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Africa's most ambitious idea: The Great Green Wall

  • Written by  Words by Eleonora Vio, images by Patrick Tombola
  • Published in Development
Africa's most ambitious idea: The Great Green Wall
11 Oct
In 2007, the African Union announced a hugely ambitious project – to plant the Great Green Wall, a band of trees that would stretch the length of the Sahel. Progress has been slow, but as a trip to Burkina Faso demonstrated, continued momentum could change lives 

'Until 15 years ago, this place was covered by forests and you’d find wild animals of all sorts,’ recalls Diallo Amidou Hama, a resident of Wemdou, a minuscule village located in the heart of the Sahel in Burkina Faso. As he speaks, his worn-out sandals hit the dry soil, emitting a funny clickety-clack. ‘Today, there’s nothing,’ he says. ‘Due to the shortage of water and the arrival of the internally displaced people three years ago, who uprooted the last remaining trees for firewood, we are really struggling.’ 

Heavy rains, prolonged droughts, wildfires and landslides have all become commonplace throughout the world. But nowhere is quite like the Sahel. In this huge African region, stretched between the Sahara Desert in the north and the Sudanese steppe in the south, climate change has materialised in a brutal and dramatic manner.

The Sahel has always been characterised by strong climatic variations and irregular rainfall, but things have worsened in recent decades. The frequency and severity of both droughts and floods have increased and more than 80 per cent of the region’s land is now degraded, contributing to frequent famine conditions. Various factors are at play on top of climate change, including population growth, deforestation, overgrazing, a lack of coherent environmental policies and misplaced development priorities.

As Hama suddenly widens his arms in a theatrical pose, it inspires a kind of vertigo. It’s difficult to tell whether it comes from the suffocating heat or from the vastness of the expanse of hard soil surrounding us. Some areas here have changed so rapidly in recent years that communities have had to rethink their entire way of life. In some cases, the dry conditions have left people with no option other than to migrate elsewhere to survive. It was with all of this in mind that the extraordinary, but heavily debated, project the Great Green Wall (GGW) was first conceived.

BURKINA 2021 04 02877According to Diallo Amidou Hama, who lives in Wemdou, Burkina Faso, the land shown behind him was once covered in trees. Image: Patrick Tombola

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Sixteen years have passed since African heads of state first hinted at this new project during a meeting in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in 2005; 14 years have passed since 2007, when the initiative formally kicked off under the control of the African Union. The stated goal was to create a 15-kilometre-wide, 8,000-kilometre-long green belt of trees and other plants that, by 2030, would span the entire width of the Sahel, from Senegal to Djibouti. Overall, 100 million hectares of land would be restored by 2030. Once completed, it was announced, the wall could end up capturing 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, while its creation and upkeep could create ten million jobs in rural areas.

The GGW is an ecological restoration project meant to slow desertification, but it’s also a project designed by African people for African people – an aspect often overlooked. It’s the only land-restoration initiative under purely African leadership. Pushed by the worrying predictions of many scientists, Sahelian countries (now comprised of Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan) came up with this ambitious, revolutionary idea.

Things haven’t gone entirely smoothly. In Burkina Faso, the situation remains critical. Aged 57, Hassan Amadou Mayga’s lined face says it all. Born in the village of Diomga – a few miles away from Wemdou – he works as both a farmer and a herder. His expertise in techniques typical of the drylands, such as zai (digging pits in the soil during the pre-season to catch water and concentrate compost), along with his natural authority, made him the obvious choice for local coordinator of the GGW. ‘I’m used to recognising when the drought is coming,’ he explains. ‘In the past, we would dig small pits to get water. If you dug a metre one year, you knew you would have to dig two metres the following one.

‘Droughts come in phases,’ he continues. ‘First, it’s the leaves withering, then the trees down to the roots and, finally, as the rain comes down sporadically and with violence, the soil breaks and with the passing of time, carries marks.’ It doesn’t take long to notice that, today, the drought has reached the final stage.

Looking at the project as a whole, there’s still a long way to go. According to a status report unveiled by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in September 2020, about four million hectares of degraded land have been rehabilitated within the initiative’s ‘intervention zones’ – a 154-million-hectare region corresponding to the entire geographical fringe of the Sahara. This is complemented by another 17.8 million hectares of land under restoration within GGW countries, but outside the intervention zones. Ultimately, this means that progress towards the 100 million hectares target stands at just four per cent. The Panafrican Agency for the Great Green Wall (APGMV), which now coordinates the project, has since set a new target of 25 million hectares by 2030. Even taking this as the starting point, progress stands at 16 per cent.

BURKINA 2021 04 00494In Tinkaglega, a group of women walk past a bulli – a small water reservoir – built by Tree Aid to provide drinking water year-round. Image: Patrick Tombola

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Problems were apparent from the start. Although the project formally began in 2007, it wasn’t until 2011 that the APGMV was established to strengthen coordination among the involved states and it was only then that states such as Burkina Faso began to commit. ‘Before the APGMV was launched, the initiative could only rely on domestic funds,’ explains Elvis Paul Tangem, the African Union’s GGW coordinator. ‘There was scepticism among investors, who didn’t understand the project, but also among the African states themselves, which needed time to figure out if the GGW was a priority.’

‘We had too few funds to push the initiative as much as we wanted to,’ agrees Adama Doulkom, coordinator of the initiative for Burkina Faso. ‘When we started restoring the soil, we realised the area at risk was much wider than we initially thought and we didn’t have enough resources.’

