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Endurance is the answer.

In Nigeria's rural, arid north, encroaching sand dunes constantly threaten to engulf homes, roads and farmland. In 1990, a European-funded programme began to help the local people stem the tide while tackling issues such as health, education and water access--but, as Zoe Petersen reports, the project has recently struggled with a chronic lack of money, political instability and a dwindling fleet of vehicles, surviving thanks to the perseverence and dedication of its staff.

It's the abrupt transition that surprises us. Rather than petering out, the thin haze of green that covers most of the landscape simply stops. We're standing on sandy pastureland covered with creeping grasses and yellow flowers the growth sparse during a rainy season that has failed to be rainy, with dry periods extending for weeks. Towards the horizon, near the border where northern Nigeria meets Niger, the grassland suddenly gives way to undulating dunes.

Ahmed Barde is in quiet conversation with the slight young man beside him. From what I can overhear, there seems to be an impromtu geography test in progress, and Yahaya Mato, the young man, is supplying answers in earnest detail, staring up at the sky to consider his replies.

I've come to the extreme north of Nigeria with Andrea Scaringella, an Italian photographer who, while investigating the tangled situation in the Niger Delta, had heard of an unusual success story on the other side of the country; a story of dedication and perseverance against difficult odds in a nation better known for corruption and internet scams. After the green humidity of the delta, and the crowds and banter of Port Harcourt, the contrast with the arid northeast is striking, its mainly Muslim inhabitants treating us with formal courtesy.

Barde and Mato, employees of a local rural-development programme, are taking us to an area severely affected by the encroachment of sand dunes. This occurs mainly during the dry season, when the wind lifts and carries the sand, moving the dunes in slow waves that gradually inundate villages and oases. Our companions want to show us a method of sand-dune fixation that was devised by the programme and has been proving effective in slowing and even halting dune movement in some areas. Barde is the head of agricultural production; Mato a junior colleague still in training.

The North East Arid Zone Development Programme (NEAZDP) was launched in 1990 with funding from the European Commission (EC) and the Nigerian federal and state governments. Ambitious in scale, it covered 22,860 square kilometres of northern Yobe state, one of the poorest regions in Nigeria, neglected by central government and facing decreasing levels of rainfall in an already arid climate. The challenges faced by the population seemed insurmountable: low income, male literacy of just 15 per cent (it's unmeasured among females but is assumed to be even lower), high infant mortality, decreasing soil fertility and the inexorable advance of the sand dunes.

In the face of these challenges, the traditional 'sectoral' approach to development was inadequate. Where rural development programmes conventionally tackle one sector at a time--water supply, for instance, or education--the NEAZDP was designed as an integrated programme to tackle numerous problems simultaneously. The objective of the programme was 'to motivate and assist the rural population to improve their standard of living by the proper use and management of their natural resources'.

BRIGHT START

Continuing the journey with our two guides, we move north from metalled road to dirt road to rutted tracks submerged in rainy-season pools that teem with frogs. Eventually, we're making our way across country, our route snaking to avoid crops. For hour after hour, we bump around in the back of one of the NEAZDP's 15 remaining pickup trucks, listening to Barde and Mato chatting with the driver, mixing English with Hausa, cheerfully oblivious to the relentless jolting.

The vehicle taking us to the dunes is one of 45 originally purchased for the programme with European funding. The story of why there are now only 15, most of them running with parts cannibalised from the original fleet, sheds light on the NEAZDP's struggle to survive.

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The NEAZDP was an ambitious programme from the outset, with European funding provisionally agreed for 15 years. 'It was the first attempt at an EU-funded large-scale participatory programme, and we struggled to learn how to make it community-led. We learned a great deal that we were later able to develop in the Niger Delta,' says Bill Knight, a sustainable development expert who worked at the NEAZDP during the early 1990s.

The first five years were characterised by intense activity--headquarters were built, equipment purchased and staff trained, mostly Nigerians from the northeast. To give an idea of the range of activities undertaken, an NEAZDP brief describing progress over the initial period covers 104 different categories of expenditure. A sample: 92 tube wells were dug, 199 health posts were established, starter packs were supplied to 126 primary schools, the small-ruminant breeding programme provided 443 loans to women to buy sheep and goats, and 216 community tree nurseries were established.

This variety of activity wasn't random, but seen as interconnected and vital to the programme's sustainability. Support for education would improve general literacy, which would, in turn, enable people to participate more fully in the other parts of the programme, such as health training and the use of appropriate technology in farming. It gradually became clear that an added benefit was a slowing of the exodus of young people to the cities. Villages that could offer not just easy access to water but also a dispensary and a primary school were more likely to retain their young people; and those who did leave were more likely to return.

