Visualise a green wall stretching over the entire width of the African continent – all the way from Senegal to Ethiopia. A wall composed of trees, bushes and plants running through 11 countries with one objective: reversing the effects desertification. While it may sound like a fairytale at first, this green stroke was initiated by the African Union in 2007 and is already under construction with more trees being added every day. The idea behind this so-called “Great Green Wall” is actually quite simple, reforestation in order to stabilise further land degradation along the semi-arid band located south of the Saharan desert.
Since the 70’s onwards, the northern part of Africa has been affected by extreme droughts and poor agricultural practices resulting in food shortages. Both climate change, as well as human activities, have been the main reason for this continued land degradation.
With more than 200 million people living along this strip of land, it was of vital importance to hold back further desertification to stop migration, secure food reserves and support the local communities.
This idea all started with a proposal by the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005, who argued that such a collective effort may be the only way to tackle the challenge of desertification. Two years later, 11 countries approved the plans to realise this immense project. Supported by many organisations such as the EU (European Union), UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and the World Bank, this project was launched in 2007 as “The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative” (GGWSSI).
The “Great Green Wall” initiative: A 7.100-km strip of forest from Senegal to Ethiopia. Source: http://www.businessdayonline.com/
What are the objectives of the Great Green Wall?
- Halt desertification
The primary aim of this initiative is to prevent the advance of desertification that is transforming the Sahel into a region of despair and infertility. Specific vegetation was selected to restore degraded land and return dry soils into productive plantations.
- Improve local livelihoods
The African partnership aims to boost the livelihoods of the rural communities across the continent. Throughout the construction process, thousands of extra jobs were (and are still) provided to the community. Apart from that, while this region used to be neglected by many, it now benefits from more tourist activity, researchers and medical professionals who all add something to the means of the local communities. Altogether, these improvements paired with the addition jobs result in less migration happening from the Sahel to seek opportunities elsewhere.
- Boost food security
The transformation of unusable land into fertile soil will lead to an increase of production sites along the Sahel region. These plantations will provide new additional energy resources such as fruit and vegetables for the benefit of the local people.
What are the complications of such an immense project?
As you probably could have guessed by now, an initiative as large as this one comes with its implications. Before, many argued that such an immense project would just not hold strong for long considering the different needs of all the stakeholders involved. What if one of the countries decides to step out along the process? What if the species of plants end up to be not suitable for these different locations? Those are some of the questions that arise when discussing this project. Additionally, the population density of some regions along the green wall is too little to manage and maintain the planted vegetation.
Over time, the idea of a green wall has been slightly adjusted. While the initial plan literally focused on a narrow stroke of trees, it has now transitioned to a patchwork of green dispersed along the transition zone. This patchwork is a project that promotes land use techniques to strengthen the relationship between the local residents and their ecosystems.
So, where are we now?
The Great Green Wall project is now on approximately 20% of what it should be. In terms of actual numbers, we know that Senegal has already planted more than 11 million trees that restored more than 20.000 hectares of degraded land. Nigeria and Ethiopia combined restored 20 million hectares degraded soil and are still making progress.
A wide variety of other countries have established enough productive soil to harvest food during the dry season. By 2050, the initiative aims to restore 50 millions hectares of land representing one of the most magnificent human-made environmental construction.
The Sahel region is slowly becoming healthy again with an increasing number of productive lands to provide the local population with food, jobs and stability. We could say that this was a straightforward plan consisting of bold actions to combat a complicated problem. Although one may argue that this project was too ambitious to begin with, I feel like it is essential to look beyond the established approaches. Especially in this region, were people can literally see the effects of climate change, it is time to embrace these bold actions to eventually discover the most suitable way to fight against the challenges. While the initial plan may have dimmed over time, it shifted into something that truly benefits the region, its ecosystem and the people living within. Along the process, different organisations, researchers and other stakeholders have realised that this narrow stroke stretching over the continent may not be the best solution. Instead, we should focus on a diffused network that also promotes sustainable land management. So, yes, we could say that the Great Green Wall may has become a metaphor. A metaphor for overcoming our changing environment.