Only once the African partners had produced an integrated strategy that went beyond the idealistic and that mandated the creation of forestry societies did other donors step in. The most prominent today are the World Bank, the EU, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UNCCD and the IUCN. Even then, money remained tight. According to a 2020 UNCCD report, funds from international projects that ‘state explicitly to support the Great Green Wall’, amounted to US$870 million. Taking all funds into account, ‘between 2010 and 2019, donors claim to have invested US$1.8 billion’. In both cases, the sums were considerably less than the US$4 billion promised when the project was announced at the COP22 climate conference in 2016.

Conditions in Burkina Faso have proved particularly challenging. ‘We support the establishment of proper structures around the GGW but working with so many different realities is challenging,’ says Tangem. ‘In Senegal and Gambia, we are moving faster because they are more stable and the government set up a parallel directorate with the same powers as the Ministry of Environment. In Burkina Faso, we wanted to do the same, but… boom. There was a tumultuous change of government in 2014 and then the advent of terrorism in 2018. Priorities changed and the state preferred to form a subordinate unit with limited influence.’

This created confusion among local partners and international donors, who struggled to locate the GGW. ‘They ended up sending money directly to the central authorities, which used it for other purposes, instead of allocating it for our projects,’ explains Georges Bazongo, director of operations at Tree Aid, a British charity that has been involved in the GGW since 2011.

It can be difficult to take certain decisions when, as Tangem points out, ‘the areas that have to cope with the worst security hardship are also those with the most pressing environmental needs.’ He’s referring to Burkina Faso, but also to Mali, Niger and Chad. An incident that occurred in the village of Diomga is a good example. There, FLEUVE, a GGW initiative sponsored by the European Commission that aimed to strengthen the capacities of local communities to help boost investments in land restoration, crashed against the tough reality. ‘They came to Diomga in 2018, promising they would build a bulli [water reservoir], but we’ve never seen it. They handed out tools and carts to eight random people and 200 saplings to another nine,’ Mayga says. ‘None of the moringa trees survived, because without a fence, which they also promised and never realised, animals destroyed everything.’

When questioned about this, Birguy Lamizana, UNCCD’s senior programs officer for the Sahel, replied: ‘Development programmes are not meant to be in intervention zones forever. They only provide a workable framework for the national government in implementing areas to copy and adapt these activities in their respective ministries or agencies to boost governance there.’ The UNCCD also said that it kept away from the region near Diomga due to rising instability.

All of these issues together have contributed to hinder at least part of the work that could have been done. Looking closely at the situation, however, there is some reason for hope. For a start, much more money is now on its way. In January 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron announced at the One Planet Summit for Biodiversity that the GGW would receive US$14.3 billion in new funding. UNCDD noted that the new funds make up 30 per cent of the US$33 billion it calculates is needed to achieve the initiative’s ambitions by 2030.

At a local level, too, both goodwill and determination have never been in short supply. ‘Each of these countries has achieved something and is unique in its own way,’ Tangem says. ‘Nigeria has a strong governmental structure for the GGW and a great energy-transition plan; Niger is number one when it comes to forestry and agroforestry; Senegal is outstanding in biodiversity; and Burkina has a good value chain with shea butter [a fat extracted from the nut of the shea tree], a focal point for the local communities.’

BURKINA 2021 04 00130Young women collect water from a well to irrigate small vegetable gardens in an effort to prevent desertification. Image: Patrick Tombola

In fact, most of the countries involved have suffered from a failure to document their success properly. ‘For a long time, we suffered from the lack of coordination in monitoring and evaluating the projects on the ground. Hence, the image that was conveyed outside was that we were good for nothing,’ Bazongo says.

However, some projects have been forging ahead. For example, in 2019–20, Tree Aid successfully planted 2,159,000 native trees in Burkina Faso and has stood out as a remarkable example of the integrated approach for which the GGW is slowly becoming better known, which combines the regeneration of the soil with the battle against poverty.

One of the 150 locations in which Tree Aid operates is Tinkaglega, in the centre-north of Burkina Faso, a tiny place that would have remained unaltered with the passing of time if it wasn’t for the artisanal gold mines that mushroomed there, where once there were forests. In the heart of the village, where until two years ago there was just a flat expanse of land, there is today a large reservoir that provides water for 100,000 trees and a huge number of cattle. It’s also crucial for both fishing and agriculture. ‘We explained to women that from trees you can extract fruits for the family livelihood and you can sell them in the market and get medicines or beauty products such as shea butter,’ says Bazongo. ‘If people get poorer than this, they will cut more trees and, by doing so, they will jeopardise the soil even further, bringing our society to its ultimate collapse. We are trying to break this circle of poverty, diversifying the sources of food and income, and investing in raising awareness and dialogue.’ According to the UNCCD’s 2020 status report, taken as a whole, Burkina Faso has seen almost 30,000 hectares of land restored and 20,000 hectares reforested. Meanwhile 27,000 people have been trained and 45,000 jobs created.

BURKINA 2021 04 00752Locals walk among piles of tailings at a gold mine near the town of Yako, northwest of the capital, Ouagadougou. Gold mining is an important part of the country’s economy, but reports of human trafficking and forced labour are common. Image: Patrick Tombola

In places such as Burkina Faso, where 86 per cent of the population relies on natural resources to survive and 60 per cent on firewood for heating and cooking, this approach is the only feasible one. ‘These first ten years have been invested in strengthening national policies in places where they didn’t exist,’ says Tangem, a man of many ideas and a very practical view. ‘Once the bureaucrats who write reports and give seminars surrender their means and leadership to the local communities, the Sahel will change its face within ten, 15 years.’

Many actors have played a part in the situation facing the Sahel today, from Western colonists to corrupt politicians and illegal loggers. Nevertheless, just as the forests were once stripped from this land, sometime soon they could still return.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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