Dogon water harvesting and soil fertility management techniques}

A lesson in resilience

Usually, Western agronomists come to so-called "southern" countries full of good intentions to teach farmers how to improve their practices. What is strange," said a Malagasy farmer, "is that white people never ask us why we do what we do.
In this article we reverse the customary hierarchy of knowledge by examining what lessons of agriculture and resilience in arid and a priori unfavorable environments the experience of the Dogon people in southern Mali offers.

Dogon water harvesting and soil fertility management techniques}

A lesson in resilience

Dogon lessons in water harvesting and soil fertility management

N.B. This text is a patchwork of excerpts from studies by various researchers that I have reworked, quoted, and woven together during my review of publications on the subject. All sources are cited at the end of the article

According to their oral traditions, the Dogon are believed to have originated in the Mande, a region located today between southern Mali and eastern Guinea that was the historical home of the Mandingo community. The Dogon would have chosen to leave the Mande, between the 12th and 14th centuries (depending on the source) and would have migrated to the mountains in order to find a refuge site to escape the insecurity that reigned in the plains, due to the multiple wars during the constitution of the empires of the region. They settled on the Bandiagara plateau, an austere but safe site. The cliffs and rocky terrain of the plateau also offered them later an excellent protection against slave raids. It was only when these raids ceased that the Dogon were able to expand without fear into the plains around the plateau.

Plateau of the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, refuge of the Dogons

The Bandiagara Plateau which rises to an altitude of 400 to 600 m. To the west, this plateau slopes gently towards the interior delta of the Niger; to the east it overhangs the Sino-Gondo plain by a steep cliff, 200 to 400 m high. Its surface area is 10,000 km2 and its width does not exceed 80 km. The sandstone slopes that compose it are in some places surmounted by buttes bordered by steep escarpments, about a hundred meters high. The plateau is crossed by particularly narrow sandy valleys and scree. It is drained to the west by temporary streams, fed four to five months a year, near which the villages are located. To the east, the rains fall on the sandstone slabs and accumulate in small pools at the foot of the cliff. The rains (500 to 700 mm per year) occur from June to September and are less irregular between years than in the adjacent plains, although dry years are frequent, as is usual in these Sahelian climates. Finally, the harmattan wind blows frequently, but the winds bring some coolness and, above all, keep mosquitoes away. The settlement of the plateau is very loose in the center and west, while the highest human densities are found on the periphery, where the defensive sites are the most numerous and the land the most varied. The cliff zone can reach densities of 50 inhabitants/km2, grouped in villages perched at the top of the scree slopes.

If the Dogon people found in the Bandiagara plateau a place to ensure their security, they had to take up the challenge of producing food on a site that was not very favorable to agriculture and where water was scarce.

The Dogon have successfully met this challenge by developing a series of ingenious methods and techniques for managing water and creating and maintaining soil fertility. It is this knowledge and know-how that we are interested in here. Living in a highly differentiated natural environment where soils, relief, and hydrology vary over short distances, Dogon farmers have developed a variety of techniques and designs to adapt to the constraints of the environment.

Let’s proceed with an initial inventory of the techniques developed by the Dogon to be able to cultivate efficiently in the contrasting environments in which they live before detailing the implementation of each.

The Dogon have developed agricultural resilience :

- by creating small fields surrounded by sandstone blocks that hold the topsoil, and trap runoff during rainfall;

- by literally creating new soils from the sandy soil brought up from the plain, which they spread on sandstone slabs between stone cords carefully arranged to retain the fertile material and ingeniously placed so that the upstream sandstone slabs serve as an impluvium, i.e. a catchment area for rainwater;

- by digging, where the land allows it, small planting pits mulched with crop residues and amended with manure during the dry season;

- by making especially and honeycomb structured market gardening plots filled with good soil and organic amendments.

- by mulching the market gardening areas;

- developing a sophisticated composting technique;

In addition, when they were able to leave the plateaus and move into the plains, the Dogon developed a particularly sophisticated cereal farming system in the Séno plain,

- by maintaining a park of trees over the centuries, fertilizing the plots where millet and sorghum are grown;

- by developing cultivation techniques under pruned trees to provide intermittent shade;

- by making organic mounds for cereal cultivation, a technique they share with the farmers of the neighboring Seno plain;

Finally, the Dogon have also developed techniques for conserving their crops and seeds.

