Ellen Butler looks at how communities near the Sahara desert are fighting desertification, with the Great Green Wall.

In 2007, an initiative called The Great Green Wall of the Sahel and the Sahara was launched by the African Union and the UN. The mammoth project proposed building a wall of trees across Africa – from Senegal to 7000km east in Djibouti. It was intended to block the advancing Sahara Desert from spreading into the Sahel, the area south of the desert, and causing land degradation.

However, over ten years only 15 percent of the wall has been built. The project has faced numerous obstacles and complications, though there have been some successes.

Dr. Chris Reij is a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a specialist in sustainable land management. He told STAND News more about the project and what life is like for African farmers.

The Great Green Wall (GGW) has been described as a ridiculous idea that was destined to fail. Why is that?
Experience in the Sahel shows that planting trees is difficult. Survival rates of planted trees are often low, which means well below 50 percent and in some cases, just 10 or 20 per cent. Planting trees in areas with 400 mm rainfall or less is exceedingly difficult and certainly planting trees at the scale originally envisioned is technically impossible.

Also, the assumption that a belt of trees would stop the Sahara is flawed. Land degradation is caused by misuse of the land. If farmers in areas with more than 400 mm rainfall expand agriculture over lands which are not suitable for agriculture and destroy the vegetation by doing so, then land degradation/desertification will occur south of the planted belt.

Some argue that the initiative did, in fact, succeed. It has evolved into a metaphorical wall of a variety of practical land-use methods, adapted by local farmers themselves?
It is true that the GGW has moved into a better direction, but it is too early to declare success. It’s almost impossible to find any hard data anywhere about what has been achieved so far.

Unfortunately, we are still losing the fight against land degradation in the Sahel. Rates of deforestation continue to greatly exceed rates of reforestation. Niger is possibly an exception because smallholder farmers in the densely populated southern parts of Niger have increased on-farm tree densities on 5 million hectares (12.5 million acres), which makes it the largest positive environmental transformation in Africa and it happened in the second poorest country in the world.

What are conditions like for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa? Is the reforestation and regeneration of land having a positive impact on local communities and economies?
Life in the Sahel is harsh for most people. The dry season lasts about seven to eight months. Temperatures and rainfall have already become more extreme. This year, rains in Niger, for instance, are abundant and it leads to floods in Northern Niger, which is usually the driest area. Farmers have difficulties planning their activities because rainfall has become even more unpredictable. Many farm households face food shortages and a large percentage of children under five years are malnourished.

This macro-level gloom does hide very positive development at the local level. The positive impact generated by investments in restoring degraded land can be best illustrated by one case: The village of Ranawa in Burkina Faso was in a very difficult situation around 1985.  All wells dried up at the end of the rainy season and drought led to crop failure. Between 1975 and 1985, 25 percent of the villagers left to settle elsewhere. In 1984/85, a project began to invest in simple soil, and water conservation techniques, which quickly led to a recharge in groundwater and soon all wells in the village had water during the entire year. The soil and water conservation techniques also helped restore the productive capacity of the land. Since 1985, not a single family has left the village.

What does the future look like for countries in the Sahel?
The future of most Sahel countries looks quite bleak. The population will double in the next 20 years. Countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger experience acts of terrorism. Young people lack economic perspectives, and many want to leave for Europe.

However, there are also positive developments. 40 years ago, there were barely any academically trained people in Sahel countries, but nowadays one can find specialists in every discipline.  Communication was difficult, but now almost every family has access to a mobile phone. Infant mortality has dropped, and access to education has improved. 40 years ago, we did not know what to do with land degradation, but now we know what to do and how to do it.

It is vital to improve food security and livelihoods in the Sahel and create economic perspectives for the young people.  Anyone visiting a big city in the Sahel will be impressed by all the shops.


Above image courtesy of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

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