a competitive Earth Institute post-doctoral fellowship to study food security trends, environmental changes, the drivers of human migration, and climate services for pastoral communities in West Africa. She recently completed this research at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), and now works at the International Development Research Centre in Canada.

In a conversation with State of the Planet, she spoke about her observations in the field as a human ecologist.

Can you tell us about your research on the relationship between the re-greening of the West African Sahel (a semi-arid region that extends from Senegal to Sudan) and food security trends?

The Sahel region of West Africa used to be considered a desertification hotspot. But in the last decades, studies have shown that the area has been re-greening. We are delving into what is the impact of this visible re-greening on food security and it is a long-term project. But for the past two years, we looked at climate shocks and their impact on food security.

We wanted to do this research work in Burkina Faso (a landlocked country in West Africa that has endured recurring droughts) but due to security reasons caused by political unrest in the country, we focused most of our research work in Senegal. We are trying to find out how climate shocks impact food security in the country, and also to identify households that are more or less food secure. I conducted this first study with my mentor, Alessandra Giannini, a climate scientist at IRI, in collaboration with Diaba Ba, the head of Vulnerability Analysis Mapping Unit in the country office of the World Food Programme in Senegal.

thin cows drinking water and grazing
Landscape in Sondré-Est after the first rains. Emaciated livestock that survived the tough dry season starts to access limited water and growing pastures. Photo courtesy Elisabeth Ilboudo Nébié

What were some of the findings from your research work in the last two years that surprised you the most?

The southern part of Senegal is more humid but it’s also the least food secure area in the country. This was surprising for me because you would normally expect a humid region to receive good rainfall and satisfactory agricultural production. But that’s not what we saw in Senegal. One of the plausible explanations for this is the ongoing Casamance conflict between the government of Senegal and natives of this region, who are ethnically and religiously distinct from the rest of the country and are pressing for their independence. Another possible explanation is poor access to southern areas in terms of transportation. South Senegal is far away from urban centers. The Casamance region of southern Senegal is actually separated from the rest of the country by the Gambia, which makes reaching Dakar, where the economy is concentrated, complicated.

What could be some of the reasons why the Sahel region has been experiencing re-greening?

At a small-scale level, farmers in the Sahel have taken up initiatives to grow more trees and there have been other local water and soil conservation initiatives as well. This pattern of re-greening is very patchy. It is only since the last 30 years when rainfall has started improving in this region of Africa. But when you look at annual rainfall from one year to another one, it varies. We plan on going to areas that have witnessed some re-greening to learn more about these local water and soil conservation initiatives, and also visit other areas that are still arid, to gain a better understanding of the ground realities. When I was still in my Ph.D. program and conducted fieldwork in a community in Burkina Faso where locals were involved in initiatives for the conservation of water and soil, the locals claimed that famines, as they experienced them in the past, cannot happen anymore because of their increasing access to early warning systems and adaptation strategies. So definitely there is a relationship between using these adaptation techniques and also having better agricultural productivity.

Your Ph.D. dissertation was on famers’ and herders’ livelihoods in your home country, Burkina Faso. From your fieldwork, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges that farmer/herder livelihoods face in Burkina Faso?

Some of the biggest challenges are rainfall variability, population pressure and access to adaptation resources.

Herders used to be more mobile. They moved seasonally along with their livestock from dry places in the north to more humid areas in the south. Following major droughts in the 1970s-80s, the government decided to resettle the herders in the southern part of the country because of farmer-herder conflicts during seasonal migrations and the effect of droughts on livestock in the herders’ settlements in the north. Southern Burkina Faso used to be sparsely populated because it was humid and infested by parasitic worms (Onchocerca volvulus) that cause a disease known as onchocerciasis, or river blindness. By the time the government succeeded in eradicating river blindness, more people were open to living in that region. They were also investing a lot in these areas to improve intensive agriculture and also intensive herding. So, herders could just stay in one place and become easier to manage and access for development projects.

Now, there is population pressure in the south and land is disputed between native farmers and migrant herders. The herders want to protect the land that was given to them, and the farmers now also claim this land as part of the ancestral land. And on top of this, there is rainfall variability and they have been experiencing recurrent floods in certain areas. There is declining resource availability in terms of grass for livestock and available agricultural land for farmers. The herders’ livestock keeps entering fields and there is an increase in the number of conflicts between farmers and herders.

women sitting in shade
A focus group with Fulani women discussing natural resource management in times of rainfall variability. Photo courtesy Elisabeth Ilboudo Nébié

How might these conflicts be mitigated?

In order to adapt to these changes, these communities need access to suitable financial and technical resources.

In terms of policymaking, governments need to avoid putting farmers and herders in one category. These communities are ethnically and sometimes religiously different from each other and are involved in different livelihood activities.

It’s true that nowadays one way of adapting is mixing livelihoods. So you find a lot of agro-pastoralists: people who are doing both, cultivating and herding. But for instance, when herders adopt agriculture, their way of cultivating is different from conventional farming in that area. They tend to have smaller size fields, grow fodder and/or dual purpose crops with the aim to feed their livestock and themselves.

It’s important to note that these communities also belong to different ethnic groups. So, when we bring them all together, we cannot always have efficient interventions. In terms of making new policies, it is important to consider these differences and design targeted policies and interventions, even if this can be challenging.

I give myself the mission to show policy makers and development practitioners that these communities are different and we cannot just have a one-size-fits all solutions approach. At the IRI, my work involved pastoralists because these communities are underserved in terms of climate services.

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