An affinity for dry lands

Geographer Petra Tschakert works with Senegalese farmers to promote carbon sequestration on a local scale.

woman in red shirt crouches on ground with yellow bag
Petra Tschakert

Geographer Petra Tschakert works with Senegalese farmers to promote carbon sequestration on a local scale.

Beneath "l'arbre à palabre"—"the word tree," where Senegalese villagers gather in the shade to talk—Petra Tschakert came face-to-face with what she calls "the moral obligation" of doing research in a developing country.

She was working on her Ph.D., interviewing local farmers about soil fertility and land use. For months, she and a small team of Senegalese researchers had been visiting villages in a west-central region called the Old Peanut Basin, holding meetings beneath community trees, staying in the homes of village chiefs, and watching families tend crops and wait patiently for rain that sometimes comes, sometimes doesn't.

During one of those "word tree" meetings, the farmers said to her, "You ask us all of these questions, but if you know something—something that can help us—you have to tell us."

"They're right," says Tschakert, now assistant professor of geography at Penn State. "I can't just come and do research and not share with them what I know, what I've learned. It's unethical."

Senegal is a country of people living on the edge, she says. It gets just enough rainfall to support the crops that sustain families—millet, peanuts, and cow peas. "It's just enough. And droughts are common. I was working with small field farmers trying to understand how they cope with such a harsh environment. They're trying to do something. They're creative. They're innovative. But they're at risk."

man in blue with pink hat holds dirt
Petra Tschakert

Senegal receives just enough rainfall to support the crops that sustain families. "But it's just enough," says Tschakert.

"I've always had an affinity for dry lands," says Tschakert. As a high school student, she visited Namibia and Tunisia. Later, she studied economic development and educational partnerships between Austria and sub-Saharan Africa at Karl-Franzens University in Graz, Austria. In 1992, after receiving her master's degree in economics, geography, and French, Tschakert took a job leading a community-based land and natural resource management project in Senegal. She wanted to see how development in Africa really worked.

"There I was. A woman. Young. It seemed to surprise them that I could be in that position. I think that was to my advantage. But what really helped me to get integrated is that I like to dance, and women dance in those villages. They don't have sophisticated bands. They just play on their buckets with cooking utensils, and they dance to it. And I just loved that."

Soon after she arrived, Tschakert met Agatha Thiaw, a young woman who was designated to be her maid. "I said, 'I don't need a maid,' and then people told me that by not hiring a maid, I was depriving an entire family of an income." Thiaw soon became Tschakert's friend and translator, helping Tschakert communicate with farmers in Wolof, the major ethnic group in Senegal.

For three years, Tschakert worked in Senegal, managing teams of local people working on such varied projects as sand dune stabilization—"keeping the dunes from migrating into vegetable gardens"—and integrated pest management—"using natural products to fight locusts."

She also learned to appreciate the duality of life in Africa. "On the one hand, there is real poverty. A lot of people do not have running water, do not have latrines, do not have access to primary education. Health care is a huge problem. But on the other hand, there seems to be such an intensity of life. It's colorful. People are joyful. People laugh and dance. They take pride in appearance. When times were good, they were really good. When times were not so good, it was pretty bad."

woman in wide hat stands with four African men holding wood.
Petra Tschakert

Tschakert learned to appreciate the duality of life in Senegal. "On the one hand, there is real poverty. But on the other hand, there is such an intensity to life," she says. "It's colorful. People laugh and dance."

Tschakert's next cultural leap was to the United States, where she began working on a Ph.D. in Arid Lands Resource Sciences at the University of Arizona.

"It's such an interdisciplinary program—perfect for me. I combined it with a minor in applied anthropology," she says. She wanted to study the technical and human sides of land use and management, and address issues of sustainable development and equity. After exploring household food security and regional climate modeling in Africa as possible research areas, Tschakert decided to focus on carbon sequestration—the managed transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbon "sinks" like soils, trees, and oceans.

"'Carbon what?' I asked, when my advisor first suggested it. He gave me some papers to read and asked me to come back in two weeks with a research proposal," says Tschakert.

Tschakert came up with the idea of community carbon sequestration—collaborating with small-scale farmers to turn their plots of land into carbon sinks. The second part of her plan—the economic development part—was to encourage industrialized countries like Austria to invest in these farmers through small grants.

Her idea took her back to Senegal for two years, where she assembled a research team that included Thiaw and environmental scientists Djibril Diouf and AlHassan Cisse. They began surveying farmers to find the best way to introduce the idea of carbon sequestration.

"It's complicated," says Tschakert. "How do you explain to farmers that you're somehow supposed to capture something in the air that you can't see, smell, or touch? Then how do you explain that you're supposed to take whatever that stuff is and put it in your soil and then somehow the Austrians will come and buy it?"

So Tschakert reframed the argument into one of better land management—increase the number and variety of plants and trees on the land, which increases the rate of carbon accumulation in the soil, which increases soil fertility, which allows the plot of land to support more plants in a smaller area. "This way, it's no longer so technical. It's actually useful to the people."

Under the Kyoto Protocol guidelines, one nation can offset a portion of its carbon emissions by supporting carbon sequestration in another part of the world.

"It's more profitable to sequester carbon on large scale plantations," explains Tashakert. "So how can we convince investors to make a commitment to small scale farmers when it's much more complicated, more partners are involved, and it's more difficult to monitor?"

"One way to do it," she asserts, "is to explain that it just might be the tipping point from a system where people can barely survive to one of improved livelihood, if it's integrated in the right way."

crowd of Senegalese villagers sit in circle under trees
Petra Tschakert

Senegalese villagers gather to talk beneath "l'arbre à palabre," or "the word tree." It is here that Petra Tschakert came face-to-face with what she calls "the moral obligation" of doing research in a developing country.

Tschakert, who joined the Penn State faculty in early 2005, plans to continue her work on community carbon sequestration.

"The Kyoto Protocol entered into force this year. That opens doors to make these kinds of economic-environmental development models official. It's very different from a classical development project in which one country just gives money to the other. In this case, Senegal has some kind of bargaining power. That will put them in a much stronger position," says Tschakert.

Through Penn State's Alliance for Earth Sciences, Engineering, and Development in Africa (AESEDA), Tschakert will collaborate with teams of researchers throughout the world that are tackling similar issues in Africa.

"Interdisciplinary research is not just encouraged in this job, it's a requirement," says Tschakert. Travel to Africa, for research and education, is also integral to her career.

By next year, Tschakert hopes to be back in the dry lands.

Petra Tschakert, Ph.D., is assistant professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences;

Last Updated April 01, 2005