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AGS.JAPON Action for Greening Sahel - Supporting the Peoples of Africa’s Sahel, a Region Confronted by Advancing Desertification -

Mr. Toshiki Okamoto, AGS Director General

Mr. Toshiki Okamoto, AGS Director General

December’s Close Up introduces AGS. JAPON Action for Greening Sahel (hereinafter referred to as “AGS”). AGS is a non-government organization (NGO) that works to protect certain environments in Africa. In the Sahel region situated in the continent’s west, due to land aridification and devastation brought about by advancing desertification, a serious threat is being posed to the livelihoods of local peoples. In responding to this threat, for a quarter of a century AGS has conducted aid activities in the Sahel, one of its aims being to stabilize livelihoods, another being to achieve environmental regeneration and protection.
In particular, AGS has delivered aid to the region’s interior, where the Sahel and a number of national borders meet. This is an area that has traditionally been difficult for aid activities to access. So what about the various issues that desertification has brought about? What sort of measures is AGS undertaking along with local peoples? On this occasion we discussed the situation with AGS Director General, Mr. Toshiki Okamoto.

Q. Please tell me what led to the establishment of AGS?


With advancing desertification, forestry losses and chronic food shortages, the Sahel is called the “Famine Belt.”

A. AGS was established by volunteers in 1991 in order to offer aid to the peoples of the Sahel in Africa. The livelihoods of the region’s peoples were being threatened by environmental desertification. At that time, there was a massive famine taking place in both Ethiopia and the Sahel. Thus, when our previous Director General witnessed reports of an unfolding tragedy, in addition to being greatly saddened, they made a decision to act because “something needed to be done.” We undertook our first project in the Republic of Chad. As to why Chad was selected specifically, a number of countries were analyzed as potential targets in advance of AGS commencing its activities. The result of this research was that Chad’s predicament was identified as being the most serious. Moreover, there was then no aid flowing from Japan to Chad. Also, in that a phenomenon which highlighted the Sahel’s desertification was the ongoing contraction of Lake Chad, we decided to offer aid to the country. Following on from our initial work in Chad, in 1996 we commenced activities in Burkina Faso. At the time, the nation was in a similar situation to Chad, and because it was also beyond the reach of Japanese aid, we felt it would be a suitable place in which to operate. We also became active in Tanzania through cooperating on a project with another aid organization in 2006. Currently, however, due to a decline in public safety, it has become difficult for aid groups to operate in Chad. Thus, we are currently only active in Burkina Faso.

Q. Please tell me what sort of problems are arising from the Sahel’s desertification.

A. Desertification does not mean that desert areas expand in size. Rather through the process of land degradation, “desertification” as a term means the creation of more and more land on which it proves difficult to grow anything. However, it is currently unclear at what speed desertification is actually occurring. Moreover, when deciding whether desertification as a phenomenon is advancing or not, it is not really possible to judge by merely looking at the state of trees and forests. Rather, it is necessary to view the situation from the perspective of how difficult the livelihoods of the peoples living in impacted regions have become. To express this differently, as desertification advances, agricultural harvests decline, and you end up with food shortages. To wit, food has to be purchased to compensate for such shortfalls, and such purchases require that people have greater incomes. Accordingly, it is readily apparent that desertification results in a worsening of the livelihoods of the peoples living in impacted regions.


Images of desertification. The land is devastated through erosion (L).
Crops can end up withering due to lower ground fertility caused by land degradation (R).

Q. What sort of measures is AGS undertaking in response to desertification?

A. It is not a simple task to return land to its former state once desertification has occurred. In terms of the regions in which we are active, “locations where degradation is progressing which means the livelihoods of the peoples living there are worsening, however, there is still something in the way of prevention that can be done in order to improve the situation.” In such regions, we take steps to improve the land, to plant forests, and to establish protected areas in order to prevent a further weakening of the vegetation coverage.
Furthermore, it is also necessary to have the local people appreciate that unless their habits change to be in accordance with the changes that have occurred in the land and the forests, their livelihoods will not improve. However, it takes time to change the lifestyles that people have led up until now. Indeed, land degradation is not just a contemporary issue, it is also a problem that will confront future generations of children and grandchildren. Accordingly, we are not just active in the planting of new trees. Rather, we also conduct activities both in agriculture and in what I would call the “cash income” economy.


