The Great Green Wall initiative: Five things you need to know

By Safiya Hassan, GLOBUS Correspondent

The word Sahel comes from the Arabic ساحل, meaning ‘coast’, and is an apt name for an area which borders the Sahara Desert to the north, jungles to the south and spans the entire width of the African continent, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. This region and the countries within are highly dependent on agriculture, with 80-90% of the Sahel’s population engaged in agricultural activities. The Sahel is also home to the fastest growing populations on earth; therefore, in a quest to feed the region’s growing populace, the agricultural economies of the Sahel are becoming increasingly market-oriented with unsustainable agricultural gaining traction in order to keep up with demands. 

Unfortunately, the result of a change from traditional agricultural practise has been desertification, which occurs when arable and fertile lands transform into deserts due to both natural causes and man made activities. Drylands, which constitute around 66% of the African continent, are particularly affected by desertification, in the past few decades the Sahara Desert has been rapidly expanding in to the Sahel region.

One of the many consequences of desertification is land degradation, which results in soil losing its nutrients, thus limiting agricultural productivity and having huge consequences for the region.

However, hope is not lost for the Sahel; more than a decade ago, the African Union (2007) launched an ambitious $8 billion plan to create an 8,000 km long tree barrier spanning from Senegal to Djibouti in order to combat increasing desertification in the Sahel region.

Inspired from Kenyan Nobel prize winning ecologist and environmentalist, Wangaari Mathaai, who led an initiative that planted more than 30 million trees in her native Kenya,  the project was launched in collaboration with the leaders of 20 countries, which include; Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Chad. 

 Here are five things you need to know about this project:

  1. This vision was the pet project of British botanist, Richard St. Barbe Baker, who was born in 1889. Richard proposed his idea during an expedition in 1954 to N’Djamena, the current capital of Chad. He wanted to create a 50 km deep ‘green front’ to contain the expanding Sahara Desert. He attributed the increasing land degradation to centuries of land mismanagement starting from wheat farming in the North Africa in the final years of the Roman Empire and the grazing of goats introduced by Arabs. The idea was unfortunately abandoned.
  2. That is up until 2002- when the then Nigerian president Olusugen Obasanjo revisited the idea.
  3. In 2019, the green wall project made international news when Ethiopia claimed to have planted a record breaking 350 million trees in a single day. In this collective effort, 23 million people and government employees were given a day off to take part.
  4. Other Sahelian efforts include Senegal planting 18 million trees on 99,000 acres of restored land.
  5. The Great Green Wall vision has evolved from a barrier of trees to the objective of surrounding the desert with a wide belt of vegetation after critics pointed out the futility of the former, therefore technically it is only a wall by name. 

Header image: Image by Torsten Martins via Unsplash

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