Not everything went smoothly over those first five years, however. A plan to extend the area covered by the programme was abandoned, and a community banking programme failed to cover the high cost of operating over a area with few roads, and closed down. But overall, the NEAZDP was running well. Capital had been invested in buildings and equipment, staff were trained; the programme was established and starting to make a real difference to the lives of the local people.

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Then, at the end of 1995, national politics intruded into local life. With the European Commission on the brink of approving funding for the second five-year period, international outrage at the actions of Sani Abacha's military government, which had already imprisoned opposition politicians and threatened them with execution, reached a peak with the hanging of the internationally renowned writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists who had been campaigning against the exploitative activities of oil companies in the Niger Delta. Nigeria was suspended from the

Commonwealth and the EU cut off development finance to the country. Abruptly, the NEAZDP lost all of its European funding: around 85 per cent of the total it received.

'We had some money remaining from the original five-year funding,' says Suleiman Garba Suleiman, the programme manager. 'We were able to utilise the remaining funds until the end of 1996. But in 1997, there was no money.'

Suleiman's account of how the NEAZDP has struggled on for the past ten years leaves an impression of consistent dedication and professionalism. According to Knight, Suleiman also displayed a degree of shrewd quick thinking that kept programme equipment, including the fleet of pickup trucks, safe during the period when the country was under military rule. 'He took parts out of the vehicles and hid them so that soldiers and "politicians" could not commandeer them,' he says. 'When civilian rule was restored, he was gradually able to "find" the "lost" parts and put the vehicles back on the road.' Since then, the fleet has gradually shrunk, as trucks are sacrificed to provide parts for others.

After the EU withdrawal, there was a year's hiatus before Yobe state stepped in to supply staff salaries, which it has done ever since. The national government occasionally contributes money--erratically and with long delays--and it only funds specific, time-limited projects, such as tree-planting during the rainy season. Funding day-to-day running costs is a constant battle, with inflation at 12 per cent and fuel prices escalating. Overall, the NEAZDP is now running on an annual income of around ten per cent of original levels; taking inflation into account, it's even less.

Suleiman tries to give us an idea of what this has meant in practical terms. 'Most of this year's funding will go on maintaining structures. Our other programmes are running at a reduced capacity or are on hold,' he says. The generators that supply electricity to the offices and workshops are now turned on for just four hours a day. This means that for much of the day, lights, computers and equipment can't be switched on. Previously, the dune-fixation programme protected as many as five villages and one oasis; in 2007, work was being carried out at just one village.

ACACIA AVENUE

Our journey north with Ahmed Barde and Yahaya provides us with a graphic illustration of the difference the dune-fixation programme can make--and what happens when there is no intervention.

We stop first at Bula Tura, a village of smooth-walled mud-brick houses on the edge of the desert. Consultation by NEAZDP staff had identified securing the main road to the village as the villagers' overriding concern. Dune movement was threatening to cut off the road, and with it access to the markets where they sold their animals and produce. After unsuccessful attempts to stabilise the dunes using a variety of gum arabic tree that proved to be too appetising to goats, a more successful candidate was identified. The spiny Acacia senegal proved more goat-resistant, and was combined with low barriers made from the dry branches of a local species of shrub to protect the seedlings from moving sands until they were established.

We walk out of the village along a road running beside a high ridge of sand fringed with feathery acacia trees. Some stand proud of the dune, others are half submerged. Six years after planting, the trees are growing, the road is still open and dune movement has slowed dramatically.

Another hour's drive takes us to Kuri Wakko, where the story is very different. This village also stood on the border between sandy pastureland and the open dunes, but here, the villagers were forced to abandon their houses as the dunes roiled in. They gathered up everything they could and rebuilt the village a few hundred metres away on an area of land that, for now, is safe from moving sands. Only the smooth mud walls of their former homes remain, the dunes spilling into them.

So why has the NEAZDP survived? There seem to be several answers, all with a common theme--the involvement of local people as a fundamental element at every level of the programme. The project is staffed by locals, and there is a system of village representatives that enables communication between the project and the inhabitants of each area. Different villages have different concerns and can decide what they wish to prioritise.

As well as being involved in decision making, the local population contributes financially by paying teachers (this has the important advantage of ensuring that they actually turn up and teach). The programme uses materials appropriate to each area: educational materials are written and printed locally; ploughs are designed so that they can be built by the village blacksmiths. Local people seem to feel a genuine ownership of the project, and because the staff are local, the success of the project is important to them personally as well as professionally.

So the NEAZDP draws what it can from exhausted ground and works stubbornly on. During the taxi ride into Yobe, we followed a lorry emblazoned with the motto 'Endurance is the Answer', and until now, this has certainly been the case for the NEAZDP. But rather than merely endure, this project deserves to flourish and fulfil its potential for transforming lives in the region--and that will require proper investment.

PHOTOGRAPHS by ANDREA SCARINGELLA
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Title Annotation:development: NIGERIAN DUNES
Author:Petersen, Zoe
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:2007
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