By Michaela Kozminova.
An ironic allusion to Trump’s great, great wall? Far from that. The Great Green Wall initiative has been launched by the African Union in 2007. The idea is to grow an almost 8 000 km long and 15 km wide belt covered by vegetation across Africa, spreading from west to east. The Wall is supposed to copy the southern border of the Sahara desert and re-green the inhospitable Sahel region. Eleven countries are actively involved: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal.
The project has mobilised around 8 billion dollars, provided mainly by the World Bank, EU, UNFAO and other international donors and development organisations. Although the Pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall has been established to put a framework to the project, most of the decision-making authority belongs to the member states. Each of them has set their own national action plan in order to achieve wanted results, while recognizing the importance of giving more authority to local communities. As the Agency of the Great Green Wall seems to play a rather symbolic role, the achievement of bringing all these countries together to work on sustainable and climate-smart development is considered to be a great success.
Due to climate change, desertification and land degradation, the Sahel region is one of the poorest places in the world. The Great Green Wall is being built to face consequences of the changing environment such as frequent droughts and lack of food, as well as resulting conflicts over fewer natural resources and mass migration to Europe. Once finished, the Wall is expected to provide brighter future in terms of food and jobs for millions of people. Moreover, one of the ambitions of its originators is to create the largest living structure on the planet, which would, as a global symbol of humanity and peace, potentially become a new Wonder of the World.
However, critics pointed out few problems encountered on the way, shadowing these great expectations. Some argue that the objectives are just too ambitious. Well, they are not wrong. According to the Global Drylands Assessment, the whole area under GGW covers 780 million hectares, out of which 166 million hectares offer opportunities for restoration projects. Around 10 million hectares need to be restored each year in order to meet the 2030 deadline and contribute to the Agenda for Sustainable Development. Others have even called it „a stupid idea“ to plant a forest on the edge of a desert with little funding and no science behind. But the concept has undergone considerable evolution throughout the ten years of its existence. Far from a narrow-minded perspective of planting millions of individual trees, the initiative has shifted from the idea of a continuous wall of trees inspired by the Great Wall of China, to a more holistic approach to rural development that promotes sustainable farming practices, minimises deforestation and land degradation. For example, the large-scale farmer-managed natural regeneration seems to be more efficient and less costly than other methods. It relies on living roots and seeds that are already in the soil and re-sprout each season into bushy shrubs. In most cases, continuous grazing by livestock and regular harvesting for fuelwood doesn’t allow these shrubs to grow into trees. But if farmers are aware of these natural processes, so that they can adequately take care of the new greenery and protect it from cattle, fire and other damaging elements, this could be a way to go and rapidly re-green the landscape. Besides that, the GGW’s activities also pay attention to water management, livestock breeding and agroforestry.
Another discussed topic is the expected impact of the Great Green Wall on migration. Project’s advocates hope that the Wall will temper some of the push factors by providing jobs and food, which would also reduce local conflicts over scarce resources. In one of the scenarios, better safety and brighter prospects for their future at home will give people less reasons to flee their country hoping to find a better life in Europe. But some migration experts highlight the opposite hypothesis. According to CReAM report, an increasing household income in Sub-saharan Africa goes with the propensity to migrate. In other words, a slightly increased income might not necessarily mean an incentive to stay, but on the contrary, encourage more individuals and families to leave.
Anyway, where is the Great Green project now? Although far from being accomplished, the results in land restoration can be interpreted as encouraging. It is hard to get an overall image of the 10 years achievements, but for instance: in terms of degraded land, Senegal has restored 25 000 hectares by planting 11,4 million trees, Ethiopia has restored 15 million hectares, Nigeria 5 million and Sudan 2 000 hectares. The Action Against Desertification, FAO’s programme associated to the GGW, claims that estimated 12 000 hectares of degraded land have been planted only between 2015 and 2017, compared to 27 000 hectares of indigenous trees planted since the beginning of the project. If these numbers don’t tell much, at least they confirm that land degradation is not yet irreversible.
As a sign of its first successful decade, the project has recently been considered by other African countries. Namibia has brought the initiative to southern Africa, organising few weeks ago a workshop on the feasibility of introducing the great wall in southern Africa. According to Marthin Kasaona, Namibian chief conservation scientist in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, eleven more African countries – Angola, Botswana, DRC, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – support the idea of bringing the Great Green Wall project to southern Africa.
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