In so doing, the Dogon offer the world a series of lessons in sustainable agriculture in a very constrained environment that are worth pondering at a time when climate change is forcing us to think about resilient farming methods in contexts of extreme events, alternating drought and excess rainfall...

Let us note that the technical and agricultural thought of the Dogon is articulated to a vision of the world, a relation to the elements and a deep spirituality that I will not explain here.

Millet storehouse in the foreground on the right and family courtyard behind

In order to meet the challenge of surviving in an unfavorable environment for agriculture, the Dogon have therefore developed a thorough knowledge of the environment and advanced know-how. With great ingenuity, the Dogon have shown that it is even possible to create real productive gardens even when land is totally lacking and water is scarce.

The Dogon developed the different areas of their environment in various ways by exploiting local resources. They initially built stone lines across gentle slopes to slow runoff and contain the soil, then established narrow terraces divided into pits on the steepest slopes and made enriched mounds in the millet fields.

Later, the Dogon built dams on the narrow gullies to accumulate sediment and form new crop plots, prepared pits surrounded by earthen levees to store rainwater, and on the thickest soils practiced the pit cultivation technique known as zaï in Burkina Faso.

As the interior plateaus were occupied, the techniques of the Dogon farmers evolved to adapt to natural conditions.

Review of Dogon water and soil conservation techniques

Terracing the hillsides

The ancient Dogon developed Heartwork on the hillsides in terraces by building low stone walls on all areas that could be used for agriculture. The construction of these structures followed the contour lines of the land. The escarpments of cliffs and high plateaus were once covered with terraces. Elsewhere, in the interior of the plateau where hills are less frequent, they were much less widespread.

Sketch of a hillside landscaping

One of the essential functions of the terraces is to reduce and slow down the runoff which is quite important on the steep slopes. On the flattened earth of the racks, rainwater stagnates and then infiltrates. The soil is thus preserved and its humidity is prolonged.

Earthworks have therefore made it possible to enhance the escarpments of the vertical wall of the plateau. Between the rocks, the natural levels of the slope have been spiked and the blocks arranged in low walls supported on the trees present or on the remains of sandstone in place. The main walls are partitioned by secondary walls and together form tiered basins. In each compartment, the earth is flattened so that rainwater runs off with difficulty. Amphitheaters could thus be built over 100 m in height and 500 m in circumference. Seen in profile, these tiered layouts look like staircases.

Mini-terraces on sandstone slope on the hillside

Between the terraces, the creek beds, dry most of the year, were cleared to provide accelerated drainage in the rainy season. Their bottoms have been scoured, and cleared of the plugs of branches that were hanging there. They were transformed into artificial drains by paving the beds and building stone walls on the banks. The evacuation of runoff water on these steep slopes was thus ensured without damage to the cultivated slopes.

- These terraced fields are called "péguès". "Remarkable fact, notes Jean Gallais, these peguès are developed on escarpments whose piedmont is unused over large areas. This is linked to the superiority of the slope soils which, due to their sandy-clay nature, have a better retention capacity than the sands or the armour of the plain. Heavier, they are worked with a special hoe called "so go" whose narrow blade and acute angle of strike ensure a great force of penetration. In the peguès fields, the farmers cultivate associated crops mixing sorghum, sorrel, beans, cotton and multiply the precautions by using various varieties of sorghum, pivot of the association.

These peguès fields are under permanent cultivation and receive a significant amount of manure during the "birim tiagoué", i.e., the collective transport of ripe manure to the fields, because they are difficult to access for the Fulani herdsmen. In some peguès, such as those on the escarpments of the Bamba villages in the northeast of the plateau, early sowing of sorghum is practiced before the rains. The farmers justify this practice by explaining that the roots of the large millet plant root the bare soil during the first rains.

