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Defend the Planet

Photo Essay: The real faces of climate change

Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

This article was contributed by Amanda Lenhardt in support of The Overseas Development Institute.

Growing up in a small town in Northern Canada, climate change wasn’t something I thought of often. And once I did learn about the global impacts of a changing climate a little later in life, the topic seemed too daunting to fully process. I tend to think of myself as an optimist, of the opinion that through thoughtful action we can see the positive changes we want for the world. The environment was always my one exception though, and while I’m typically up for a good challenge, I chose to work on global poverty issues because this seemed more within the realm of the possible than anything related to climate change.  

It wasn’t until a recent trip to Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, that some light was shed on my gloomy outlook for the future of the planet. It was there, at the front lines of the fight against climate change, that I witnessed people taking up the task that I had been too timid to even consider. 

Burkina1.jpgImage: Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

Amidst all the talk of climate change, for most people dominating the discussion, climate change is a distant concept - either it's something of concern for the future, or something experienced elsewhere. For farmers in Northern Burkina Faso on the edge of the Sahel desert though, climate change is a daily reality.  The temperaments of the climate dictate whether the season’s crops will yield enough food for families to eat, and whether enough will be produced to sell in order to afford to send kids to school or attend to health needs.

burkina2.jpgImage: Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

Last year, like many years in recent memory, the rains came late. Uncertainty has become the new normal for those living off of an unforgiving landscape where population pressures, deforestation and unsustainable farming practices have paved the way for the Sahel desert to creep ever closer. 

burkina3.jpgImage: Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

But farmers in Northern Burkina Faso are not sitting idly as the climate changes around them. For many years they have been adapting farming techniques to conserve water and regenerate soil in an effort to reclaim land from the desert and to adapt to changing weather patterns. 

burkina4.jpgImage: Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

Over the last 25 years, around 200,000 to 300,000 hectares of desertified lands have been reclaimed in Burkina Faso through the labour and investments of smallholder farmers, and with the support of national NGOs, international donors and government services. 

burkina5.jpgImage: Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

The use of improved farming techniques has meant that more food is produced and that families’ periods of food shortage have been significantly reduced. Although drought remains a threat year-on-year, the devastating famines experienced in the 1970s have so far been averted.  

burkinafasomother.jpgImage: Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

However these gains are fragile, and many of the poorest farmers are unable to take on any further investment or dedicate any additional labour to continue to help the region adapt. More needs to be done to translate promises made by the world’s leaders into practical and effective support for families on the front lines of the fight against climate change.  

burkina7.jpgImage: Amanda Lenhardt / ODI

I left Burkina Faso feeling both humbled by the tireless efforts of people who are combatting desertification and climatic change, but also with a newfound optimism for the efficacy of actions towards a more sustainable world.  For those of us feeling overwhelmed by what that task might entail, one way to start is to extend support to those who’ve already taken up the challenge, as their fight is also our common fight. 

To find out more about how farmers in Burkina Faso are finding solutions to climate change, take a look at this short film: