The Great Wall of China was once used to ward off enemies. The great Green Wall, which is planned across Africa, should defy the desert. The ambitious plant project aims to secure the livelihood of millions of farmers.
It is an ambitious planting project in the fight against the spread of deserts and soil degradation: The so-called Green Wall is to stretch around 8,000 kilometers from Senegal in the west through the entire Sahel region to Djibouti in the east of the continent. Around 100 million hectares of degraded land - almost three times the area of Germany - are to be made fertile and planted again by 2030. More than 230 million people in the region would benefit from this.
The Green Wall was also a major topic at the World Soil Conference in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). The project is about much more than "just" planting trees. The Green Wall aims to help combat climate change, drought, famine, conflict, migration and land degradation. The African Union (AU), which launched the ambitious project in 2007, reports that the new plants could bind 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million green jobs. Secure income is one of the most important measures to combat the causes of flight in the region.
The last interim report published two years ago on behalf of the United Nations made it clear that there is still a lot to be done by 2030: Depending on the section, the project has only achieved 4 to 20 percent of its goals since it was officially launched. In 15 years, only a good 15 million hectares have been greened. In addition, there are funding gaps, according to an article published in the journal "Nature" at the beginning of May. While the target of the African governments and international donors is 30 billion dollars, only 19 billion have been achieved so far.
Conflicts in the region, such as in Mali and Burkina Faso, also make the project more difficult to implement. Critics also complain that for the Green Wall to succeed as quickly as possible, predominantly fast-growing trees and other plants are being used. As an ecosystem, however, they would not have nearly the same benefits as a natural forest.
According to the organization SOS Sahel, around 90 percent of the people in the region make their living from agriculture. It is estimated that the population will increase to around 500 million people by 2050. For them, fighting the desert is a question of existence. In the discussions in Abidjan, the importance of working together with the people affected was repeatedly emphasized.
Desertification in the Sahel, which borders the Sahara to the north, is increasing due to deforestation, erosion, salinization and depletion of water resources. According to the American National Science Foundation (NSF), the Sahara has grown by ten percent over the past 100 years. According to the UN drought report presented last week, Africa accounted for almost 45 percent of all droughts worldwide over the past 100 years.
Reforestation in the Sahel is a "major challenge," says Lindsay Cobb, spokeswoman for the US organization Trees for the Future, which works with the AU to lead green wall projects in Senegal, Chad, Mali and Gambia. It's not just about planting trees en masse, it's also about making sure the trees survive. This requires the commitment of the public. "Mass planting of trees is rather short-sighted. You need people who take care of these trees, make sure that they are watered, that no herd of animals come and destroy the young trees."
Don't think of the Green Wall as a literal bastion of plants - even if it was originally intended to be that way. Rather, the project is a comprehensive rural development initiative that seeks to create a patchwork of productive landscapes. However, countries like Senegal or Ethiopia, where the government organizes an annual planting campaign of millions of trees, have made quite good progress. Trees for the Future has been training local farmers in "forest garden" cultivation for almost ten years. Surrounded by a "living fence" of bushes and trees, which protects against soil erosion and grazing livestock, the fields grow a variety of drought-tolerant crops. Away from monoculture towards a self-sustaining ecosystem.
According to Cobb, the farmers also receive training in water management, the use of compost and natural pest control. Within ten years, the organization Trees for the Future has helped around 50,000 farms in the four countries to plant almost 34 million trees - all of which contribute to the Green Wall. "We're seeing an average 400 percent improvement in their income and 700 percent improvement in their diet," says Cobb.
One of these farmers is the Senegalese Saliou Seck. "Before, I only knew how to grow millet and peanuts," he says. But then Seck learned how to create a forest garden. Since he expanded his cultivation to include sugar cane, papaya, mango, tomatoes, okra, chili, eggplant, moringa, cassava and bananas, he has been earning a steady income.
There is also support from Germany in the fight against the spread of desert: The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) is involved in several projects on behalf of the federal government that work on reforestation and desertification - including in Ethiopia, Senegal, in Niger and in Ghana, says a spokeswoman. In Ethiopia, for example, tree nurseries are set up together with village communities and local tree species that are drought-resistant are planted.
(This article was first published on Saturday, May 21, 2022.)