In the sandstone plateau of Bandiagara, Jean Gallais continues, when sandy veneers are preserved on gently sloping glacis, they are cultivated under a cover of acacia. The Dogon manage these soils, which are very sensitive to erosion, by criss-crossing their fields with small orthogonal earthen lifts 30 to 40 cm high. The size of the squares varies with the slope. The steeper the slope, the smaller the square. These sandy soils are suitable for small millet. At the time of the first weeding, at the end of July, the clods of earth are brought back in mounds around the stems. Criss-crossing of levees and piling up at the foot of the stems reflect the same precautions: to increase rainwater retention to maintain millet growth during rainfall interruptions and to combat epidermal erosion, which threatens to strip the A horizon of less developed tropical soils."

Grid of earthen levees and mounding of millet feet

Following the scree of the cliff, numerous streams and ponds collect water from springs or resurgences forming a green humid depression, called "bombo", where a fairly dense clear forest flourishes. The grey-black soils, composed of clayey sands, are very humid. In the rainy season the bottom of the depression becomes swampy. This fertile piedmont that surrounds the cliff that can bear various crops was intensively cultivated when insecurity did not prevail in the plains.


The presence of pools and rivers in Pombo attract Fulani herds in the dry season from the "séno," the neighboring sandy plains, and Mondoro, which constitute traditional pastoral domains for Fulani herders in the region. To protect cultivated plots from livestock rambling, the Dogon have lined their fields with very old euphorbia hedges, reinforced with more or less hermetic fencing.

Sacred pond sheltering a great biological biodiversity

"The humid bombo is the domain of permanent, rich and diversified crops. Watered chili plants are grown here under the thick shade of thorny trees that produce edible berries. Perennial and shrubby cotton plants are associated with peanut clumps. "Rice is dense and regular, whether it is ara pili, white rice, ara banou, red rice, or ara guem, black rice, reserved for the best soils. Small millet is generally associated with Roselle and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata); sorghum is gigantic here. Even in the heart of the dry season, the bombo offers the traveler the clemency of its shade and the sweetness of its landscape." (Jean Gallais)

Flooded rice cultivation

Indispensable when the Dogon were threatened, the development and exploitation of terraces on the hillsides receded during the 20th century. Since their free and secure movement, the Dogon have occupied the lands of the valleys, plains, sandy or semi-sandy soils, and those of the interior of the plateau that require less labor and less complex earthworks.

These lands required other types of exploitation. We will see how the Dogon developed these areas.

The technique of stone cords and dikes

The use of stone barriers in the fields is almost universal on the entire Dogon plateau. These are stones aligned in one piece, without superimposing or jointing the stones in order to reinforce the structure. The construction is done perpendicular to the direction of the runoff in fields with a gentle slope. In some cases, the stone strings are partitioned to increase their effectiveness.

Stone cordons slow the velocity of rainwater flow, promote to some extent the deposition of plant debris, and allow infiltration.
They are also used to conquer/recover totally degraded, bare land called "airfields" where trees and even grass grow with difficulty.

The construction of the cordons requires a technicality. Those that are built without know-how are ineffective, because the runoff water tears away the stones and breaks the cordons.

Dikes or walls are more substantial structures than stone cordons built where cordons would be ineffective against the magnitude of the gully.

Waffle gardens

With the technique of cordons and dikes, the Dogon created gardens surrounded by stones near water points, on which they now cultivate onions and shallots.

These gardens, called ôno or ôgo, are the result of one of the most fascinating and unique practices of the Dogon territories. The market gardening that is practiced there in the dry season by irrigation or watering, writes Jean Gallais, "creates a sudden oasis landscape in the middle of the burnt surfaces and rocky piles. Life and human activity seem to be concentrated in the coolness of the orchards, between the running water channels. The meticulous care, one could say aesthetic, with which the vegetable beds are shaped, maintained and cleaned surprises and enchants when one has walked the rocks of the plateau or the dunes of the Seno.

The specificity of the ôno or ôgo gardens lies in the layout of the cultivation baskets surrounded by low stone or earth walls built not far from a watering place on bare land where the rock outcrops.

To build the stone basins, the peasants begin by aligning stones obtained by breaking or exploding rocks by fire, which are then brought to the future cultivation site.

The low walls, which vary in height from 30 cm to 1.5 m, are crossed at right angles, delimiting plots of one to two square meters. Each plot is then filled with soil mixed with plant debris, collected from the fields or near springs and brought to the gardens in baskets, on the back of a man. The soil thus reconstituted reaches 10 cm to 100 cm in thickness and is then leveled.