A protected area for vegetation established in Chad. The photos show (1999) (L) and 2002 (R).
A significant change can be seen between before and after the project.

Q. Please tell me what measures you are undertaking for the purpose of stabilizing the livelihoods of people?

A. Concerning food which is the single biggest issue confronting people in regions impacted by desertification, we are taking steps to suppress the impact of erosion on farming land. We are also disseminating farming technologies that can increase harvest yields. Such measures help to raise the land’s productivity. Furthermore, as a means by which to obtain cash income, we are proposing ways in which earnings can be increased in areas such as the sale of livestock and agricultural produce, etc., activities that are undertaken by women. For example, with respect to shea butter which is created by extracting shea oil from seeds harvested from trees which the locals grow themselves, rather than selling the shea butter as is, by processing it into soap, the value of the product is increased and so are the earnings derived from its sale. Furthermore, the scale of such operations has been greatly increased through the introduction of oil pressing equipment.


Establishing a stone barrier to prevent erosion occurring on farming land (L).
To increase the cash income of people, shea butter is shown here being processed into soap (R).

Q. Although AGS conducts activities that take root in the region, are they able to be continued through the efforts of the peoples who live there?

A. That is a topic that confronts all organizations involved in international cooperation and aid activities. Ideally, of course, the peoples living in a region would be capable of continuing a project even after an aid organization had concluded its participation. However, the reality is that there are more than a few examples where things do not turn out well. At AGS, our attitude is not just that projects are conducted to resolve specific issues, rather we believe that projects should be something that “stimulates” the local people. We are not just thinking that the local people are frustrated by a particular issue, rather we are interested in the ideas that they possess, by the things that they want to try. Indeed, there are cases where they have actually tried to do something themselves but things have not turned out well. By getting involved in such dialogues, if we are able to develop projects, then we can conduct projects which are in accordance with the wishes of the local population. Furthermore, if what they have tried to achieve previously has failed for technical reasons, we are able to hold seminars through which the locals can become familiar with the technologies in question. If their activities failed due to issues of finance, we can offer them support through the use of money provided by village or cooperative credit associations, etc. Through such actions, what we want to create is the framework which is the easiest for the local people to use in continuing a project once we have finished our own involvement.


Local people are encouraged to familiarize themselves with a number of skills such as the manufacturing of compost (L).
The photo on the right shows a seminar being conducted in a local language.

Q. If you have plans for any future activities or new initiatives, please tell me about them.

A. We are thinking about the full-scale commencement of activities that target women. With respect to aid that deals with the development of villages, in particular that which deals with agriculture, there is a tendency to look at the issues in terms of the targeting of men. In actual fact, however, the reality of the situation is that women also assist in agricultural work. Moreover, it is the women in these communities who are mainly responsible for handling the cash income of their households. In areas other than being responsible for the purchase of grains and other foodstuffs that compensate for shortfalls as well, there are an increasing number of situations in which cash is required such as when paying for medication and when paying for the education of children, etc. Thus, the increase in such situations has also led to an increasing role for women. The women that we find in the regions where we operate lead very vigorous lives, and on meeting them I am always overwhelmed (laughing). With respect to the rearing and sale of livestock and also the shea oil-pressing activities in which these women are very much involved, we would like to offer forms of aid which would allow for an increase in productivity, etc.


Other than the securing of food staples, women are responsible for making ends meet within their households.
Selling livestock (L) and making soap (R) are considered women’s jobs.

Q. What do you think is the best way by which we can become more familiar with African issues, considering that the continent is so far away?


A. Well even here in Japan there is no shortage of people who are worried about where there next meal will come from, whether it is today or tomorrow. With respect to the fact that the same issues exist in countries that we cannot readily see, I believe the most important thing is having the desire to want to know what is happening. By possessing such an interest, wouldn’t you agree that the perspective of the individual will grow? For example, what about the issue of labor and income disparity? That isn’t something that is happening in Japan alone. If that is used as an opportunity to do some research, then the perspective a person possesses will keep expanding. If that happens, there will at some point be links to Africa. Rather than just focusing on international cooperation and international aid as access points to knowledge, it is good enough for people to approach things from those genres in which they are interested.