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People and pixels in the Sahel: a study linking coarse-resolution remote sensing observations to land users’ perceptions of their changing environment in Senegal

Stefanie M. Herrmann, University of Arizona
Ibrahima Sall, University of Arizona
Oumar Sy, Université Assane Seck de Ziguinchor


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Mounting evidence from satellite observations of a re-greening across much of the Sahel and Sudan zones over the past three decades has raised questions about the extent and reversibility of desertification. Historical ground data that could help in interpreting the re-greening are scarce. To fill that void, we tapped into the collective memories of local land users from central and western Senegal in 39 focus groups and assessed the spatial association between their perceptions of vegetation changes over time and remote sensing-derived trends. To provide context to the vegetation changes, we also explored the land users' perspective on the evolution of other environmental and human variables that are potentially related to the greening, using participatory research methods. While increases in vegetation were confirmed by the study participants for certain areas, which spatially corresponded to satellite-observed re-greening, vegetation degradation dominated their perceptions of change. This degradation, although spatially extensive according to land users, flies under the radar of coarse-resolution remote sensing data because it is not necessarily associated with a decrease in biomass but rather with undesired changes in species composition. Few significant differences were found in the perceived trends of population pressure, environmental, and livelihood variables between communities that have greened up according to satellite data and those that have not. Our findings challenge the prevailing chain of assumptions of the satellite-observed greening trend indicating an improvement of environmental conditions in the sense of a rehabilitation of the vegetation cover after the great droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, and the improvement of environmental conditions possibly translating into more stable livelihoods and greater well-being of the populations. For monitoring desertification and rehabilitation, there is a need to develop remote sensing-based indicators that better reflect the changes in the biophysical environment that matter most to the land users.

Key words

desertification; human-environment interactions; NDVI; participatory methods; re-greening; transhumance

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087