The edges of cultivated pits can also be constructed of earth.

These partitioned ridges are highly valued for the water and soil conservation they allow. Their stone or earthen borders are normally watertight, unless a given section breaks. Heavy and sudden downpours can cause damage to the ridges by cutting them in several places. Heavy and sudden downpours can cause damage to the logs by cutting them in several places. Under normal circumstances, the watertightness of the ridges allows almost all the rainwater to be stored in the ridge. This eliminates runoff and erosion and keeps the soil moist for a long time.

Family garden exploiting the waffle box technique

Onion and shallot are planted in waffle gardens as well as some tomatoes and chili in the dry season and then eggplant, corn, or millet in the wet season. Watering is done by hand from a nearby spring. Yields obtained from onion production are 30 tons per hectare.

The downward trend in rainfall in the region has favored an increase in the practice of partitioned ridges in order to store every drop of water that falls on the developed fields. Thus, in some localities north of Bandiagara where soil conditions are favorable for ridges, the practice of the partitioned ridge technique is intense.

Pit cultivation technique "wégou"

The technique of cultivating in dug-out troughs used by the Dogon is similar to that of the Burkinabe "zaï”, and some researchers claim that the practice of zaï originated in Mali. In Dogon country, this type of bowl is called a "wégou. As elsewhere in the Sahel, this cultivation technique is practiced on relatively deep, armored soils that are difficult to work and far from water points.

Pits can be edged downhill with a crescent of soil to capture more runoff water.

Wégou pits lined with a crescent-shaped earthen embankment to retain runoff

The wégous are dug in the dry season. The small planting pits are mulched with crop residues and amended with manure which leads to an increase in termite activity which, in turn increases the rate of water infiltration when the rains come. Millet or other plants are sown in the individual holes, which also helps to protect the seedlings from the drying effects of wind at the time of sowing and seedling growth.

Wégou pits lined with a crescent-shaped earthen embankment to retain runoff

The "wégou system" can combine other methods of land rehabilitation and fertilization and rainwater retention such as that of stone cordons that slow runoff and promote water infiltration.

Wégou pits with manure

Used to concentrate scarce resources (water organic matter) and improve poor, bare soils in arid areas wégous create a micro environment that increases drought resistance. The troughs reduce runoff and retain rainwater for 24 hours, even 48 hours after it falls. Millet growing in the troughs benefits from a lot of moisture. This system improves crop yields. When asked about the extent and benefits of the troughs, a resident of the village of Roundialan said, "In our village, all the families practice the wégous technique. Without these troughs, some of our fields would produce too little, others would not even produce.

Technique of strips of stems and leafy branches

The technique of strips of stems and leafy branches can be a complement to the wégous. Stems from the previous season that the farmer stumps up as he prepares his field for the new rainy season, and foliage and branches cut from around the fields are used to slow erosion.

They are intentionally placed in a strip so that during the first rains the drops that fall on them do not tear off particles of soil. This technique partially mitigates evaporation, because a certain amount of sunlight is reflected at the level of the stems and does not reach the ground. The stems put in strips, will decompose over the seasons and will also acquire a fertilizing power.

During the first year of their installation, the strips of stems slow down the diffuse runoff and favor the deposits of organic debris and earth particles. In order for them to be more effective in their conservation roles, their reinforcement with some stones is necessary because left to their own devices, the stem strips resist very little to storm gales and runoff.

Strips of leafy stems and branches

Foliage strips limit erosion promote infiltration and also mitigate the force of winds if they are themselves reinforced with a few stones. Leaves falling on the ground will loosen it and create a space rich enough in organic substances as it decomposes.


Mounding is a common water and soil conservation technique applied to millet or sorghum fields in the Dogon Country and beyond in Mali. It consists of building conical mounds of earth that measure on average more or less or - 60 cm at their base and 35 cm in height. The mounds are formed at the time of hoeing and at the time of the first weeding (21 days after seedling emergence). They cover the weed biomass and are placed in staggered rows between the cereal plants, which are themselves located on previous mounds. During a second weeding, the weeds are deposited on the mounds. This practice allows to store organic matter in the fields. Hoeing is done in July when the crops are still young and weeding in late August-September when the millet is growing towards the heading stage.

