Africa’s Great Green Wall: Building resilience on the frontlines of global climate change



Photo credit: Great Green Wall.

By Malee Oot

While the region has contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, Africa’s Sahel is on the front lines of climate change. A band of semi-arid savanna skirting the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, the Sahel has regularly been struck by extreme droughts over the last half century – including in 2005, 2010, and 2012 – and climate projections predict rainfall in the region will continue to be erratic. The Sahel is also warming faster than anyplace else on earth, and temperature increases in the region are projected to be 1.5 times higher than the rest of the planet. The impacts of climate-driven disasters in the region – like droughts and floods – are also exacerbated by extreme poverty and rapid population growth, and countries in the Sahel record some of the highest birth rates on earth.

But despite compounding challenges, one of the planet’s most ambitious climate resilience initiatives is taking root in the Sahel – a project dubbed the Great Green Wall.

Formerly The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative, the pan-African scheme was first launched a decade ago as a plan to plant a belt of vegetation across the African continent, from Senegal to Djibouti. Currently, an $8 billion partnership involving 20 different countries and several international donors, when completed the Great Green Wall will be a new Wonder of the World, slated to be the largest living structure on the planet – surpassing the Great Barrier Reef. But, the initiative has evolved incrementally since its inception 2007 – and now, while the project is bringing tangible benefits to the Sahel, the wall has become something much more metaphorical.

The idea of planting a ribbon of trees at the edge of the Sahara isn’t novel – the concept was even batted around while much of the region was still under colonial rule. In 1935, British forester Edward Percy Stebbing warned of the ‘encroaching Sahara’ – and less than two decades later, English environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker advocated for the creation of a 6,400 kilometer ‘Green Front’ along the southern edge of the Sahara, a buffer against what he perceived to be the greatest threat to the region – the ever-expanding desert. After extreme droughts in the early 1970s, donor-funded tree-planting initiatives were implemented across the Sahel as an antidote to desertification and a way to foster food security, but these schemes failed to ‘green’ any significant portion of the region.

In recent years, a more nuanced notion of desertification in the Sahel has emerged, one interpreting the degradation of regional drylands as the result of the dynamic relationship between social, political, and environmental factors – an evolution in thinking driven in part by the successes of innovative agriculturalists.

One of those early innovators was Burkinabé farmer Yacouba Sawadogo. The subject of a 2010 documentary, in the mid-1970s Sawadogo began reintroducing ancient land management practices — including a planting strategy called zaï, which helps the soil retain water and nutrients — and was eventually able to restore 30 hectares of degraded land, later transformed into a forest. Sawadogo’s labor-intensive but highly cost-effective methods spread to other regional villages – and were introduced beyond Burkina Faso, in places like Niger’s Illéla District.

At the same time, instead of proactively planting trees, farmers in the Sahel began to cultivate saplings that sprang up naturally. Farmers stopped removing young trees, instead planting and plowing around burgeoning saplings – and started to reap multiple benefits. Trees acted as a wind block, preventing erosion and helping the soil retain water. Leaf litter from trees planted amongst agricultural plots also helped restore organic matter in the soil. Nitrogen-fixing species like the gao tree (Acaicia albida) further improved soil conditions. Instead of tree planting, farmer-managed natural regeneration has been the difference in greening the Sahel. Since adopting these strategies, farmers in Niger have successfully restored 5 million hectares of land, according to the United State Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science Center.

The present iteration of the Great Green Wall initiative embraces this systems approach to re-greening the Sahel. Instead of a belt of trees, the ‘wall’ has evolved into a patchwork of sustainable land management projects – and the initiative has expanded beyond the Sahel, including countries north and east of the Sahara. But despite pan-African and international support, the scope of the scheme – and targeted 2030 completion date – are ambitious. Once finished, the project aims to restore 50 million hectares of land, supporting 300 million people in communities throughout the region.

The Great Green Wall initiative has already had measurable impacts. In Burkina Faso, a 2,500 green belt has emerged on degraded land, including more than 50 species of native trees; in Nigeria, 5 million hectares have been restored, and 20,000 jobs have been created; and in Senegal, 11.4 million trees have been planted, resulting in the restoration of 24,600 hectares of degraded land.

Now, another factor is shaping the direction of the initiative — migration. The Sahel is located along the ‘backway’ to Europe, and the majority of migrants striking out for European shores from Central and West Africa travel through the region. Migration to Europe from the Sahel has also increased over the last half-decade, and over the next three years, approximately 60 million people are expected to leave Sub-Saharan Africa attempting to resettle in North Africa or Europe. Last year, on the perilous central Mediterranean migration route to Europe nearly 4,000 people perished – more than half from West Africa. By building climate resilience, fostering food security, and generating economic opportunities, the Great Green Wall may also give prospective migrants a reason to reconsider.

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