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Launched in 2007 by the African Union, the Great Green Wall initiative was to create a new ‘wonder of the world’. This was intended to be a belt of trees 7000 km long and 15 km wide, across eleven Saharan countries from Dakar to Djibouti, visable from space, with a 2030 target of restoring 100 million hectares. It would help to stop desertification, improve the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet, and contribute to Africa’s fight against climate change.
In 2020, the United Nations Convention on Combatting Desertification reported that only some 18 million hectares had been restored so far. Also only 4 million of those were arid lands below 400 mm mean annual rainfall that were originally meant to be the focus, because after 2010 the Wall changed course, from planting a tree belt across the desert to promoting restoration and sustainable land management in a broader area also including sub-humid regions to the south.
However, doing the math shows that to achieve the 100 million hectare goal, some 82 million hectares still need to be restored in the next nine years across the Sahel in arid and semi-arid areas using sustainable land management practices. However, the current rate of restoration across all Great Green Wall countries is at best only about one million hectares per year.
So the rate has to be increased ninefold, immediately. Is that realistic? Unlikely. But we can certainly speed up the process (Africa's Great Green Wall just 4% complete halfway through schedule | Desertification | The Guardian). The Great Green Wall website, however, includes claims that are not backed up by evidence, such as the supposed 5 million restored hectares in Nigeria.
There is no need to start from scratch. For instance, the World Resources Institute developed a regreening scaling strategy in 2015 based on a long term analysis of experiences in the Sahel. This identifies six steps to success: (i) stocktake successes and draw lessons from them, (ii) develop a grassroot movement to promote restoration, (iii) develop enabling policies and legislation, (iv) develop a communication strategy, (v) develop or support agroforestry value chains to increase smallholder income, and (vi) action-research to fill knowledge gaps.
It is rational to begin by identifying lessons from the very many larger and smaller restoration successes in the Sahel. And communicating these helps to inspire more action on the ground and create a different narrative about what can be achieved. See for example the 2020 publication ‘Restoring African Drylands’, that describes studies from across the region, showing how farmer-managed natural regeneration, simple water harvesting techniques, and ‘social fencing’ have rebuilt the productivity of degraded land and helped farmers adapt to climate change.
And this has already been done. Farmers in densely populated parts of southern Niger for example, have regreened 5 million hectares with their own efforts. Since 1985, they have added at least 200 million trees to their farming systems – and not by planting any trees at all – but by protecting and managing natural regeneration from stumps and seeds which are found in the topsoil. This has also led to an additional half a million tonnes of cereal grain yields in the area – enough to feed 2.5 million people. The link between on-farm trees and better harvests is that several tree species have a positive impact on soil fertility. For instance, Faidherbia albida roots fixes nitrogen from the air. On-farm trees also reduce wind speed. Before they increased the number of on-farm trees, farmers in Niger often had to sow their crops three or four times as strong winds early in the rainy season covered young plants with sand. Now farmers only have to sow once.
There are other several important examples from the Sahel. On Mali’s Seno Plains, close to 0.5 million hectares have been regreened by farmers since the mid-1990s, hundreds of villages in central Senegal are now greener than 30 years ago and several hundred thousand hectares of barren degraded land in Burkina Faso and Niger have been restored to productivity by farmers using simple water harvesting techniques.
The next step must be to further increase the number of trees and the diversity of species, including those that do not regenerate naturally – and of course to scale this up across all GGW countries, now. To do so, it is essential to note that many farmers who adopted these techniques did so after they observed the many positive impacts on the fields of other farmers. This large-scale regreening is not the result of donor-led projects promoting a landscape approach, but emerged as a result of the decision of hundreds of thousands of individual smallholders that it was in their best interests to increase the number of on-farm trees. Encouraging more farmer exchanges can lead to lasting change.
The first myth is that investments in sustainable dryland management take many years before they produce benefits. But smallholders who dig planting pits on degraded barren land will get a crop in the first year already. The only question is how big the harvest will be, depending on the quality of the soil and soil fertility management. But it is not unusual to get half a tonne or a tonne of grain per hectare in the first year, instead of zero before applying these simple restoration techniques that require no capital investment, just a little time and effort…
The second myth is that trees require at least a decade to produce benefits. However, young trees need to be protected from browsing and pruned in the first few years to grow tall – like a child needs a good education. And in drylands where wood for cooking and fodder for livestock are such precious resources, these branches are very valuable indeed, long before trees produce fruit. And research shows that fallen leaves, nitrogen fixation, shade, shelter and the ‘pumping’ of water and nutrient from deep in the soil, all provide massive additional benefits even in the earlier years, and that farmers are well aware of…
There is a growing emphasis on mobilizing private sector investments in restoration. However, experience clearly shows that commercial tree plantations, for example, have generated limited returns, employment or benefits to local economies. But as we have seen, millions of hectares can be regreened if millions of farmers invest their own scarce resources in sustainable land and water management. Smallholders manage most of the world’s farmland and forests and produce more than three-quarters of the food consumed globally, even though they do not always have the legal rights to use the land or to what grows on it. So to win the battle against land degradation, they must be supported with easier access to finance, and training in soft skills as well as technical capacity, so being better equipped to engage in policy processes to secure their, and our planet’s, future.
So many youth in the Sahel lack jobs nor any hope of meaningful employment and the dignity they need in being able to support their families. This has, and for many decades already, forced many to migrate to Europe or the Middle East. And at current rates, the region’s population will double in about 20 years, with an ever-increasing ‘youth bulge’. In addition, we see more terrorism, civil unrest, droughts, locusts and now Covid, further disrupting the lives of many millions of people. And resolving these huge issues needs an equivalently massive response.
Building greener and more productive landscapes will not immediately reduce these problems nor offer all the solutions alone. But this approach has to be considered as a concrete foundation from which to build further support. More productive land creates economic opportunities, improves the delicate relationship between pastoralists and farmers, and will reduce the risk of youth joining extremist groups or heading north... But this not just a simple technical solution. It must be supported by decentralizing power, building stronger community organizations, and empowering them to manage their resources.
We know how to do it. We have seen the successes. We have learned the lessons. And now, the Great Green Wall has US$14 billion dollars committed to it. We have the resources now too. So what is stopping us? There are no excuses anymore.
Chris Reij, Senior fellow, World Resources Institute, Washington DC (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Nick Pasiecznik, Dryland restoration coordinator, Tropenbos International, the Netherlands (email@example.com)