Such mounds have several interests:

- They slow down the speed of rainwater runoff and promote infiltration.

- they fertilize the seedling support because, in making the mounds, the farmer covers the weeds so that each mound becomes a mini compost bin. The buried weeds are transformed into organic manure that will be used as fertilizer for the following years’ crops because the mounds will be used to support the next season’s seedlings, which will find enough nutrients inside the mounds to facilitate their growth.

- They help seedlings resist storm winds.

Armand Kassogué et al. report that the practice of the mound technique has increased over time. Until about 1950, the Dogon only hoe their fields. Currently, they have added weeding, which is in fact the renewal of these mounds made during hoeing in the same season.

Millet field with mounds waiting for rain

Remarks on Dogon techniques of water and soil conservation

According to Armand Kassogué et al., the oldest techniques are mounds, earthworks or hillside development, and stone cordons. Their application in agriculture dates back to the first agricultural activities of the Dogon on the plateau.

The other techniques are of more recent creation and application, as the interior plateaus were being inhabited, techniques were created to adapt and give a balance between natural conditions and agriculture. This is why some are zoned, because they cannot be applied elsewhere.

The mounds, the basins, the partitioned ridges, the stone cordons and the dikes are easily combined. Each of these techniques can be found next to the other in the same field to complement each other or they can be integrated as needed. The mounds are the most associated with the others.

The advantages of the different traditional techniques overlap: reduction of the effects of erosion, improvement of infiltration and silty deposits. The effectiveness of the techniques is variable; the partitioned ridges are more effective in storing rainwater and preventing runoff. Its effectiveness is limited on soils with reduced slopes. Dikes are the most effective techniques for limiting the speed of runoff on steep slopes and in places where gullying has already had considerable effects.

In periods of low rainfall, most of these techniques are applied rigorously to collect as much water as possible, as it is necessary to collect every drop of water that falls on the fields to make the crops grow. In contrast, during periods of good rainfall, water conservation techniques are logically less intensively implemented. The farmers even make openings in their retention structures so that excess water that could harm the crops can drain away.

Other Dogon techniques

Agroforestry techniques

In the fields of the Seno plain, Dogon farmers maintain soil fertility by maintaining a cover of field trees and adding manure. These practices are not unique to the Dogon, but they are used with great ingenuity and care.

The combined production of nature and humans, the tree parks of the plain clearly have an agroforestry vocation. The presence of selected multifunctional trees in the fields is the rule. Different types of tree parks have been created according to the environment and according to the needs and uses.

Compared to parks observed in neighboring regions, those in the Dogon Country are particularly dense and old. The park in the Dembéré-Douentza valley covers 7,000 hectares. It is not uncommon for the trunks of two to three centuries old trees, regularly spaced, to reach a diameter of 1 m to 1.30 m. The agroforestry park of 40 to 50 trees per hectare is very homogeneous.

In the Seno plain, stands of Segue, the Dogon name for the winter thorn specie (Faidherbia albida), are the most common. They extend continuously over 30,000 hectares at the foot of the escarpment. In this area, frequented by Fulani cattle, the trunks are protected by a thicket of thorny branches.

Winter thorn agroforestry park (Faidherbia albida)

The presence of segués has beneficial effects on soils by increasing their organic matter content, which is multiplied by 2.5 under their crowns; the tree also increases the water retention capacity from 1.8 to 2.5; the contribution of potash, lime, magnesia, phosphoric acid is equivalent to that of 50 to 60 tons of synthetic fertilizer per hectare or 100 kg of agricultural lime.

The specific benefit of segue is due to its characteristic of being in leaf in the dry season when there are no more crops in the fields and leafless during the rainy season and the growing season of the crops (this is called reverse phenology). This particularity is favorable to the crops and it allows to feed the animals with its very rich fodder, at the right time, when the food is not available any more in the pastures. Herds that used to enjoy the pastures in the rainy season can migrate to the Faidherbia areas in the dry season and survive there during this very difficult season. In the process, they defecate under these trees enriching the soil for the benefit of crops in the next cycle.

