CASSOU, Burkina Faso, May 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Nezeledoun resource centre in Cassou village is a hive of activity, unlike the thirsty farms nearby, as women cultivate tree seedlings and vegetables here, thanks to a borehole that provides much-needed water.
The centre in Ziro province, 160 km south of the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, was set up last year with support from international forest research bodies and Burkina Faso's Institute for Environment and Agricultural Research (INERA).
They approached Diasso Dialia, a woman from Cassou village who negotiated with middle-men buying locally produced shea butter known as "women's gold", and asked her to help enlist her peers to start a tree nursery in the area.
Shea trees are important to Burkina Faso's economy, as they yield nuts that are crushed into a creamy off-white or yellow butter widely used in soaps, cosmetics and food. But climate change threatens to undermine this traditional business.
In the past, the region's small-scale farmers relied on six months of rainfall between May and October to grow sorghum and okra.
The surrounding Cassou forest produced enough shea nuts and nere seeds - used to make seasoning balls called soumbala - to feed families until the next rainy season.
But conditions have changed over the last 15 years, as rainfall declined and became more erratic. This has affected the flowering season of the shea and nere trees, harming yields.
The water reservoir Dialia relied on for her livestock now dries up months before the next rainy season.
Until the resource centre opened, local women were finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.
"Each home depends on shea butter for income and soumbala for food. We have been harvesting from the forest but we do not replenish it," Dialia said.
The centre, one of four in the province, has attracted more than 260 members, nearly all women. They have managed to grow 160,000 tree seedlings, including shea, baobab and tamarind, with the water from just one borehole.
"Working here ensures I go home with green vegetables and a jerrycan of water every evening," explained Dialia, now chairperson of the centre.
Both the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Agroforestry Centre are helping local government and communities improve degraded forest by planting native species. They also provide training in how to manage natural resources better and run the centres.
DEMAND FOR LAND & FUEL
Michael Balinga, a landscape ecologist with CIFOR, said around 450 hectares (1,112 acres) of the Cassou forest have become highly degraded due to demand for farm land and fuel wood.
The Cassou forest supplies 85 percent of the wood energy needed in Ouagadougou.
The savannah of trees interspersed with shrubs accounted for nearly 45 percent of the Cassou area until around 2000, but has shrunk dramatically to cover only 5 percent in 2013, Balinga explained.
Over the years, southern Burkina Faso - a fertile region receiving 800-1,000 mm of rainfall annually - has seen an influx of migrants from the north of the country and Ivory Coast, seeking farmland and grazing.
"A severe drought in Burkina Faso in the 1980s saw the northerners migrate to Ivory Coast, but the 2000 political crisis brought them back (to the south). They are clearing the forest for settlement," said Balinga.
The government has an agreement with communities around the forest allowing them to harvest wood for 20 years in certain locations, as long as they are left to regenerate.
Wahadao Benao from neighbouring Vrassan village said immigrants did not respect the forest agreement, and were clearing forest for farm land.
"Shea and nere trees give very good charcoal," she said. "With the reduced rains and cows eating every sprouting plant, these trees are no longer regenerating naturally."
According to Pascaline Coulibaly, a forest management researcher with INERA, the 30,000-hectare forest is the main source of livelihood for around 150,000 people in Cassou, Vrassan, Bakata and Gao departments.
"Shea butter and nere are the gold of Burkina Faso," Coulibaly said.
Cassou, for example, generates about 3.8 million CFA ($6,500) from shea butter and 8.5 million CFA ($14,450) from nere each year.
Despite this income, World Health Organization data show that Burkina Faso's children suffer from high rates of malnutrition. As a result, nearly one in three is stunted, and eight in 10 are anaemic.
"Access to food is a challenge," said Nignana Aissaha, a 50-year-old mother of six. "We harvest baobab and tamarind leaves, and wild grapes for sauce, and depend on nere seed to make soumbala."
According to Catherine Dembele, an associate scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre, fruit and vegetables - like those grown at the resource centres - provide micronutrients and vitamins lacking in many staple foods.
They are also more tolerant to climate extremes and have medicinal value for people and livestock, offering a potential source of income.
Dembele said the tree seedlings cultivated in the resource centre nurseries will be replanted in the forest, on farms and at schools, with each group receiving 50 CFA per tree.
When the rainy season arrived in May last year, the communities working with the centres planted 20,000 trees. This May, they aim to plant 300,000 trees, hoping to reach half a million within four years to restore the degraded Cassou forest.
(Reporting by Sophie Mbugua; editing by Megan Rowling)
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