"The Great Green Wall is a crazy project". The head of the Senegal Great Green Wall agency, Colonel Matar Cissé, and, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade have said this. It is easy to see why. When completed the Green Wall will be a 15 km wide man-made wall of trees, bushes and plants that stretches 7,600 km coast to coast across Africa from Senegal to Dijibouti, passing through 11 countries in the process.
Perhaps a "touch of madness", as President Wade puts it, is necessary when trying to find solutions to daunting problems. Situated just south of the Sahara, the Green Wall’s main aim is to prevent desertification in the Sahel region. The UN forecasts that two thirds of Africa's farmland may be swallowed by Saharan sands by 2025. A recent report predicts that the effects of climate change, of which desertification is a one, will curb agricultural output in Sahel region more than anywhere in the world. In a region where so many live off the land, the land is being destroyed.
The Great Green Walls have grand ambitions. Not only will it hinder desertification, it will protect local water resources such as Lake Chad from drying up and enable biodiversity to flourish. It aims to combat climate change and help communities adapt to it. Daniel Andre of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification states it will strike directly at "the heart of the fight against poverty", providing local economic development by creating energy resources and land for foodstuffs to grow on. Such economic benefits aim to stop the youth migrating from the region and support political stability.
But the project is more than this. Global Economic Facility (GEF), a major funder of the project, bills it as "a visual concept symbolizing the collective work we all have to do in order to combat environmental degradation". Boubacar Cissé, African co-ordinator for the UN secretariat against desertification, sees it as a "metaphor for the co-ordination of ...international projects, for economic development, environmental protection, and to support political stability". It seems this giant project has been adopted as the poster boy for mankind’s fight for sustainability and survival. But for all this rhetoric, a key question remains.
The pan-African green wall, a pipe dream since the 1980s, was originally presented to the African Union by former Nigerian President Obasanjo in 2005. The project has developed at differing paces since. Already in its fourth year in Senegal, Malek Triki, World Food Programme spokesman for West Africa, states that already 6.65 million trees have been planted, reforesting more than 10,000. However, in most other countries work is not under way and it was only this February that an international summit approved the project continent wide, with development institutions pledging $3 billion for the project.
When Malek explains how the project works it all seems very simple. Essentially trees improve soil quantity and protect communities from sand storms. This slows the encroachment of the desert. Trees also store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting as a carbon sink, and promote biodiversity. Communities participate in income generation projects such as growing fruit and vegetables on the new land. Increased income and food production reduces food insecurity. The environment is protected and poverty is alleviated.
However, it is precisely this assumed simplicity that has drawn much criticism to the project. Wally Memme, a member of Timberwatch, the African NGO focal point of the Global Forest Coalition, says his organisation is deeply sceptical of the project. He denounces the notion that one can halt desertification by planting a "wall of trees" as an oversimplification that "someone from the World Bank might suggest". Suspicion of these glamorous internationally-sponsored projects is built from understanding of the complexities of local ecosystems and shortcomings of past projects and is echoed by many environmental and human rights groups in the region.
Memme welcomes a "carefully designed project aimed at restoring the integrity and functionality of the natural ecosystems" in the Sahel but contends that the Great Green Wall is not such a project. He believes there has not been enough research on the project and thinks the creation of "fake forests", the planting of trees alien to the region, will cause more problems than it solves. China is a case in point. It pioneered its own Great Green Wall project in 1978 to combat desertification and since then has developed more than 500,000 square kilometres of man-made forest. In many of the new forests, few animals thrive and by putting pressure on scarce water resources, they have worsened ecological degradation. Not only does Memme, questioning how there will be adequate water for new vegetation, fear similar consequences in the Sahel, he believes indigenous communities will be displaced by the Wall.
It is problems such as these the Wall is designed to overcome. Monique Barbut, CEO of the GEF, which recently pledged $115 million towards the project, clarifies "we are not financing an all-out tree planting drive from Dakar to Djibouti". She emphasises that developers of the Green Wall will work closely with local communities and farmers. The emphasis is on local solutions with each of the 11 countries being given responsibility for their section of the wall and the wall ending up as a varied "mosaic" of forest cover, reservoirs, nature reserves and vegetation. With regards to research, teams of agronomists in Senegal, botanists and soil specialists have focused on choosing appropriate plants to grow.
Sceptics remain unconvinced. A key reason the project has been funded by the GEF is that it could act as a carbon sink. As Memme points out this usually requires fast growing foreign tree species which are particularly bad for water depletion and local ecosystems. Moreover Timberwatch remains uncertain of how much local communities have been consulted about the project. Such a concern seems justified as increasing number of indigenous groups have started to speak out against the project.
Moreover, when GEF confidently claims it will only fund projects it knows will be successful, it is ignoring the degree to which in the Great Green Wall is an experiment. Due to the poor soil structure in Senegal, René Bally, at France's Science Research Centre concedes "we will have to wait seven or eight years to know whether this has worked out". The inability to convince all indigenous groups of the potential benefits is symptomatic of the Green Wall's biggest problem: a lack of overall co-ordination. So far Senegal is the only country effectively implementing the project. The African Union Pan-African Great Green Wall Agency was created in June last year but still does not have a website.
Up against time
Some will respond that it is early days, but time is running out. As Malek Triki concedes, the project has already had to give up on its dream of stopping the spread of the Sahara and many attack the notion that it can really mitigate climate change. That is not to say it cannot help communities adapt to climate change. As Triki emphasises it is doing just this in Senegal. Beneficiaries have said that before the Great Green Wall, it was not possible to grow vegetables in the area. Now they do not have to leave their villages during the lean season to look for work and food. Indications in Senegal are positive but it is too early to judge overall success and there is still much more to be done. With such ambitious plans and so much international funding there is no doubt that this project will become, as Global Environmental Facility hopes, symbolic. But a huge amount remains to be done to ensure it does not become symbolic for the wrong reasons.
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