Millet cultivation under Winter thorn (Faidherbia albida)

There are also palm-doum and palm-root groves. The Ndia valley contains, between the villages of Gassi and Banguel Toupé, a 600-hectare roasting forest with a very high density of 50 to 100 trees per hectare. The trees, 30 meters high, seem to be two to three centuries old. The palm-doums (Hyphaene thebàica) occupy the northern valleys. Around Tintam-Borko on the northern slope of the plateau, in the Léolgéou, doum and roan trees are associated.

Palm grove at the foot of the cliff

Agroforestry parks in the Dogon Country are most often not monospecific, although one species is usually dominant. The main other species combined in various ways are:

- Apple-ring acaciaor winter Thorn (Vitellaria paradoxa)
- Shea tree, bambouk butter tree (Prosopis africana)
- Baobab (Adansonia digitata)
- Marula ou jelly plum African mesquite or iron tree (Sclerocarya birrea)
- African grape (Lannea microcarpa)
- Ndoki (Combretum glutinosum)
- Sweet dattock (Detarium microcarpum)
- Tamarind (Tamarindus indica)
- African locust bean (Parkia biglobosa)
- Terminalia spp....

Various ficus and two species of Lannea, Lannea acida and Lannea microcarpa, are also treasured in cultivated rocky chaos because their perennial roots hold the soil. The same is true of Combretum gloconum, which clings to the cracks in sandstone and anchors sand veneers there.

Remarkably, all cultivated trees are multifunctional: they provide food with their fruits, seeds and leaves; fodder with their foliage; cosmetic, medicinal and dyeing materials; fiber, lumber and fuel; fertilizing organic matter...

Dogon intermittent shade technique

The Dogon have developed a particular agroforestry technique for growing crops under trees. In a very informative article, the anthropologist Roland Bunch reports on this practice in these terms:

« It was November of 2011, during one of the worst droughts ever suffered even in Africa’s Sahel region, just south of the encroaching Sahara Desert. Although it was harvest time, there was not going to be any harvest for hundreds of thousands of farmers all around us. As we drove over 500 km northeast from the country’s capital to some villages near the town of Koro, near the Burkinabe border, virtually every field around us had not a single maize, sorghum or millet plant that would reach your waist.

But as we approached the villages at our destination, we started seeing a strange sight. In every field, there were about 80 to 100 trees per hectare, of a dozen different species. Strangest of all, every one of them was shaped in a funny inverted cone, like huge funnels from a kitchen. Furthermore, we could see the people harvesting and hauling back to the village a bumper crop of millet and half a dozen other crops. Even I, with 50 years’ experience at improving smallholder farmer agriculture in 51 developing nations, had no idea what was going on. Here these people had somehow created a veritable oasis in the middle of a desert.

After we had said our elaborate, obligatory greetings, asking how everything was right down to the people’s cattle, I asked one of the Dogon leaders about those funny, funnel-shaped trees. Good teacher that he was, he started by asking me a question to illustrate his point:

“What happens to crops that are planted right under a mango tree, with its dense foliage down close to the ground?”

“The crops die.”


“Because they never get any sunlight.”

“Exactly. But if most of a tree’s leaves are high off the ground, their shadow gradually moves across the field as the sun travels across the sky. That way, all the crops, even those right next to the tree trunk, get some good sunlight at least part of the day. And that way they all grow better.”

Most temperate country soils textbooks show photos of nitrogen-fixing nodules as tiny spheres of about 1 mm in diameter, well-spaced along a root. Obviously, tropical legumes that fix anywhere from 80 to 400 kg/ha of pure nitrogen would require more room than such minuscule nodules could ever provide. This photo shows the nodules from one single mucuna plant grown under ideal conditions, with no competition from other plants. Under normal field conditions, a single plant may produce up to one or two of these “golf balls” of nodules per plant. Even so, they will fix more N in a hectare of soil than that contained in 6 bags of urea, which has the highest content of nitrogen among the synthetic fertilizers. Image credit: Roland Bunch

The Dogon people were using what we now call “intermittent shade.” Crops all over the lowland tropics produce as much as 40% better under a well-managed tree shade than if they have to withstand the full tropical sunlight all day long. This is because they cannot stand the excessive tropical heat, which causes them to stop growing during several hours in the middle of the day. And with global warming, this problem is going to get worse in the near future.

