Japanese volunteers help women increase their fruit and vegetable yields
It is a land of ancient kingdoms and majestic camel caravans crossing the vast wastes of the Sahara desert for centuries from the west coast of Africa to the Mediterranean and Arabian peninsula.
But it is those same romantic Saharan dunes which are helping to cause an environmental crisis and threatening the livelihoods of many of the 14 million people who live in Mali in the very heart of West Africa.
During the dry season hot dusty harmattan trade winds blow south off the desert coating fields, buildings, people and animals in a yellow dusting.
Malians use six million tons of wood per year for timber and fuel, denuding the already fragile landscape of 4,000 square kilometers of tree cover each year.
Climate change is also contributing to the problem. 2011 was a bad year for rains and the overall annual rainfall is steadily decreasing, threatening the country's agriculture and particularly its cotton industry.
As a result of nature and human activity around 98% of Mali is threatened with creeping desertification according to the U.N.
Volunteer helping to build a new and improved wood burning stove
The Japan International Cooperation Agency has been helping the government in its fight against this insidious problem.
Working in some 160 communities local officials and Japanese consultants provided training for designated ‘village leaders’ and prepared a report designed to better understand how desertification works and then identify a series of projects to protect and improve the lives of rural communities.
They include tree planting, improving farming and animal husbandry techniques and production, improving financial management skills and small scale commerce, creating new water points, strengthening the activities of women, producing local natural fertilizer and improving local health care.
A group of Japanese volunteers, JOCVs, are working on the ground directly with rural communities to implement some of those activities.
In the village of Dona, 124 local women grow onions, aubergines, papaya and other fruits and vegetables on a one hectare plot. Twenty-eight-year-old Ryoichi Hiroshima and 29-year-old Yusuke Katsura, both from Osaka, are helping them produce local fertilizer, improve soil quality and farming techniques and grow newer and better varieties of crops.
Encouraging tree planting in school grounds
"Our output has increased by 60% since the volunteers began helping us," one local official said. "We are all too much happy."
In another nearby village, 27-year-old Mie Minamoto from Aichi who has a masters degree in regeneration of arid regions was helping to put the finishing touches to a new mud stove which will significantly reduce the amount of wood needed for village cooking.
Thirty-one-year-old Kana Yoshitomi from Hiroshima has helped in micro credit schemes and tree planting including one idea to provide tree shade along a busy village road used by hundreds of school children and farmers daily and who must brave scorching direct sunlight and temperatures which routinely reach more than 100 degrees.
"The volunteers input has been very, very effective and much appreciated," said one government official involved in the project.