OPA CISSOKHO

Senegal,

Opa Cissokho is providing farmers with incentives to be agents in forest conservation. In the Tambacounda region, much of the coal and wood used for household fuel comes from felling trees. Forests are disappearing because of ignorance about the environmental consequences, as well as a lack of natural resource management systems. Opa trains farmers to become agroforest agents and generate additional income from forest products such as Arabic gum. Through this understanding, farmers discover new potential in trees and forests, and in their own economic citizenship. Opa, a native of the area, supports the initiative but it is maintained by local farmers.

This profile below was prepared when Opa Cissokho was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

INTRODUCTION

Opa Cissokho is providing farmers with incentives to be agents in forest conservation. In the Tambacounda region, much of the coal and wood used for household fuel comes from felling trees. Forests are disappearing because of ignorance about the environmental consequences, as well as a lack of natural resource management systems. Opa trains farmers to become agroforest agents and generate additional income from forest products such as Arabic gum. Through this understanding, farmers discover new potential in trees and forests, and in their own economic citizenship. Opa, a native of the area, supports the initiative but it is maintained by local farmers.




THE NEW IDEA

For years, farmers in Senegal’s impoverished Tambacounda region have relied on selling timber to use as household fuel. Unfortunately, unaware of the environmental consequences of this and other practices, combined with a lack of natural resource management systems, has resulted in a heavy depletion of the areas forest reserves. In response, Opa is changing the relationship between economic necessity and environmental stewardship, encouraging farmers to sell other safe, commercially viable forest products in place of timber. By providing an incentive for farmers to protect the forests, Opa has turned local farmers who previously cut down trees into their fiercest defenders.

During the non-growing season, farmers serve as agroforest agents, receiving payment for preventing the region’s historically devastating brush fires. While Opa ensures that farmers retain local ownership over the management of resources, he also works to promote their opinions and strategies at the highest level of policymaking. Opa aims to replicate the model throughout the country, creating a collective, unified voice for sustainable forest conservation in Senegal. These improvements have translated into greater political stability throughout the region, leading to a reduction in violence and conflict over resources.




THE PROBLEM

Frequently overlooked by the national government, Tambacounda has long-suffered from mismanagement and exploitative local leadership. As a result, despite its once impressive natural resource wealth, the region remains one of the poorest and least developed areas in Senegal.

Logging and bush fires in the dense forests of Tambacounda have had a devastating impact on the region’s formerly rich biodiversity. The sharp decline in natural resources has been a leading factor behind the widespread poverty, high infant and maternal mortality, limited business development, and lack of infrastructure found throughout Tambacounda. Meanwhile, the government has failed to deliver the technology, funding, and autonomy to the region that would enable its residents to generate new products.




THE STRATEGY

Opa begins by organizing forums in existing community centers, where he presents the economic benefits of preserving trees to local farmers and their families and opens the issue to public debate. Using the farmers’ knowledge and input, he then identifies income generating projects that enhance the natural economic and environmental benefits of conservation and contribute to broader community-identified goals.

So far, Opa’s efforts in the region have focused on the cultivation of Arabic gum, derived from the Acacia tree found widely throughout Tambacounda. Arabic gum is primarily used in the food industry, where it acts as a stabilizer in soft drinks, marshmallows, chewing gum, and other foods. It can also be found in watercolor paint, shoe polish, and a variety of pharmaceutical and cosmetics products.

Opa first organizes the farmers into a local cooperative, which provides them with a better chance to negotiate prices and market their products. He has also developed new methods for collecting and processing the gum that, unlike other collection techniques, do not harm the tree. Therefore, farmers have a competitive advantage over traditional growers; enabling them to charge higher prices for their product. These qualities make the new industry both more lucrative and more sustainable than tree cutting. Women are the primary producers of Arabic gum, and as a result, they are assuming new economic clout in their communities.

Today, the cooperatives cultivate Arabic gum across an area of more than 500 hectares, bringing an estimated US$82,000 to the region. The farmers’ higher incomes have translated into increased tax payments for the national government, further enhancing investment in social services and infrastructure in the previously ignored region. Once the cultivation is established, the communities agree to pay their own expenses for further trainings and seminars. At this stage, local organizing committees take over management, with fifty-eight committees in operation today.

Taking advantage of the coop’s organizational structure, Opa disseminates other environmental information during the farmers’ regular meetings. He celebrates the improvements in forest preservation with festival days and art shows; encouraging the farmers to think of the region’s forests not as mere commodities, but as a part of their inherited culture.

However, Arabic gum and related forest products are grown and collected for only four months of the year. During the remaining eight months, Opa trains farmers to serve as agro-forest agents. Farmers learn how to prevent and manage the damage created by brush fires. After learning how their own burning and agricultural techniques have negatively impacted the environment, the farmers become lifelong protectors of the forests.

Finally, Opa advocates policy change in natural resource management at the national and international levels. Local authorities retain full control over resource management, and he has partnered with other interested groups to carefully replicate the effort throughout the region. Sustainability and local ownership thus remain central to his approach, thanks to the limited scope of each new expansion. Having begun work with eighty villages in 2005, Opa aims to establish an international forest charter to compel sustainable actions across Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania.




THE PERSON

Opa grew up in a large family in Bakel, a community at the crossroads of Senegal, Mauritania, and Mali. His father, a celebrated veterinarian who helped stop the spread of bovine disease in the region, taught Opa early on how to communicate with diverse populations. As a result of this upbringing, he speaks several languages and feels at home in all three countries.

Opa worked for years in government and COs, where he focused on the design and long-term implementation of programs in Tambacounda. There, he pioneered a leadership program for girls and launched initiatives covering a community clean-up effort, income generation programs, and several cultural festivals that celebrated Tambacounda’s rich heritage and natural wealth. It was during a stint with the Division of Agricultural Statistics that he had an opportunity to visit hundreds of villages in the area. He was immediately struck by the fatalistic attitude shared by many of the local people, as they had few options to overcome the region’s widespread poverty. At the same time, he noted that worsening environmental standards had accompanied an increase in the number of conflicts over natural resources. He recognized a way to address both challenges, and in 2005 launched his organization, Inter-village for the Exploitation of Natural Resources and Agricultural (EXPERNA).




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