An intermittent shade also reduces both the evaporation of moisture from the farmers’ soil and transpiration from their crops. Crucial moisture is thereby no longer being sucked out of the farmers’ soil. This means that during a drought, crops will produce a whole lot better under intermittent shade than out in constant, direct sunlight.

I had never seen a case of intermittent shade before that November day, because as far as I know after all my wanderings, the Dogon people invented it. This little known “tribe” from the middle of nowhere (very near, in fact, to the proverbial Timbuktu), has given the world an incredibly valuable technology that we will soon begin spreading across the tropics. It will raise yields, but will also provide firewood and fodder so that real forests don’t have to be cut down, thus helping to defend farmers on three continents, as well as all the rest of us, from global warming. Furthermore, the trees drop more of that much-needed organic matter on the soil to enrich it, which sequesters more carbon in the soil. This is in addition to all the carbon that is sequestered in the trees themselves.

And what does all this cost? Just the labor of pruning the trees in that funny shape once a year. Trimming those trees will also save African women the huge job of walking long distances to climb trees to cut firewood and haul it all the way back to the village. All in all, these trees in the fields will save labor and cost nothing to grow. After all, they were already there before many of today’s Dogon people were born. Will other farmers accept this innovation? Well, the Dogon themselves have spread it over an area including between 15 and 20 whole villages, without an extension program in sight. »

In this photo taken during a year of drought by the environmentalist and forest maker Tony Rinaudo, one can see the distinct impact on the crop near the base of the tree. Not only does the intermittent shade provided by the tree not prevent crops from growing, but the hydraulic bearing capacity of the tree species that have been planted promotes plant growth. The trees draw water deep into the soil profile and make it available near the soil surface within reach of the roots of neighboring plants during the night through their shallow roots, thus effectively bio-irrigating the crops.

Manuring techniques

The Dogon farmer classifies his fields into birim mine and miné essè, depending on whether the land is smoked or not.

By virtue of a tacit contract, after the harvest, in October-November, the Fulani pastoralists install their animals on the stubble and possibly raise a straw hut; the Dogon provide the cooking equipment, pestle, mortar, calabash, and pot. The Fulani herd stays in the field immediately, first all day long as there are still stubble fields, then at night with a daytime walk through the bush. The Dogon, if he has cattle, entrusts them to the Fulani who comes in exchange to spend several weeks on the birim minè.

Herd of Fulani zebus in a field of millet after its harvest

According to a Dogon farmer in Kassa, reports Jean Gallais, in order for his birim minè field of one and a half hectares to be properly smoked, a herd of thirty head must spend the nights there for a month. But this manure deposited from November to January is subjected, during the months of intense heat that follow, to a desiccation that makes it straw-like and reduces to very little the contribution of organic matter. This is why it is supplemented by a more original and effective practice: the preparation of amendments in manure.

Manure preparation

To create a manure pit, explains Jean Galais, the Dogon use the inner courtyard of the Dogon habitat, known as the pandaga, onto which the individual huts open. This courtyard is slightly excavated in relation to the thresholds of the huts. In this courtyard, thatch from the millet zaï, carefully cut from the fields after the harvest, the broken pieces from the cooking, and the ashes from the fireplace are placed. Each family adds baobab bark or fruit and all possible detritus.

Drying millet out of reach of goats

Around December the pit is filled and a golden, elastic mulch is walked on. As the dry season progresses, the yard becomes a dunghill, the dirty water is dumped there. The nightly stalling of all the small livestock, the continuous stalling of the horse and the sheep for fertilizer, allow the watering and the enrichment of the manure.

The manure is extracted in May and is transported collectively, birim tiagoué, by the society of young men. In long lines and accompanied by drums, young men and women, with the square basket on their heads, carry the manure down to the fields immediately.

"Birim tiagoué", collective transport of manure by the women of a neighborhood to the field of one of them.

Diversity of seeds

The Dogon use a variety of seeds that are themselves adapted to a diversity of growing conditions. Thus, for example, in Kassa the farmer has five varieties of large millet:

- In Kassa, for example, the farmer has five varieties of coarse millet: "émè ban", the large red millet used to prepare dolo millet beer, adapted to the most clayey soils;

- emè grou", large white millet that is resistant to drought;

- emè gadou", large white millet with a high harvest in rainy years;

- emè sanaguimè" and "emè péligima", which are early varieties.

