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December 16, 2020

Big Ideas, Local Practices: The Great Green Wall across the African Continent

An African-led environmental project is significantly improving the lives of the region’s millions of inhabitants.

Led by the African Union, the Great Green Wall is an initiative aiming to plant a huge line of trees, crops, and other greenery across the entire width of Africa, stretching for a total of 8,000km from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East. Although there have been some barriers interfering with the initial goal of a single, continuous string of trees, the project has already produced social and economic benefits for the people living along its path.

A combination of climate change, disproportionate population growth, and unsustainable land management has turned the once fertile land of the Sahel into a barren desert, causing droughts and famines that have in turn led to conflict over resources and mass emigration. Since the earliest signs of this desertification in the 1970s and 80s, local community leaders have been envisioning a wall of trees that could tackle many of these problems simultaneously: the roots will strengthen the soil and improve water management, the trunks will provide barriers to prevent the wind destroying new seedlings, the crops will produce food and resources to sell, and the creation and ongoing management of the tree line will employ millions of people. Elvis Paul Tangam, African Union Commissioner for the project, emphasises the importance of the project being driven by the dreams and leadership of African people.

[T]he failure of development aid [was that] people were never identified with it. But this time they identify. This is our thing.
ELVIS PAUL TANGAM, AFRICAN UNION COMMISSIONER FOR THE SAHARA AND SAHEL GREAT GREEN WALL INITIATIVE.


Formally beginning in 2007 with eleven participating countries, the Great Green Wall is currently underway in over 20 different African nations, each with their own specific action plan to localise growing efforts. After over a decade of planting, roughly 15% of the wall’s intended track is on its way to being restored, creating more than 350,000 new jobs. However, a recent progress report indicated that the project will need to plant at least half of this total effort every single year if they hope to meet their goal of finishing the wall by 2030, efforts that are delayed due to insufficient and sometimes insecure funding, as well as uninhabited sections of the wall leaving no one to care for saplings. In addition, the huge variety of environments and soil conditions means that new trees will not grow effectively on every part of the line, also hindering the project’s original vision. Far from being disheartened, however, local communities are adapting their efforts, using the Great Green Wall as inspiration for restoring the land in other ways.

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.
- MAHAMED BAKARR, LEAD ENVIRONMENTAL SPECIALIST WITH GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT FACILITY.

In many locations, instead of simply growing trees, local communities are reviving indigenous land use techniques and discovering simpler ways to encourage natural growth. This innovative thinking is particularly evident in Burkina Faso, where farmers are adapting an older method of building zaï, grids of deep planting pits with stone barriers that enhance water filtration and retention and have rehabilitated over three million hectares of the small West African country. By taking the idea of the Great Green Wall and adapting it to the specific biogeographical needs of individual areas, these areas of the wall are highlighting the importance of local knowledge and adaptability in restoring the environment for all.

The Great Green Wall is an ambitious project, but even if the rows of trees don’t eventuate as initially conceived, the concept is hugely inspirational. It shows the power of community organisation, international co-operation, and the importance of working with nature, and we at Casper Magazine can’t wait to see how this new environmental wonder continues to develop. Check out a VR tour of how the wall is developing below.

 

To find out about more grassroots organisations fighting to improve living standards in some of Africa’s poorest regions, see our article on The Hunger Project and their collaboration with Australian fashion brand DECJUBA.


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