Much has changed since 2007, when the African Union launched the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI) as a bulwark against the encroaching desert.
The wall is no longer envisioned as a narrow band of trees along the southern edge of the Sahara, a nearly 8,000 km-long, 15 km-wide corridor from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. The plan is now to surround the Sahara with a wide belt of vegetation, trees and bushes greening and protecting an agricultural landscape. The new vision engages all the countries surrounding it, including Algeria and others in North Africa, not just the 11 original sub-Saharan countries of the Sahel.
Yet the Great Green Wall remains the popular appellation, an iconic symbol of human will that has captured the imagination of the world.
“We moved the vision of the Great Green Wall from one that was impractical to one that was practical,” says Mohamed Bakarr, the lead environmental specialist for Global Environment Facility, which examines the environmental benefit of World Bank projects. “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing.”
RESTORING 100 MILLION HECTARES
Today, the Initiative has 21 African countries participating, some $8 billion of pledged funding, and such weighty partners as the World Bank and the French government.
The project has huge ambitions: to restore 100 million hectares of land, provide food security for 20 million people, create 350,000 jobs, and sequester 250 million tons of carbon by 2030.
Work is already well underway. The GGWSSI recently claimed that 15 percent of drought-resistant trees have been planted, largely in Senegal, with 4 million hectares of land restored. Senegal’s experience is documented in Growing a World Wonder, an award-winning virtual reality film.
Successful grassroots greening efforts in Niger have helped close the gap between the project’s ambition and reality. In one of the poorest countries in the world, farmers have been able to revive vast tracts of arid land with minimal investment.
“Niger has seen the largest positive transformation in the whole of Africa,” says Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow of the World Resources Institute, who has worked for decades in the Sahel.
The farmers of Niger practice natural regeneration of the land, using innovative practices such as reviving the roots of plants and trees, and digging “half-moon” pits to store water. Trees destroyed during droughts are allowed to recover over years, and then carefully maintained.
These methods have succeeded in restoring 5 million hectares of land and around 200 million trees. Reij estimates this delivers an additional 500,000 tons of cereal grain a year, which is enough to feed 2.5 million people. The investment amounted to less than $20 per hectare.
A FIRST IN WEST AFRICA
“We’ve never seen anything near this size and impact on the environment anywhere in West Africa,” says Gray Tappan, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey’s West Africa Land Use and Land Cover Trends Project. “In our mind Niger already has its great green wall. It’s only a matter of scaling it up.”
Great Green Wall partners have recognized the progress of Niger, and the lessons have been incorporated into their programs.
FAO is leading initiatives in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger using water conservation techniques and native crops, which have delivered impressive results.
“We are looking at restoration with a bottom-up approach,” says FAO forestry officer Nora Berrahmouni. “It’s not about planting x or y, but identifying species with the local communities and then supporting them. Sometimes you don’t need to plant anything, just to assist the natural regeneration of land.”
The GGWSSI is listening to the experts and adapting its approach, according to the Initiative co-ordinator Elvis Paul Tangem.
“The program has moved from forestry to sustainable land and water management,” he says. “The ambition remains the same, but the activities have changed.”
The key, Reij says, is scaling up the effort in the drylands countries by building up grassroots efforts, addressing the legal issues (like tree ownership), and creating markets for the products of agroforestry.
Find out more about restoration initiatives throughout Africa at the Global Landscapes Forum Nairobi summit, Aug. 29-30, 2018.