To preserve millet ears, seeds, and seedlings in the granaries the Dogon use millet stalk ash.

Millet store houses


The Dogon were able to endure for centuries in an environment that was not very favorable to agriculture by developing ingenious ways of cultivating, creating, and managing soils, collecting rainfall, and then evolving them as they were able to exploit new spaces outside the plateau that served as their refuge. Today, part of the Dogon population has invested in the sandy plain of the Séno. New agricultural challenges are posed to them in a context of population growth and climate change.

Dogon village of the Seno plain


The drawings illustrating this article are from the article by Armand Kassogué with Jean Dolo and Tom Ponioen, "Les techniques traditionnelles de conservation des eaux et des sols sur le plateau Dogon, Mali," IIED, Paper No. 23, December 1990


English publications

- Laurence Douny, A Praxeological Approach to Dogon Material Culture Department of Anthropology University College London Thesis submitted for the degree of Ph.D. 2007

- Laurence Douny - Living in a Landscape of Scarcity_ Materiality and Cosmology in West Africa, Institute of Archaeology Publications, Left Coast Press,2014

- Laurence Douny, « Conserving Millet with Potash : Towards a Dogon Epistemology of Materials », in Techniques & culture, 2018, Supplément au n° 69

FAO, Tradition soil and water conservation on the Dogon Plateau, web page

Armand Kassogué avec Jean Dolo et Tom Ponioen, « Traditional Soil and Water Conservation on the Dogon Plateau », Mali, IIED, Paper n° 23, Décembre 1990

- Karin Nijenhuis Farmers on the move Mobility, access to land and conflict in Central and South Mali Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of doctor at Wageningen University, 25 November 2013

- Thomas Wikle, « Living and Spirtual Worlds of Mali’s Dogon People », Web page

French Publications

- Drissa Dialo, « Création de champs cultivés et gestion de l’eau et de la fertilité des sols sur le plateau Dogon (Mali) », in Restauration de la productivité des sols tropicaux et méditerranéens Contribution à l’agroécologie

- Mamadou Diawara, « "Dieu d’eau", eau du barrage. Les populations du Plateau Dogon face aux contraintes: pluviométrie, terre et démographie », Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 67, No. 4 (1997), pp. 602-624Pub

- Laurence Douny, « Conserving Millet with Potash : Towards a Dogon Epistemology of Materials », in Techniques & culture, 2018, Supplément au n° 69

- Jean Gallais, « Le paysan dogon (République du Mali) », in: Cahiers d’outre-mer. N° 70 - 18e année, Avril-juin 1965. pp. 123-143

Jean-Christophe Huet, Villages perchés des Dogon du Mali. Habitat, espace et société. Paris, L’Harmattan. 1994.

- Armand Kassogué avec Jean Dolo et Tom Ponioen, « Les techniques traditionnelles de conservation des eaux et des sols sur le plateau Dogon, Mali », IIED, Paper n° 23, Décembre 1990

Eric Roose, « Introduction à la gestion conservatoire de l’eau, de la biomasse et de la fertilité des sols (GCES) », Bulletin pédologique de la FAO 70

- Bertrand Sajaloli, « Génies de l’eau et protection des zones humides en pays dogon (Mali) » page web pour Géoconfluences, octobre 2016

- Aude Nuscia Taïbi, Aziz Ballouche, Benjamin Dolfo, Adrien Plassais, Mustapha El Hamdani, « Les parcs agroforestiers du Pays dogon, des paysages entre héritage et mutation rapide », Actes des congrès nationaux des sociétés historiques et scientifiques.

- Aude Nuscia Taïbi, Benjamin Dolfo, « La dynamique des parcs agroforestiers en région soudano-sahélienne comme stratégie d’adaptation des systèmes socio-écologiques », Biocénoses, Bulletin d’écologie terrestre, Numéro spécial. Séminaire International, Biodiversité et changements globaux, Djelfa 13-25 novembre 1015

- Bénédicte Thibaud, « Le pays dogon au Mali : de l’enclavement à l’ouverture ? », Espace, Populations, Sociétés, 2005-1 pp. 45-56

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