Caught between climate crisis and armed violence in Burkina Faso

A woman in an arid field on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, which used to be fertile farmland [Sam Mednick/Al Jazeera]

Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso - Growing up in a community of farmers in northern Burkina Faso, KI, who prefers that his full name not be used for safety reasons, never wanted for much. His family ate what they sowed and bred enough cattle to feel financially secure. But now, for the first time in his life, the 65-year-old does not know how he is going to survive the months ahead.

Decades of climate change and years of increasing violence by armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) armed group as well as local defence forces - a combination of community volunteers armed by the government and groups who have taken up arms on their own - have pushed KI's once comfortable family into poverty. Chased from his farm by armed men in November, he has been unable to cultivate. Meanwhile, his herd of 30 cows, most of which scattered and got lost during the attack, has been reduced to just two.

Now displaced, his family lives between Titao town where the two cows remain and Ouahigouya, Yatenga province's largest urban centre - a dry and dusty town with a buzzing market surrounded by what was once a dense forest but is now just arid desert. KI grew up approximately 65km (40 miles) from the town but this is the first time he has ever lived there.

"I've never been in this situation before," he explained, sitting in a dimly lit office owned by a relative in Ouahigouya. "It's devastating," the stoic father of 15 added in a rare show of vulnerability.

Seated upright on the edge of a couch, KI allowed only occasional glimpses during the hours-long conversation into the pain he felt after losing almost everything he had spent his life working for.

The Sahel region, an arid expanse below the Sahara Desert where Burkina Faso is located, is one of the hardest-hit areas in the world by climate change. About 80 percent of the Sahel's farmland is degraded with temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, according to the World Economic Forum.

Burkina Faso has been affected by an increase in the scale and intensity of droughts, rain, heat waves, strong winds and dust storms, according to a government report.

The country is the 20th most vulnerable to climate change and the 35th least ready in the world, said Richard Munang, the Africa regional climate change coordinator for the United Nations Environmental Programme. More than one-third of Burkina Faso's land is degraded with degradation expanding at a rate of 360,000 hectares (889,579 acres) a year, he explained.

Climate change has played a part in the "genesis of the crisis affecting the Central Sahel" according to the International Crisis Group. Droughts in the 1970s and 1980s changed agro-pastoral dynamics in favour of the grain and vegetable farmers who were less harshly affected than the marginalised herder communities.

Years of drought devastated the cattle of herdsmen, who depended on moving their livestock from one grazing ground to another. While farmers were also hit hard, they continued producing food and with the surplus money, they invested in livestock and employed the now impoverished herdsmen. According to the International Crisis Group, this period was the origin of the marginalisation of pastoral communities.

The climatic and economic devastation in Burkina Faso has been compounded by armed conflict in the region. Following the 2012 military coup in neighbouring Mali, armed groups capitalised on the instability and captured parts of that country's north. Since then, regional violence has reached unprecedented levels and sparked a dire humanitarian crisis in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. More than one million people are internally displaced across all three countries, according to the UN.

Attacks linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL have recently made Burkina Faso the epicentre of the crisis. For years, the once peaceful nation largely stayed out of the conflict inflicted on its neighbours. But in 2014, the overthrow of the country's longtime president, Blaise Compaore, which also saw the dismantling of the special forces unit, created a path for attacks. Violence that began in the Sahel and northern regions has since spread across the country to the east and west displacing almost one million people and killing almost 2,000 last year. Armed groups exacerbate existing grievances over land, resources and ethnicity, perpetrating violence and driving communities like KI's into desperation.

In better days

For as far back as he can remember, KI's life was defined by farming.

As a young boy, he helped his father cultivate maize, rice, sesame and millet in his small village of Bouna in the country's Loroum province, where he lived until armed men attacked it in November.

In the early 1960s, little effort on small plots yielded immense results, he recalled. One harvest could produce food for a year, even providing enough crops to give as gifts to less well-off neighbours.

"We didn't use any pesticides, no special techniques or even donkeys or oxen, we'd do it by hand," KI said.

Smiling nostalgically, he remembered the harvests, where 30 to 40 extra staff were needed to carry overflowing baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads and into the house from the farm. There was so much yield that each person had to walk the approximately 5km (3 miles) several times in order to transport everything, he said.

Back then, people rarely needed money, they just lived off the land. The farm produced more than enough for him and his 10 siblings to eat, and sufficient cotton for the women to sew clothes. If anyone wanted to travel, people would either walk or use a donkey.

Even though school was free, most families only sent one child to be educated as the only schools were in larger towns and education was not yet seen as a priority, he recalled. KI's older brother went to school in Ouahigouya, while the rest of the children remained on the farm.

Even when money was needed, it did not exist like it does today. Until just after KI was born, people paid for goods in seashells rather than paper money, he said.

But spotting an old shell today is rare. Most have been bartered for goods, although some can still be found in store windows - a reminder of easier, simpler times.

"When I think about that period compared to now, people weren't suffering the way they are suffering now," KI said.

'The harvest was so bad'